Everyone has their own secrets, including their own reasons for having them. Alias Grace is a story about a girl who may have many of her own secrets. Grace Marks could be a magnificent story-teller: a deceitful young woman who is very good at manipulating people to get her way. Or, Grace’s story could be one about an innocent young woman who has been falsely accused of murder. Margaret Atwood accurately portrays the century that Grace Marks’ story takes place in, as well as develops Grace into a very complex character, whose hobby of quilting is a very important symbol in the story.
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Grace Marks’ story is one that takes place in the 19th century, which is a time that is a lot different than today’s. Margaret Atwood successfully and accurately portrays how women were treated in the 1800’s. As we get further and further into Grace Marks’ story, we learn that, to Grace and many other people, a single woman is either a virgin or a who*e. The line between good and bad is very distinct; there is no such thing as “in between”. Grace helps us understand this concept when one of her employers attempts to take liberties with her:
But then one night I heard him outside the door of my attic chamber; I recognized his wheezy cough. He was fumbling with the latch of the door. I always locked myself in at night, but I knew that lock or no lock, sooner or later he would find a way of getting in, with a ladder if nothing else, and I couldn’t sleep easy for thinking of it; and I needed my sleep, as I was very tired from the day’s work; and once you are found with a man in your room you are the guilty one, no matter how they get in. As Mary used to say, there are some of the masters who think you owe them service twenty-four hours a day, and should do the main work flat on your back. (1)
Unfortunately, events such as this that Grace is put through happened much too often in the 1800’s, with the employee choosing to stay for fear of not being able to come across another job. Atwood understands the pressure that young women were put under during this time period. Grace’s friend Mary passes away as a result of an abortion gone wrong. The man who she thought she loved (and who claimed to love her) said he wanted nothing to do with Mary after she realized she was pregnant. Throughout the novel, Atwood was able to accurately portray how women were treated in the 1800’s in a manner that helps the reader connect better with the time period that the story is written in.
Grace Marks is a very deceiving and complex character. The reader never knows whether or not she is truly innocent, because although Grace denies being a part of the murders and says that it was all McDermott’s doing, Grace hints at the fact that she does not tell Dr. Jordan the full story, “Just because he [Dr. Simon Jordan] pesters me to know everything, is no reason for me to tell him.” (2) When Dr. Jordan goes to see Grace, she seems vulnerable and innocent. However, there is more going on in Grace’s mind then Dr. Jordan knows about. He is so eager to find out the truth that, “Grace’s relationship with Simon Jordan produces the story he wants to hear.” (3) Grace knows that there is no concrete evidence against her as there was against McDermott; otherwise she would have been sentenced to death as he was. Instead, it is McDermott’s word against Grace’s: McDermott says that the murders were Grace’s idea, and Grace says that she had nothing to do with the murders. At some points in the book Grace seems like the innocent victim that she claims to be, and at other points the reader can see glimpses of her more manipulative side. Also, knowing that Grace did not have the best influences (she grew up with a manipulative father, and after that she had a friend that was foul-mouthed and not afraid to speak her mind) helps the reader understand where Grace comes from. It leaves one wondering if Grace could have the mind to manipulate McDermott to commit the murders.
Throughout the novel, Atwood brings up a central metaphor of quilting. Quilting is a symbol which represents weaving patches of the truth together. When Dr. Simon Jordan talks to Grace, she is often weaving a quilt. This quilt represents the various versions of the truth and fabrication that Grace is knitting together and telling Dr. Jordan. All the confusion about what is true and what is not turns to, “…quilting metaphors throughout the novel indicating the patching and muddling together of versions of the truth, recall, imaginative reconstructions, lies, and the actual structure of the novel itself.” (4) Grace Marks’ story is a woman’s story; it is a story about how women are represented in society. Quilting is a woman’s hobby as well; it represents sisterhood and creativity. Grace is often making quilts for other people, and tells Dr. Jordan about all the quilt patterns that she can sew. Two of these quilt patterns, the Garden of Eden and Tree of Paradise, are places that are considered to be sacred. Grace claims she can sew them which, “…suggests both dangers of searching after forbidden knowledge, and ways in which Western society consistently indicts women as causing all evil.” (5) Although the symbol of quilting isn’t a very obvious one, it is one that, when noticed, helps the reader bring all the pieces together to help them better understand the story.
Alias Grace is a book that makes the reader open their mind to a different century, seemingly insignificant quilting patterns, and to better understand the characters. By the end of this novel, Margaret Atwood has turned Grace into a very complex character who can possibly weave stories as well as she can weave a quilt. There are many different ways to deceive someone, but the most common might possibly be lying. People lie for different reasons; because they are ashamed of the truth, to make someone happy, or to further advance themselves in society. If Grace is lying and she did indeed organize the murders, then that is a heavy burden she will always have to carry with her, which may be the worst form of punishment.
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