Wednesday, 29 August 2007
"Alias Grace" by Margeret Atwood: Several Themes
Themes in Alias Grace
I taught this the academic year before last. There are bound to be students out there who will find these notes and several others that I made useful for studying M. Atwood's "Alias Grace". Some of my students obtained maximum marks for this text in their exam.
Sexuality and desire
First impressions from a pamphlet produced by The Rev. Verringer found in a drawer by Dr Jordan:
She looks five years older than 16.
She looks like the “heroine of a sentimental novel” 67
”… the brim of a bonnet encircles her head like a dark aureole. The nose is straight, the mouth dainty. The expression soulful – the vapid pensiveness of a Magdelene, with the large eyes gazing at nothing. 67
Lust and Female animalism
Lydia and animalistic imagery
Dr Jordan at one point sees Lydia as “a healthy young animal”.
(Sensuality) “A cloud of scent rises from her, lily of the valley, enveloping him (Jordan) in olfactory gauze.” She is “unconscious of the effect she is producing on him”. “He crosses his legs”. 99
“There is a subdued recklessness about her, thinks Simon 99 (An perceptive appraisal of her considering her sexual adventures later in the novel. (Going out with too many military men and marrying Verringer in a rush.)
Lydia “flirts” with Simon 101. He does not want to get tied down as “he has his name to make”. 101 Lydia loves the melodramatic notion of Grace being “abducted”. 102 But this only leads Simon to think of Grace.
Jordan’s view of Grace as “a female animal”
The line of her cheek has a marble, a classic, simplicity“Suffering does indeed purify”
“Simon can smell her (Grace) as well as look at her . . .her scent is a distracting undercurrent . . .He is in the presence of a female animal; something fox-like and alert. He senses an answering alertness along his own skin, a sensation as of bristles lifting. Sometimes he feels as if he’s walking on quicksand” 103.
James McDermott speaks of Grace jokingly as “a colt” to be broken in. Something Grace takes strong exception to the remarks telling McDermott that she as not “a mare”. 265
MacDermott is a misogynist (a woman hater) and feels led on by Grace’s sexual promises as Mary Whitney
MacDermott wants to sleep with Grace in Kinnear’s bed.
To my surprise he thought that was a fine idea, and said it would give him great pleasure to sleep in Mr. Kinnear’s bed, where Nancy had so often played the whore; and I reflected that once I’d given in to him, he would consider me a whore as well, and would hold my life very cheap indeed, and would most likely kill me with the axe and throw me into the cellar as he had often said a whore was good for noting but to wipe your dirty boots on, by giving them a good kicking all over their filthy bodies. SoI planned to delay, and put him off as long as I could”. 385 (Grace “humours” MacDermott and probably saves her life by doing so. Sex is held out as a lure. Sex and a form of prostitution is also present in Simon and Mrs Humphrey’s relationship as well as Kinnear’s and Nancy’s.)
See also the end of “Fox and Geese” on Kinnear’s seduction of Nancy and Grace’s slipping into a sexual dream. 325-6
The them of being a Lady
‘I have no reason not to be frank with you, Sir, she said. ‘A lady might conceal things, as she has her reputation to lose, but I am well beyond that.’
‘What do you mean, Grace? He said. (Jordan)
‘I was never a lady, Sir and I’ve already lost whatever reputation I ever
For most of the novel she is a servant both in an outside prison. But she becomes a lady in the final chapters!
(Remember that this is something that Nancy had aspired to. The theme is associated with the rigid classed based society in Canada’s Toronto. Notice how Grace becomes “a lady” when she moves across the water “for the third time” when she moves to Ithaca, New York. Society in the USA was much less stratified and class orientated. It was more democratic. Her creativity is underscored by the suggestion that she is going to have a baby.)
Aunt Pauline remained lower middle class with her shop but still felt that she had “married beneath her”. 120 “As keeping a shop was not how a lady should live”. 120
“She is no lady” says the man who tries to accost Grace at Montgomery’s Tavern as she travels to Kinnear’s. Again, women of the servant class could be imposed on by any men. 239
Being a lady
Nancy aspires to be “a lady”. Wears expensive earrings. 245 But her true situation is that of sexually compromised servant. Kinnear will never marry her.
Nancy learns the piano 246 (To imitate the genteel)
Nancy also reads improving, moralistic literature as she aspires to be genteel:
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
Kinnear on Grace’s potential to be “a lady” (This is somewhat like GB Shaw’s “Pygmalion” (“My Fair Lady”):
“. . . I was certainly a handsome girl, as I had a naturally refined air and a very pure Grecian profile, and that if he put me in the right clothes and told me to hold my head high and keep my mouth shut, he could pass me off for a lady any day.” 324
Dora does not fit Simon’s idea of a “lady” or even a “female”.
