Monday, 3 September 2007

"Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood: James McDermott

James McDermott

His origins
There is a character portrait, independent of Atwood drawn by William Harrison. See beginning of Chapter 7. (“Recollections of the Kinnear Tragedy” 1908)

Grace on Mcdermott: “He said his family was respectable enough, being from Waterford in the south of Ireland and his father had been a steward”.

Grace: “he himself had been a scapegrace, and never one to lick the boots of the rich.” 263

He is “a catholic” and does not attend the Presbyterian church in Richmond Hill. 292

He sided with the ruling class (Tories during the Rebellion, at least he boasts as much to Grace) “he’d enlisted again for a soldier, with the Glengarry Light Infantry, which had got such a bad reputation among the farmers, as I knew from Mary Whitney, having burnt a good many farmhouses during the Rebellion, and turned women and children out into the snow, and done worse to them besides, that was never printed in the newspapers. 264 (Not only is he presented as a bad egg the newspapers did not publicize the crimes of his military outfit.)

Grace: “And when I heard later from others in the neighbourhood, including Jamie Walsh, that McDermott has a strong reputation as a liar and a braggart, as was not at all surprised”. 265

He 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

It is McDermott who is “running along the top of the snake fence, agile as a squirrel”. 267 (He is a performer, who knows he is being watched by Grace).

He is rebellious but not for noble reasons
He finds it intolerable that “a woman (Nancy) was set over him”. 264
On receiving his notice from Nancy, Grace reports, “He said he was glad, as he did not like being ordered about by a woman”. 295
This provokes his rebellious behaviour. To Grace on learning that they are to be sacked by Nancy: “we should join together to demand our rights”. 298

Grace: “At these times he would say that he hated all Englishmen, and though Kinnear was a lowland Scot, it was the same thing, they were all thieves and whores, and stealers of land, and ground down the poor wherever they went; and both Mr. Kinnear and Nancy deserved to be knocked on the head and thrown down into the cellar . . .” 298

In Toronto with Grace (on the run)
He acts like a pernickety “master” with servants as he tries to adopt a “master’s” role. 392

James on Grace“Grace Marks was . . .a pretty girl, and very smart about her work, but of a silent, sullen temper” 275

James McDermott to Kenneth McKenzie (their pair’s lawyer)
He claims that Grace “was entirely taken up with her master. Grace was very jealous of the difference between her and the housekeeper, whom she hated, and to whom she was often very insolent and saucy . . .”What is she better than us”?” 275 (Does this not ascribe motive?) 275

“ ‘Good God!’ thought I, ‘can this be the woman? A pretty, soft-looking woman too – and a mere girl! What a heart she must have!’ I felt equally tempted to tell her that she was a devil . . .” (James McDermott to Kenneth MacKenzie, as retold by Sussana Moodie, “Life in the Clearings”, 1853.)

Third person narrator on McDermott
“Before he was hanged, McDermott said that you were the one who put him up to it, says Dr. Jordan. He claimed you intended to murder Nancy and Mr. Kinnear by putting poison into their porridge, and that you repeatedly urged him to help you; which he very piously refused to do.” 299 (Feasible as poisoning is often a female crime.)

Grace “allows herself to smile” when contradicting this. (Control)

Nancy thinks “he will go straight to the Devil”. 263

On Killing Nancy
The killing and James’s claims are explained by Sussana Moodie’s dramatic account in the extracts from “Life in the Clearings” (1853)
Grace is seen to have felt guilty both in expression and words: “I (McDermott) turned to Grace. The expression on her livid face was even more dreadful than that of the unfortunate woman. She uttered no cry, but she put her hand to her head, and said –
“God has damned me for this.” 334
(Nancy did not die from the blow from the axe. She was choked to death and McDermott cut up her body into four pieces!)

He is a misogynist (a woman hater) and feels led on by Grace’s 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.)

He wants to marry Grace and thinks her biting his ear on the way to Toronto is a sign that she is “a good girl after all”. 391

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I teach Film, Media and English Lit.