Thursday, 30 August 2007

"Alias Grace" by Margaret Atwood: Nancy

Nancy is a housekeeper and is therefore a servant.

Her character is changeable and cold. Grace on arriving at Kinnear’s, “she had not given me one word of greeting.” 243

According to Grace Nancy is taciturn. “Nancy was very changeable, two-faced you might call her, and it wasn’t easy to tell what she wanted from one hour to the next.” 261

With Grace, Nancy feels caught between hiring a drudge and having a sexual competitor with Kinnear.

After lending the clothes to Grace to go to church Nancy wanted them back.
She takes back the “dress and bonnet that very day as she was concerned that they might get soiled”.

How Nancy is linked to the theme of “the lady”
Nancy aspires to be “a lady”. She wears expensive earrings. (245) But her true situation is that of sexually compromised servant. Kinnear will never marry her.
She will not do jobs “beneath her position” and fit for “maids”. 255

She has let things go in Kinnear’s. It is hard to be “a lady” and maintain the role of servant. “Nancy had let things get behind and there was considerable mud that had been tracked in and not dealt with.” 250

To enhance her pretentions to be a lady she learns the piano. 246

“She asked me to brush out her hair for her, just like a lady’s maid, which I did with pleasure”. (Grace on Nancy 287)

She also had “a commodious bedstead,” “earrings and a brooch”, “pots of creams and potions” and “a bottle of rose-water too”. (Kinnear had been “a generous master” and he gives Nancy these “ladylike” things. But he would not marry her!) 287

However, The wives of visiting gentlemen “never condescended to darken the door of the house” 288

Kinnear escapes censure whereas Nancy does not. He also visits houses to meet “loose women”. Nancy disapproves of this. 287

Grace: I could hear the sound of Nancy’s voice from the parlour, and I knew she must be reading out loud. She liked to do it, as she thought it was genteel; but she always pretended that Mr. Kinnear required it of her. 322 (Nancy is reading “The Lady of the Lake”, a poem that once made Grace sad as she read it with Mary Whitney. The book’s title is later given to a later chapter when Grace crosses the water to the USA. The title “Lady” also hints at Nancy’s aspirations. At the end of the novel, Grace becomes the mistress and “lady” of her house in Ithaca, USA.

Kinnear laughs at Nancy’s attempt to be a lady. This is also an example of men’s thoughts on this issue:

Grace: ‘he (Kinnear) sat waiting reading a book which he had brought with him from the town. It was the newest Godey’s Ladies Book, which poor Nancy liked to have, for the fashions . . .he himself often took a peek at it when Nancy was not nearby, as there were things in it other than dresses; and he liked to look at the new styles of undergarments, and to read the articles on how a lady should behave, which I would often catch him chuckling over on those occasions when I brought him coffee.’ 370

Nancy’s advice to Grace on how to kill a chicken is heavily ironic. just take the axe and knock it on the head, and then give it a strong whack right through the neck”. (The incident foreshadows her own killing in a similar manner.) 289

She is mistress of the house in everything but the title of wife

She eats with Kinnear 263
“Nancy was mistress of the house, and was paid to arrange things . . .” 295

McDermott tells naïve Grace that “Nancy and Kinnear slept together, as bold as brass, and lived in secret as man and wife . . . all the neighbourhood knew it.” 295

“Nancy had a baby when she was working over at Wrights. (Becoming pregnant was a recurring danger for servants, especially if the man responsible was the employer's son.)

Nancy fears Grace as a rival
As her pregnancy by Kinnear becomes more obvious she fears Grace as a sexual rival and is eager to put her down. Her behaviour also shows the fractiousness this “dark” chapter that leads to the killing of Nancy and Kinnear.
“for God sake pin up your hair, she (Nancy) added. You look like a common slut”. 320 (Nancy was as vulnerable as any other servant caught in her condition. As Grace says, “Mary Whitney had done the same as her, and had gone to her death. “ 321

Nancy’s pregnancy is becomes obvious to Grace in “Fox and Geese”:
“But then all at once it came over me what was the matter with her. I’d seen it often enough before. The eating of strange food at odd times, the sickness and the green tinge around the mouth, the way she was plumping out, like a raisin in hot water, and her quirkiness and irritation . . . she was in the family way. She was in trouble”. 321

Grace on pregnant Nancy’s fear of her as a sexual rival for Kinnear. She gives her main reason for Nancy sacking Grace. “She was afraid that Mr. Kinnear would come to like me better than her. As I’ve said, Sir, she was in the family way, and it often happens like that with a man; they’ll change from a woman in that condition to one who is not . . .and if that happened, she’d be out on the road, her and her bastard.” “ 359

Nancy’s reading matter, “The Lady of the Lake” is about tragedy and death. This is somewhat ironic given what happens to her. Notice also how the theme of being a lady is present, too. 322-3

Nancy’s desire to be “a lady” sets up a tension for her role as “servant” and her self adopted role as “mistress” of the house.

Nancy tells Kinnear that she is “worried about the servants”.
“Which of the servants, Mr. Kinnear wanted to know; and Nancy said both of them, and Mr. Kinnear laughed and said of course there were three servants in the house, not two, as she was a servant herself.” She does think this a kind response a moves to her “duties in the kitchen” but Kinnear laughs and catches her. (Nancy did not broach with Kinnear her own pregnancy which surprises Grace.) This also links with role-playing as this is also thematic in the novel!

Nancy on Grace:
“She (Nancy) said there was something about me that made her uneasy, and she wondered whether I was quite right, as she’d several times heard me talking out loud to myself” 324

She fears Kinnear is giving Grace ideas about being “a lady” and giving her “ideas above her station”. 324

On the Rebellion (AO 5ii)
Nancy on the Rebellion and the men associated with it on the Government side who were willing to gives themselves undeserved titles:

“She said that she did not think Captain Boyd was a real Captain, as some of them had taken up such titles just for having got their two legs around a horse on the day of the Rebellion”. 291 (Nancy resents the Government side’s actions during the Rebellion. In this she is siding with the servants!)

Her surname was “Montgomery” the same name as the owner of a tavern “where the rebels met together”. Kinnear teased her about it but makes it clear the tavern owner would still have a tavern even when his former drinkers “were burning in Hell”. (This may also allude to the way in which Nancy played at both ends of the social scale: the servants and the employing classes.) 291

McDermott bears a grudge against Nancy and he detests her for her treatment of him. 245



Kevin Sedeño Guillén said...

Thank you so much by share your reading of Alias Grace. I will cite some about that in a paper. Sorry I can't find your complete name to quote. Can yo tell me that ? My e-mail is

Anonymous said...

I would also like to quote your article because it so throughly explores the topics

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I teach Film, Media and English Lit.