“Dora opens the door to him. He regards her with digust: a woman so porcine, and, in this weather, so distinctly sweaty, should not be permitted out in public. She’s a libel on the entire sex”. 375
In Toronto even MacDermott notices Grace’s appearance as “a lady”:
“And he told me with a bit of a sneer that I looked very elegant, and quite the lady, with my pink parasol and all.” 394
Relationships between men and women
On Simon’s imagination, fantasies and animalism (When Mrs Humphries first collapses and is lifted by Simon to his bed)
He is “aroused by the sight of Mrs Humphries, “ a helpless woman extended upon his tumbled bed” in a semi state of dress.
“He has always been curious about these manifestations of the imagination as he has been able to observe them in himself. Where do they come from? If they occur in him, they must occur as well in the majority of men. . . he cannot always control such pictures. The difference between a civilized man and a barbarous fiend – a madman, say – lies, perhaps, merely in a thin veneer of willed self restraint. “ 163
Jordan wonders how Grace is to “fill in the rest of the time” after after her conviction. During a moment in which Grace threads a needle, a gesture that has a sexual connotation as she responds to Jordan’s question: “Do you feel you have been treated unjustly?”
‘I don’t know what you mean, Sir.’ She was threading the needle now; she wet the end of the thread in her mouth, to make it easier, and this gesture seemed to him all at once both completely natural and unbearably intimate. He felt as if he was watching her undress, through a chink in the wall; as if she was washing herself with her tongue, like a cat.” 105 (In a sense this also recalls Jordan’s recurring dreams about listening in and spying on servant girls when a boy. The passage also shows his lust for Grace”. The main image of Grace threading the needle seems to be a domestic as well as a sexual image and it is not lost on Simon.)
Marriage (trouble begins for men) Grace: It doesn’t say when a woman’s trouble begins”. 118 Her parents felt “trapped” in marriage. 121.
Her money supported her family at thirteen. 147. Still her father wants all her wage. She and the other sibling were beaten by their drunken father. 149. The father, “shouting that I was a slut and a whore . . . I feared that he might someday break my spine, and make a cripple out of me”. 149
Mary Whitney says, Thinks that “men are liars by nature”. 190 (Men and sex) Ironic that she allowed herself to get pregnant.
The dangers of servants falling pregnant from predatory members of the monied class
Grace says of girls who had families to go back to:
“now no decent man would marry her, and she would have to go on the streets, and become a sailor’s drab, as she would have no other way of feeding herself and the baby. And such a life would soon be the end of her.” 201 (Notice that when Nancy falls pregnant she is quietly terrified of a similar fate.)
Relationships between men and women – and melodrama
In the market as Simon buys groceries he realises that as a man of his class he is out of place and is unsure of what to buy Mrs Humphries. He feels that “the women of the poorer classes” are “laughing behind his back”. 164
Simon is aware of his insincerity as he speaks with Mrs Humphries after going out for supplies:
“’Think nothing of it. I could not let you starve.’ His voice is heartier than he intends, the voice of a jolly and insincere uncle who can scarcely wait to bestow the expected quarter-dollar on the grovelling poor-relation niece, pinch her cheek, and then make his getaway to the opera.” Simon silently curses and envies Major Humphrey’s freedom from Mrs H. 166.
Mrs Humphries hints that she has her body and will trade that:
“Women like me have few skills that they can sell”. 166 (The whole scene here is melodramatic and it is “slightly dampened” by “the trace of butter that remains upon” Mrs Humphries’ mouth”. 167
Masters as sexual predators
Many masters were sexual predators on young servants. “As Mary used to say, there are some masters who think you owe them service twenty-four hours a day, and should do the main work flat on your back. 231
Back street abortionists were doctors who earned more cash on the side. 202-3 (Their prey was servant girls impregnated by their masters.)
Shifts in class. Grace is the granddaughter of a Methodist who could not get “a position” because “he had done something unexpected with the Church money”. 119 (Notice how Grace after falling into the servant class resumes her “position” towards the end of the novel. What happened to Grace’s grandfather also highlights the shiftlessness of most men throughout the novel. 119
Canada is a rigidly class based society compared with the USA.
