Alias Grace

Amnesia, a double homicide, hypnotism, and spirit possession—while this might sound like the backdrop of a 1980s supernatural film, it's actually the plot of Margaret Atwood's (1939-present) historical fiction novel Alias Grace (1996). Based on real events from the mid-1800s, Alias Grace offers a fictionalized account of the infamous 1843 Canadian murder case of Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper/lover Nancy Montgomery. Although the setting and characters remain largely the same, Atwood fictionalizes new elements of the story to allow readers to decide whether the 16-year-old convicted murderer Grace Marks is innocent or guilty. Alias Grace examines themes like gender issues, memory, truth, and reality while readers get to play the role of a 19th-century detective. 

Alias Grace Alias Grace

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Contents
Table of contents

    Atwood also famously explores gender issues in her 1985 dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale.

    Alias Grace Setting

    Alias Grace is set primarily in Kingston, Canada, in 1851, but the place and the timeline differ in select flashbacks. The novel is based on the real story of Grace Marks, who was convicted of the double murder of her employer and his housekeeper/mistress in 1843. Many of the characters in the novel are historical figures, including Grace Marks, who was only 16 at the time of conviction, her accomplice James McDermott, and their victims, Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. The most important fictional character is Dr. Simon Jordan, an American doctor of psychology who attempts to unravel the truth behind the mysterious murders.

    Alias Grace, View of Kingston, Canada, StudySmarter

    Fig. 1: The novel is set in Kingston, a city in Ontario, Canada.

    The novel begins in Kingston, Canada, in 1851, where Grace has already been imprisoned for over a decade. Her life oscillates between prison and a mental asylum as a reformist group attempts to prove her innocence. The novel flashes back in time to Grace's childhood growing up in Ireland, through her teenage years working as a servant to wealthy families in Canada, and finally to the murders in 1843. The story ends in the late 1880s, when Grace is finally pardoned after spending nearly three decades in prison.

    Alias Grace Summary

    At the start of the novel, the year is 1859. Grace Marks has spent the last 16 years in prison for murders she does not remember committing. In 1843, Grace was found guilty of aiding in the murder of her former employer, wealthy landowner Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper/mistress, Nancy Montgomery. James McDermott, Kinnear's stable hand, was also found guilty and has long since hanged for his crimes. Nancy's sentence was reduced to life in prison, and a group of social reformists have adamantly fought for her to be pardoned.

    Alias Grace, Girl holding axe, Canada, StudySmarter

    Fig. 2: Grace is sentenced to life in prison for murdering her employer and his mistress.

    Because of Grace's good behavior and his wife's involvement in the reform group, the Governor who runs the penitentiary has allowed Grace to serve part of her sentence as his personal housekeeper. Reverend Verringer, the Methodist leader of the group, is convinced of Grace's innocence. In an attempt to secure a federal pardon, Verringer enlists the help of the young, ambitious doctor Simon Jordan to restore Grace's memory. Dr. Jordan hopes to use newly-developed psychiatric treatments to prove Grace's innocence. He also believes successfully treating Grace will attract wealthy donors to fund his dream of opening a mental asylum.

    Psychology wasn't officially recognized as a discipline until 1879, 18 years after the novel is set.

    Grace and Dr. Jordan meet regularly in the Governor's home, with Dr. Jordan interviewing Grace and trying to help her recall her memories through object association. Grace initially distrusts Dr. Jordan but slowly begins to warm up to him as she tells her life story. The novel flashes from current events back to Grace's narration of her childhood in Ireland and Canada. Sometimes the novel is told in the third person, revolving around Dr. Jordan's observations, and sometimes the story is told in the first person directly from Grace.

    Grace grew up in Ireland, where her father's alcoholism haunted her parent's marriage. Her mother was often pregnant, leaving Grace to raise her younger siblings. When Grace was 12, her parents decided to immigrate to Canada to find better job opportunities. Her mother never made it across the Atlantic, dying on the ship taking them to their new life. In Canada, her father relapsed into alcoholism and became abusive. Grace left the family to find work shortly after.

