The Murdering Maid in Alias Grace

There’s nothing like the cold survivalism theme in Canadian literature, or the revolving idea of female villainy. Women linger in literature constantly as martyrs and sirens, as governesses and the insane. Rarely, though, do they ever take the helm of a morally complex woman, toeing the line between victim and villain.

Often, we consider Margaret Atwood only for her grotesque and stunning dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which is a massive disservice to the writer. With an incredible collection of work behind her, Atwood manages to reconnect Canadians to their past, even while creating a narrative of a woman waiting for her final judgement.

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The heart of Alias Grace is the historical woman Grace Marks. Inspired by a double murder during the 1840s, Atwood faithfully created a life for this woman prior to her supposed murders, and a life while living inside the Kingston Penitentiary afterwards. It is not easy giving an imprisoned woman mobility during the 1800s, but Marks is fluid across the pages.

Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery were found murdered in Richmond Hill, Ontario. Eventually, the guilt was pinned on Marks, who was a maid for the house at the time, and James McDermott, who worked in the stables. Both were conveniently Irish in a time where Canada frowned upon Irish immigrants, and they were swiftly punished for the crime. McDermott was hung, but it was Marks who was given a life sentence and shuffled between an asylum and the Kingston Penitentiary, painted with the reputation of a crazed murderess.

Remarkably, she was later released for these murders under the claim that she was truly innocent. She swiftly vanished from the public eye and disappeared into the dark woods of North America, finding refuge in the long stretch of wilderness.

Cleverly taking the bare bones of the legal history behind Marks, Atwood manages to fill in the spaces while breathing life into the story. Atwood navigates a variety of subjects-Victorian sexuality, life as a prisoner, and the difficult realm of mental health during the 1800s. A doctor by the name of Simon Jordan takes it upon himself to unravel the mystery of Marks, and discover the truth of what had happened to Kinnear and Montgomery, and what her role in their death was.

Atwood’s novel is heavy. Focused on the question of absolute truth, it revolves around how truth is influenced by power structures like gender and class. Despite being written in the 1990s, Atwood managed to connect to modern issues, such as the #MeToo Movement, and how injustice exists, even in legal spaces.

One of Atwood’s constant themes in her writing is of the female. Books like Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride describe complex relationships with women, and also the complex aspect of female power, while The Edible Woman narrates the struggles to regain agency of the body. Alias Grace does not deviate from the legacy that the author has built, but instead lifts it to a brand new level. Atwood manages to use the story of an Irish-Canadian immigrant struggling under the Victorian notions of insanity and gender, while connecting the story to the constant role of grief in one’s life.

The build of this story features heavy narration from Marks, detailing her experiences with coffin ships, domestic labor, and also the fear of the body. Women frequently become victimized by what they desire most in this story, which is increasingly relevant in this modern age. Atwood sculpts a voice for Marks out of grief and acceptance and spins a delicate but lasting story.

Have you watched the miniseries based off of the novel? What did you think?


Rachel Small

Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore.

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