Margaret Atwood: Alias Grace

I always have a good time while I’m reading a Margaret Atwood novel, but up to now only The Handmaid’s Tale sticks with me as an incredible novel, one which should be read. I had high hopes for Alias Grace (1996) since it is based on a true story and Atwood takes us back to the 1850s this time rather than into the ugly future. In fact, I had been holding off on reading it, almost as a treat. It only left me somewhat satisfied.

Once again, while reading Atwood, I was pulled into the story quickly. Her prose is smooth, with few stumbling blocks (more on the stumbling blocks later). The story contains an exciting premise, has conversational characters, and is incredibly clever. But in the end, I was disappointed. Doesn’t that always happen, though, when you expect a lot?

Alias Grace starts out with Grace already in prison. A decade and a half earlier she was involved in the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. James McDermott, a disgruntled employee, was hanged for the crime. While Grace was sentenced to the same fate, her lawyer cleverly pleaded her sentence down due to insanity.

Cleverly? Well, maybe it was the simple truth. After all, Grace has exhibited some peculiar behavior, and she says she doesn’t remember anything. Or is she really innocent, just a victim of circumstances (which just happend to be controlled by single-minded men).

Onto the scene comes Simon Jordan, a doctor who wants to help Grace remember. His motives are not pure — he wants to get his place in the science books. Exonerating Grace is incidental, though he does begin to feel a strange attraction to Grace . . . but that and many more “improper” attractions are part of the subcurrent. Those men are all after one thing! Thankfully some of them have the capacity to exercise self-control in the presence of such a temptress. (Yes, sometimes it got a little heavy-handed — but it is important, and I’m glad Atwood is skilled enough to present this issue in her books without sounding bitter and pedantic (most of the time)).

Atwood builds suspense by inserting passages from newspaper articles and from the actual confessions, and these seem to contradict not only what Grace says but also the pleasant, innocent (though no longer naïve) ethos she builds while telling her story. Knowing that Atwood usually has a clever way of reconciling seeming contradictions, I was pulled along by more than the smooth prose.

Then again, sometimes the prose actually got in the way. Most of the time, Atwood is very insightful and sly, and she injects this into her prose frequently in pleasing ways:

Once you start feeling sorry for yourself they’ve got you where they want you. Then they send for the Chaplain.

Oh come to my arms, poor wandering soul. There is more joy in Heaven over the one lost lamb. Ease your troubled mind. Kneel at my feet. Wring your hands in anguish. Describe how conscience tortures you day and night, and how the eyes of your victims follow you around the room, burning like red-hot coals. Shed tears of remorse. Confess, confess. Let me forgive and pity. Let me get up a Petition for you. Tell me all.

And then what did he do? Oh shocking. And then what?

The left hand or the right?

How far up, exactly?

Show me where.

But too often she draws attention to her wit by ending a paragraph with a short sentence that often begins with something like “And.” It’s not always bad to draw such attention to wit, but after so many snappy punches, I start to flinch.

So would I have liked Alias Grace if I hadn’t built it up in my mind? Who can say? I think I would have felt much the same as I do now. There were some parts where I got a bit tired of Grace’s story. Fifteen years in prison, and she still remembers everything but the murders. Sure, that makes her story all the more suspect, and there are interesting issues there, but at times it was anticlimactic.

2 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood: Alias Grace

  1. S. Morgan says:

    Thanks for alerting me to your site. So glad to be here. I’ll pretend it’s my living room, by a river, where I sit with my good friends.

    As I read A.G., I felt I was climbing into good literature and anticipated that kind of peculiar heady satisfaction. However, I had NOT looked forward to reading this particular Atwood book as I had slowly become disillusioned with her futuristic stuff (not ever a fan of the “future”) and with some volumes of poetry I’d recently read. I believe it was Atwood’s writing and the tension she weaves in and out that built the anticipation in me as I flipped rather carelessly through the opening pages, then was hooked in to this woman’s life, whom I could not understand. (Whew. Long sentence.)Grace is always just out of reach. Many times Atwood has me sympathizing with her as I think I’m watching a Thomas Hardy character pushed around by a careless universe. But, then, Atwood slips in vague details that make me feel uncomfortable about my own perception. I cannot trust Grace: News articles, pieces of the trial, images of her glee over stealing the dresses–nothing I can name directly, but I begin to feel deceived by my own gullibility–after all, this is a murderess. But, her long internment in disgusting conditions, her peculiar insanity, her manipulations to improve her conditions (wouldn’t we do the same?) still fascinate me. But, is her insanity calculated? I don’t think so. Is she a temptress? I see her rather as a woman, who is more illiterate and dense than I want to admit, living in a purely survival mode. After a while, not even her insanity is complicated–it’s simply a removal from a world that never gives her much, so she snatches what she can like a sneaky, guilty child–at times, even like an animal trying to exist. In the end I saw her as a weak woman who never has the intelligence or will to shape her own life, so she floats, which, Atwood says eventually yields to the pull of gravity–downward. Thus, I can forgive her actions much more than I can Jordon’s. Atwood builds him as intelligent enough to know better. He can choose not to slide into slime. He has the discipline to obtain much knowledge, which we both know does not come easy, but he slides just the same. Where’s the redemption in this book? I, also, felt disappointed, Trevor. From just after the story switches to focus more on Dr. Jordan’s dinky little room (more of a prison than Grace’s literal prison), I felt the energy drain from the book, almost like Atwood just got tired of writing it. I don’t know. It does stay with me though, which I wonder over, and I do admire the choice of such a strange subject: she writes about a woman whom I refused to believe was slightly dim-witted and manipulative until the end. (I thought she was naive like a child through the first half of the book. Atwood’s genius of complications?) She writes of a doctor who is more insane than those he tends because he spends so much energy hiding it from himself and the world–until it cracks him open. Grace’s insanity is not as dangerous as his.
    I look forward to Atwood publishing more books. But, I’m hoping the bitterness and anger of her latest poetry will not intrude.

  2. Trevor Berrett says:

    Sharon! So glad you visited the site and gave your insights. While reading them, I have to say, I saw this book from a different perspective and appreciated aspects of it even more – just like the good old days in your living room! I particularly liked what you had to say about Jordan. At the beginning of the novel I kept wondering if he’d be the one to see some light. His perceptions of women were even then misogynistic, thinking of marriage only as a means to two things at first: sex and appeasing mother. But then later on he seems to come around and appreciate the peace he could attain, and he seems to sympathize with Grace and his landlady. Then it all came crashing down (and, interestingly, a woman was the impetus). I’m glad that his portion of the story goes where it goes. I think it made me understand more.
    I definitely agree that in the end it feels like Atwood got tired of writing the book. I definitely got tired of reading it over the last 50 pages or so.
    My best wishes to you!

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