    Alias Grace, Bucket and domestic tools on counter, StudySmarter

    Fig. 3: In Canada, Grace found work as a servant to wealthy families.

    Grace first worked in Toronto as a live-in servant to a wealthy family. Her only friend was a maid named Mary, who was confident, opinionated, and supportive. Mary served as a surrogate mother for the teenage Grace. Mary helped Grace find her footing in the new country and openly talked about issues of class and gender. Grace was devastated when Mary died after complications following an abortion.

    Grieving and lonely, 16-year-old Grace left Toronto and began working for Thomas Kinnear in a rural village. Kinnear's maid, Nancy, was also his lover. Nancy was hostile towards Grace from the beginning, fearful that Grace would replace her as Kinnear's mistress. When Kinnear was away one night, Nancy fired both Grace and Kinnear's stable hand, James McDermott. In a fit of rage, James killed Nancy and later Kinnear upon his return to Richmond Hill. Even after retracing her entire history, Grace cannot remember any details about the murder.

    Alias Grace, Stablehand taking care of horse's hooves, StudySmarter

    Fig. 4: James McDermott, the stable hand, is indignant when Nancy tries to give him demands.

    Although Dr. Jordan originally attempts to remain emotionally distant from Grace, he finds himself developing feelings for her. Despite his attraction, Dr. Jordan still feels as though Grace is hiding the full truth from him. Dr. Jordan, full of repressed sexual energy, enters into an immoral affair with Mrs. Humphrey, his landlady. He resents himself for having an affair with a married woman but finds it impossible to stop.

    Dr. Jordan decides to try hypnotism on Grace as he still hasn't proved if she's guilty or not. He enlists the help of Dr. Jerome DuPont, a friend of the Reverend. When Grace is hypnotized, she begins to talk in the voice of another woman. Dr. Jordan realizes it is Grace's deceased friend, Mary. Mary admits to possessing Grace and committing the murders. Dr. Jordan realizes all his work has been ruined: he can't publish his findings because the use of hypnotism would discredit his reputation as a medical doctor, and no one would believe Grace was innocent.

    What do you think about Grace's story? Is she a victim of an unjust legal system or a criminal mastermind, carefully plotting her revenge?

    Dr. Jordan flees to the United States, where he enlists in the Civil War. He suffers a head injury and forgets all memory of his time with Grace in Canada. Meanwhile, Grace is finally pardoned after 28 years in prison. In 1872, she marries an old friend, who once testified against her but now is convinced of her innocence. Almost 46 years old, Grace believes she is either pregnant or has a stomach tumor. She stitches together a quilt made of patches of material that once belonged to Mary, Nancy, and herself. This way, all three women will always be together.

    Alias Grace Characters

    The main characters in Alias Grace are convicted murderer Grace Marks and psychiatric doctor Dr. Simon Jordan. The minor characters each have a significant effect on Grace's life and her case, except Rachel Humphrey, Dr. Jordan's landlady.

    Grace Marks

    Based on a real convicted murderer, Grace Marks is the central protagonist of the novel. She is an Irish immigrant who leaves her family in her early teenage years to find work. In Canada, Grace works for two wealthy families, but she struggles to make friends with the other servants. Her closest friend, Mary, dies after a botched abortion, leaving Grace alone and devastated. Grace has been convicted of murdering her former employer and his lover/housekeeper, but she cannot remember anything about the murders. Dr. Jordan spends most of the novel trying to help restore her memories. He believes she is hiding something and could potentially be a cunning criminal mastermind. Grace spends 28 years in prison before she is pardoned.

    Dr. Simon Jordan

    A fictional character created for the novel, Dr. Simon Jordan is a doctor who specializes in psychology. He has recently become involved in the novel study of psychiatry and mental health, hoping to open his own privately-funded mental asylum. Dr. Jordan agrees to help Grace discern the truth of the murders, hoping he will solidify his reputation and be able to profit from the case's success. As the novel progresses, Dr. Jordan feels his mental state slipping and begins to have sexual thoughts of Grace. He even enters into an affair with his married landlady, disgusting himself. Dr. Jordan is ultimately unable to reveal Grace's repressed memories using his own methods and returns to the United States.