The Significance of Dreams (The ocean of the unconscious mind)
Sexuality and forbidden relationships
Simon’s thoughts as put by the third person narrator:
“One school of French alienistes recommend the recording of dreams as a diagnostic tool; their own dreams, as well as those of their patients, for the sake of comparison. They hold dreams like somnambulism, to be a manifestation of the animal life that continues below consciousness, out of sight, beyond reach of the will. Perhaps the hooks – the hinges, as were – in the chain of memory, are located there?” 161
Simon reverts to childhood and dreams of the “secret world” of the maids in the “attic passageway” of his house; “the big house they had before his father’s failure and death”. 159
“Women, the maids. Sitting on the edges of their narrow beds, in their white cotton shifts, their hair unbound and rippling down over their shoulders, their lips parted, their eyes gleaming.
Waiting for him.” 159 (Are not these dreams brought on by his subconscious desire (at this point of the novel) for Grace, who was also, a serving maid.) He understands that it was “Grace’s story of the Atlantic crossing that led to Simon’s dream. 160 He realises that it is “Grace’s story, with its Atlantic crossing, its burial at sea, its catalogue of household objects; and the overbearing father, of course. One father leads to another” 160 (The sea and household objects figures strongly in this dream).
This is bound up with the novel’s title. Grace gains the confidence to speak and tell her story. Atwood grew up not knowing much about her country’s past. Canada lived under the shadow of Britain and its much larger neighbour, the USA. As Grace discovers herself and gains the confidence to write letters, etc. the reader learns about Canada’s past, particularly Toronto’s. It isn’t just Grace who has amnesia, Canada has it too! In an interview Margaret Atwood admitted to growing up not knowing very little about her country’s past. It was such a “dead” topic; she gave an example in a book-meeting in New York of Britain once having a radio program entitled, “Canada or dead”. (!)
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.) LINK to Role-playing! This is also thematic in the novel!
Think also of Grace’s “roles” and Jeremiah’s!
On role-reversal – becoming a quasi servant!
Mrs Humphries has to adopt the role of a servant (Dora leaves) which she does not “ carry up” as would be “humiliating” but eats with Simon at a shared table, “as breakfast is all she can manage”. 334
Through “gratitude” she assumes the role of mistress. 335-336 even though (this woman does not attract” Simon, he gives way to his senses. 336
Seeks to retain the role-position of “all knowing authority” with Grace (He cannot ask her for advice on how to hire a maid after Dora leaves.)
( Dupont on acting and role-playing)‘I myself, says Dr. Dupont, “tend to place prostitution in the same class as the homicidal and religious manias; all may be considered, perhaps, as an impulse to play-act which has run out of control. Such things have been observed in the theatre, among actors who claim that they become the character they are acting. Female opera singers are especially prone to it. There’s a Lucia on record who actually did kill her lover.’ 349-50)
Dupont is great at role-playing
Grace on meeting Dupont with the Governor’s wife’s meeting: But who should I see, looking straight at me with a little smile, but Jeremiah the peddler. He was considerably trimmed as to hair and beard, and got up like a gentleman, in a beautifully cut sand-coloured suit, with a gold watch-chain across the vest; and holding a cup of tea in the best mincing gentleman’s manner, just as he used to do when imitating the same, in the kitchen at Mrs Alderman Parkinson’s” 354 ( Dupont knows the power of mystique by calling himself a doctor and giving himself a French-sounding name that could easily be confusingly Canadian.) He has the voice too because Grace appreciates it when Dupont settles her after meeting her: ‘Good, good, he said, just as pompous as a real doctor.’ 355
Grace can be seen as a female Ulysses, who “crosses the ocean three times” and end up at Ithaca, New York. Ithaca means “home”, “nostalgia”, “the journey home”; it was also the birthplace of Ulysses/Odysseus.)
Important examples of Grace’s journeys:
· the journey from Ireland
· the lonely and hazardous journey to Kinnear’s at Richmond Hill.
· the inner journey in prison that she relates through her narratives
· the escape to America only to be captured and brought home
· the final journey to Ithaca New York in which she is accompanied by the Prison Governor and his daughter.
Grace’s life is a journey!
Atwood draws on the detective genre made popular in the mid 19th century by Wilkie Collins. Jordan conducts an investigation into Grace.
Madness“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 (Remember that Grace had suffered the trauma of Mary Whitney’s death not long before.)
The Peonies act as motifs
They can be either white or red in colour. White is associated with Nancy and Red with memories of Mary Whitney. See the example on page 417
When confusion is high and others like MacKenzie or Moodie mistake her narrative Grace want to reiterate her point “But they were peonies, all the same, Red ones. There is no mistake possible.” 418