Alias Grace – Margaret Atwood
Recommended for: Law students
Alias Grace is Margaret Atwood’s rendition of Grace Marks’ life based on newspaper articles, court proceedings and witness accounts dating from the original case in which she was convicted for murder. It is fictionalized, everything beyond the bare bones of the case (the murder victims, the time and place of the crime, as well as the protagonist herself) have been created by Atwood as she invents Marks’ personal narrative from the historical documents. Because the real Grace Marks was prone to fainting spells and amnesia, however, it becomes difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction in this account of her life. The fictional doctor Simon Jordan provides Marks with an opportunity to recount her own life but is also a symbol for a shifting perspective in psychiatry. At the time of Marks’ case, doctors were beginning to view the mentally ill in a less condemning way, a fact which allows Jordan and Marks to converse on nearly equal footing.
As we hear about Marks’ life, a small cast of characters appears, each formative to her in some way. There are her employers-come-murder victims, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery, her colleague and possible co-conspirator in the murders, James McDermott, and Mary Whitney, her childhood friend turned haunting memory after her untimely death. Especially Whitney, and her ghostly appearances to Marks, are pivotal for the plot and challenge the reader’s notion of guilt and innocence. Her confession unfolds throughout the entire book, culminating in the final chapters with the day that would lead to her conviction for murder. Throughout we are confronted with Marks’ fainting spells and visions. If she is not entirely sane can she be held accountable for her alleged crimes? And if she sees ghosts and pieces of her past escape her, then what does this mean for a narrative, and court testimony, that relies on her personal account?
Just as Marks’ insanity hints at cracks in a smooth distinction between what is real and what is imagined, cracks appear in the image of the unrepentant murderess. As she interacts with Jordan we learn that she does not remember the murders at all. Or does she? And with the book’s progression Jordan’s impeccable character and professional experience are increasingly called into question. The reader is left with the difficult decision of whom to trust. The convicted murderess who, in her point-of-view sections seems confused but otherwise perfectly sincere, or the doctor who, despite his credentials and correspondence with leading professionals appears at times like a spoiled young man who only considers his own desires?
Marks never recorded anything about her life, everything we know comes from secondhand accounts. By taking Marks’ struggles with mental illness into account, Atwood is able to render how she might have recounted her life given the chance. This blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, what really happened, what could have happened and what may never have happened. The question arises: Do we even need a clear distinction between the two? The close co-existence of the historical and the imagined, the factual and the personal, creates a new level of complexity transcending the simple whodunit. Atwood forces us to confront questions of whom to trust, which narrative to listen to and how to pass judgment. The narrative of Grace Marks shows how complicated real life is and how it hinges on the interactions between people, each with their own demons, much more than the supposedly objective letter of the law as spoken by dispassionate experts.