    Nancy Montgomery

    The real-world mistress and housekeeper of Thomas Kinnear, Nancy Montgomery has a feud with Kinnear's other servants. She especially dislikes Grace, who she worries will seduce Kinnear. Nancy fires both Grace and James McDermott (Kinnear's stable hand) one night, and the two have been accused of murdering her.

    Thomas Kinnear

    Grace's real-world wealthy employer, Thomas Kinnear is murdered by his belligerent servants. Kinnear has an affair with his housekeeper, Nancy, resulting in an unequal power dynamic among the servants. He pays for it with his life.

    James McDermott

    Kinnear's stable hand, James McDermott is a rough, angry character. He resents Nancy and her power as Kinnear's mistress. James is found guilty of murdering Kinnear and Nancy and is hanged for his crime. He is based on a real person.

    Mary Whitney

    Grace's close friend, Mary Whitney is a servant girl who works for her own money and hopes to provide for herself someday. Mary is opinionated and speaks openly about class issues. She acts as Grace's surrogate mother but dies during a botched abortion. This fictional character possesses Grace to kill Kinnear.

    Rachel Humphrey

    Dr. Jordan's landlady, Rachel Humphrey is a proper lady forced to loneliness by her husband's absence. Dr. Jordan and Mrs. Humphrey entire into a scandalous, immoral affair. He flees to America partly to avoid her. Mrs. Humphrey is a work of fiction, created for the novel.

    Reverend Verringer

    A Methodist preacher, Reverend Verringer is the leader of the reformist group which believes in Grace's innocence. He seeks to obtain a pardon for her. He is a fictional character.

    Dr. Jerome DuPont

    A "neuro-hypnotist," Dr. Jerome DuPont first met Grace when he was working as a peddler in Toronto. He goes by several different aliases depending on his current occupation and is a fictional character.

    Given his history with Grace and dubious background, some scholars believe DuPont and Grace conspired to fake the hypnotism. What do you make of Dr. DuPont's mysterious character?

    Alias Grace Analysis

    Alias Grace uses the symbolism of female-coded objects to reveal Grace's understanding and apprehension of gender roles.

    Quilts as a Symbol for Femininity and Solidarity

    Atwood most prominently uses quilts as a symbol of femininity. Throughout the novel, Grace spends much of her time sewing quilts. When she works as a servant, she tenders her mistress's quilts, and even as she is interviewed by Dr. Jordan she works away at a quilt.

    The quilt inherently symbolizes her status as a working-class woman and servant. She is not a lady of high society; instead, she is subjected to physical domestic labor. Part of the reason Grace's sentence is so steep is that she, a servant, killed a gentleman with much more social status. The labor of sewing quilts is a constant reminder of her social position.

    Alias Grace, Quilt on bed, StudySmarter

    Fig, 5: Quilts are a major symbol in the novel.

    The quilts also represent solidarity with other woman and the milestones of a woman's life. When women marry, it is traditional for them to have a special quilt, which symbolizes their interwoven lives. It is meant to adorn their new home and signify their union as a couple. For Grace, who spent roughly three decades of her life locked up, the quilt she sews in her new home symbolizes how her life has been inextricably interwoven with Mary and Nancy. Weaving together a quilt made from swatches of clothes that belonged to each of the three women represents their connection:

    But three of the triangles in my Tree will be different. One will be white, from the petticoat I still have that was Mary Whitney’s; one will be faded yellowish, from the prison nightdress I begged as a keepsake when I left there. And the third will be a pale cotton, a pink and white floral, cut from the dress of Nancy's that she had on the first day I was at Mr. Kinnear's, and that I wore on the ferry to Lewiston, when I was running away.

    I will embroider around each one of them with red feather-stitching, to blend them in as a part of the pattern.

    And so we will all be together." (Chapter 53)

    Finally, each of the 15 sections in the book is titled after a different quilting pattern. Some of these patterns refer explicitly to what is happening in the novel at the time (such as "Puss in the Corner" when Grace is in a solitary prison cell), but others don't appear to have any concrete connection. Instead, the use of quilting patterns shows how women's issues are pervasive throughout all aspects of society and how women attempt to find some semblance of order and feeling of solidarity in whatever way they can.

