Margret Atwood a long time celebrated author has most recently published Alias Grace. Atwood has taken a different approach to this novel. Although fictional this story has been based on reality. Grace Marks, the main character is indeed, one of the mid-eighteen hundreds most famous criminals. She was the celebrated villain of the Kinnear-Montgomery murders. This novel has a terrific sense of mystery but also enough interest to engage the reader into its historical drama.
Alias Grace, begins with the main character, Grace Marks’, sixteenth year of incarceration for the murder of Thomas Kinnear, her past employer. Her supposed accomplice in the murders has already been killed for the murder of Kinnear, although Marks being a woman was handed a lighter sentence of life, although originally sentenced to death also.
The death of Nancy Montgomery, Kinnear’s housekeeper and mistress, was disregarded as both villains had already been sentenced to death. Grace is around thirty years old, being accused of the crimes when she was only sixteen. Grace is imprisoned where she has been mentally tortured during her rotation from prison to asylum over time. Doctors who wish to “examine” her frequently visit.
She has now had a subconscious aversion to these doctors and the world which she knows. She has become accustomed to being silent and unseen. This novel begins with the interest of a young doctor in Grace, Dr. Simon Jordan.
He is noted as being from a wealthy family and of good name, but is more interested in studying abroad about sanity and those enclosed in asylums rather than interest at home. He has little experience in dealing on a personal basis with the question of sanity of patients, but is intrigued by this fabulously sensationalized murderess.
A group that has continuously tried for the pardon of Grace Marks has recruited him. In hopes of discovery that she has been found mentally sane and furthermore innocent on all counts of murder. Dr. Jordan’s main purpose is to help recover the lost memory of the time during the murders.
This memory which some believe was conveniently forgotten and helped convict her during the trial; almost as if she had admitted to the killings. During the course of his visits with Grace, Dr. Jordan encourages her to tell of her life before the murders. Grace begins her story with her family in Ireland. Grace had been left with her abusive father and the smaller children after her mother died on the passage to America.
A trip was taken for necessity rather than need: for her father was in a bit of financial trouble in Ireland. Grace is sent out in Canada as a servant. Here is where Grace meets her first true friend, Mary Whitney. Mary teaches Grace to be her own person. Unfortunately, Mary has a horrible death due to a bad surgical abortion and Grace is left alone and trouble by the gruesome death of her friend.
Grace travels from house to house looking for the right setup for her services. Finally, she meets Nancy Montgomery the housekeeper of Thomas Kinnear. She takes a job under Nancy mistakenly believing in their friendship. Soon Nancy is overtaken with Grace in the house, she becomes increasingly jealous of her role with Mr. Kinnear.
This leads to the obvious discovery of a romantic relationship between Kinnear and Montgomery. With the proposed dismissal of Grace and the hired hand McDermott, Grace is led with McDermott into killing the two and robbing them for their own escape. Although not long after, in a hotel, Grace and McDermott, even though ironically using the alias Mary Whitney, are arrested. At this point in Dr. Jordan’s analysis of Grace months have passed.
He has become more and more involved in Grace Marks’ story. This reaches the point where he believes he has fallen in love with her. In return he has taken to his landlady to relieve his frustrations of his untouchable desires for Grace. Dr. Jordan becomes even more involved with the case and is determined to find out the memory lapses in Grace’s story.
The group that hired Dr. Jordan has become restless for his slow process of uncovering the truth. Dr. Jerome DuPont enters the medical study of Grace Marks. Although Grace has known Jerome before but is a peddler and friend named Jeremiah. Much to the dismay of Jordan, DuPont is given the opportunity to put Grace into hypnosis, in full view of her peers.
During this momentous scene, Grace is hypnotized into a state of unconsciousness where she able to retrieve memories not perceived during consciousness. Grace, after asked many specific questions, uncovers the mystery of the night of the murders. In fact, the time not remembered by Grace, is of a personality, not her own but that of Mary Whitney. Here Mary Whitney declares her guilt but states that Grace would have no recollection of this time. After this scene, all goes back to its original way for many years.
Dr. Simon Jordan’s affair with his landlady becomes too controversial and abruptly leaves town and neglects to say goodbye to his patient or his female admirers. The group dedicated to Grace’s innocence still argues for her release but now basis their reasoning on the mental insanity of Grace during the murders.
Grace is returned to prison for which she is still hopeful for her release on account of her hypnotic trance confession. Much time has passed and Dr. Jordan has not been heard from. Only from letters of correspondence with others do the readers discover he has been injured in the Civil War. He has become engaged, but the event is being postponed until his mental capabilities are restored.
Coincidentally, his mother questionably states his reference to his fiancée as “Grace”. Now at the age of forty-five, almost thirty years after the murder, Grace, still working as a servant outside of prison, is set free. With her new freedom Grace becomes deeply disturbed. Prison has become her life, and now she knows little of what else to do.
Grace with the help of the Governor and his daughter, help her find herself in this emotional transition. As a special request they help her with her personal items and bring her to the state of New York where a home has been provided for her. In a surprise turn of events, a boy who used to also work for Kinnear, who also helped convict Grace during the trial, asks Grace to live with him.
He is sorry for testifying against her and asks her forgiveness. Grace eventually marries the man and goes on to live a life with her husband. The novel ends with the final correspondence to Dr. Jordan from Grace an update from her of present life with her husband.
The setting of Alias Grace is extremely important in the story. The story takes place in the mid to late eighteen hundreds. The murders of Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear occurred on July 23, 1843. The crime and court proceedings are all dated to their actual time and place. The murders took place in Kingston a small town in Canada.
This is important because during this time in history there was little sense of the American way of thinking “innocent until proven guilty” theory. The judge, jurors, and the public had all decided Grace Marks was guilty before she was even tried. There was no sequestering of juries in those days to prevent false accusations from tainting the opinions of those trying Grace Marks.
Also during those times, the sentencing was more brutal than today. If a person was found guilty of murder the sentence was death by hanging. This was true for the fate of McDermott ended in this way. Almost as malicious, life in prisons and asylums were considered inhuman or even barbaric by today’s standards. In addition, the correct diagnosis of mental disabilities was nearly nonexistent.
Therefore, in this case, the purpose of using hypnosis was widely unorthodox, and its unveiling of multiple personality disorders was a stunning revelation. Many cases of guilt by insanity were tried and put to death while other mentally capable convicts were entered into an asylum.