Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace, published by Anchor Books, is a historical fiction novel that aims to recount the trials of Grace Marks more accurately than the original chronicler, Susanna Moodie, who tended more toward theatrical than factual events.
Atwood explains the Grace Marks story via Grace Mark’s own account (in as much fact available to Atwood), which itself is subject to only what she chooses to divulge. To accompany her story, newspaper clippings and correspondence provide several different aspects of the murders of Kinnear and Montgomery, adding both layers to the story and static to the truth. Ultimately the story ends without a definite outcome of Grace’s story.
Considering the consistent first-person narrative of most of Alias Grace, themes are all events and qualities of Grace’s life. The theme most important to the plot is abandonment, which blends itself in other themes – slow death of her mother at sea, alienation from her father upon arrival to Canada, early departure from her family, sudden death of Mary Whitney, and finally shunning from society following the murder of Kinnear and Montgomery. Grace is consistently picked apart by losing all that she ever valued, ultimately abandoning herself; emotion, memory, and sanity all impugnable and vulnerable from abandonment. Grace’s obvious sign of abandoning self and society is evident during Dr. Jordan’s initial attempts at understanding Grace, asking her, “Then you have given up hope?” to which Grace replies, “Hope of what sir?”
Atwood abstains from complex literary elements and vocabulary, considering she speaks almost exclusively through young, little-educated Grace Marks. The text itself is unconventional; instead of quotes followed by “Grace said” and author commentary, it is more similar to listening to a recording of an interrogation room, as most of the book is similarly set. Atwood simply allows Grace full control over telling her story. Considering the main storyline of Grace speaking with Doctor Jordan, narrative is frequently broken by Grace’s remarks and Dr. Jordan’s questions, which is one of Atwood’s methods of injecting mystery and exposing information to the plot.
As more mystery and information are introduced throughout Grace’s recount, the story becomes less conclusive. Grace may develop the story, but she frustrates Dr. Jordan’s attempt to free her memory enough to determine her true role in the murders. Other than frantic episodes concerning measuring instruments and doctors, Grace maintains her composure and remains a static character in the present, simply accepting her status as a mental prisoner. The dynamic characters are society in general and Dr. Jordan. Society, with the conservatives supporting her guilt and the reformists supporting her innocence, frequently pokes into the story via spiritual mediums and newspaper articles, poems, and political zeitgeist provided by Atwood. Dr. Jordan’s character is monitored mostly via correspondence with his family and friends, from his decision to pursue the then-murky field of psychiatry to abandoning it.
Alias Grace unconventionally organizes itself around a character’s conversational narrative to another character, accompanied with a dynamic, unforgiving society. Considering this, expectations are irrelevant. Atwood’s intent to accurately portray the period does, however, fulfill expectation. While she may add creativity and originality when there are gaps or insufficient information for fact, Atwood effectively accomplishes Alias Grace.