    Flowers as a Symbol for Female Life and Fragility

    Another prominent feminine symbol in the novel is flowers: Grace has a recurring dream about Nancy bursting into peonies when she dies, Mary's handkerchief is decorated in dainty blue flowers, and Grace's mother has a teapot floral-patterned teapot, which shatters the day she dies. In each instance, the flowers are inherently tied to the three most important women in Grace's life and their traumatic deaths. While the flowers are symbols of life, beauty, and vitality, they also become symbolic of fragility and impermanence. The flowers are also solely female-coded in the novel, revealing how women are sources of life and strength for society, but they are ultimately overpowered and depicted as weak.

    Alias Grace Main Themes

    The main themes in Alias Grace are gender issues and memory, reality, and truth.

    Memory, Reality, and Truth

    When Dr. Jordan begins working with Grace, he seems confident he can restore her memories through his scientific understanding of the brain. The deeper he goes into their sessions, however, the more the truth and reality become obscured. Dr. Jordan actually lapses into a madness of his own, where reality and his increasingly sick mind blur. Soon, he finds himself engaged in a dangerous sexual affair with a woman he barely tolerates as his sexual fantasies take hold of his brain. He recalls not fully being in control of himself and not knowing exactly what is real. By the end of his time in Kingston, Dr. Jordan still isn't sure if Grace is telling the truth or if she is merely repeating a lie she convinced herself is her memory. When Grace talks with Mary's voice, Dr. Jordan is terrified because he doesn't know if it is real or Grace's manipulation of reality.

    Alias Grace, Open mind with question marks, StudySmarter

    Fig. 6: Dr. Jordan finds it impossible to distinguish between reality and imagination in Grace's memories.

    Gender Issues

    The novel also examines gender issues and social disparities between men and women. In the world of Kingston, men are dominant and women are forced to be subordinate. After a lifetime of abuse and manipulation, Grace has come to distrust all men. Starting with her own father and continuing with doctors and wardens in prison, Grace constantly experiences abuse at the hands of powerful men. Even when she meets Dr. Jordan, Grace realizes his intentions are not entirely selfless and he is using her to advance his own reputation.

    The most prominent example of the hierarchy between men and women occurs with Mary. Strong and independent, Mary feels pressured to have an abortion when she is rejected by the man who impregnated her. Mary knows her reputation will be ruined (while his will remain untarnished), and she schedules a dangerous abortion. In order to protect herself in her male-dominated world, Mary undergoes a surgery that ultimately kills her.

    Alias Grace - Key takeaways

    • Alias Grace (1996) was written by Margaret Atwood.
    • The novel centers around the real story of an 1843 double-homicide case.
    • The main characters are Grace Marks, who is convicted of murdering her employer and his mistress/housekeeper when she is 16, and Dr. Simon Jordan, who attempts to reveal the truth by restoring Grace's memory.
    • Quilts and flowers are two of the primary symbols of the novel, which reflect Grace's understanding and apprehension of gender roles.
    • The main themes are gender issues and memory, reality, and truth.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Alias Grace

    Why did Margaret Atwood write Alias Grace?

    Atwood wrote the historical fiction novel after reading about Marks's real life story in Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush by Susanna Moodie.

    What is the main theme of Alias Grace?

    The main themes are memory and truth and gender issues. 

    When was Margaret Atwood writing Alias Grace?

    Atwood wrote Alias Grace in the 1990s; it was published in 1996.

    What happened to Dr. Jordan in Alias Grace?

    Dr. Jordan enlists in the Civil War. He suffers a head injury and forgets about Grace Marks's case.

    What is the ending of Alias Grace?

    In the end of Alias Grace, Grace marries an old friend. She believes she is either pregnant or has a tumor in her stomach, and she knits together a quilt, containing cloth from Mary, Nancy, and herself.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false: Grace Marks has already been convicted of murdering her employer and his lover?

    What is odd about Grace's involvement in the murder? 

    How did Mary die? 

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