Essay about Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace

Essay about Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace

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Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace


Alias Grace is the most recent novel by Margaret Atwood, Canada’s most prominent modern novelist. The novel is, as Atwood writes in her afterword, ‘a work of fiction, although it is based on reality’(538) centred on the case of Victorian Canada’s most celebrated murderess, Grace Marks, an immigrant Irish servant girl.

The manner in which Atwood imaginatively reconfigures historical fact in order to create a subversive text which ‘writes back’ to both the journals of a Canadian literary ancestor, and to Canada’s nineteenth century self -image, illustrates what critic Linda Hutcheon has called ‘the use of irony as a powerful subversive rule in the rethinking and redressing of history by both the post-modern and post-colonial artist ‘(131).

Atwood’s interest in the Mark’s case was first raised by her work on the journals of Susanna Moodie, a 19th-century emigrant to Canada. In a disparaging memoir entitled Roughing it in the Bush , published in London and addressed to an English audience, Moodie concentrated on the ‘otherness’ and ‘foreigness’ of Canada to refined European sensibilities, thus emphasising the privilege of ‘home’ over ‘native’ and ‘metropolitan’ over ‘provincial’. (Litvack 120). Life in the Clearings, Moodie’s sequel, intended to show the ‘more civilised’ side of Canada west, contained an account of her visit to the notorious Grace Marks in a Toronto Asylum. Moodie portrayed Grace as a shrieking, capering madwoman, and concluded her account with the pious hope that this ‘raving maniac’ would find some ‘peace at the feet of Jesus’ in the next world.

In the seventies, Atwood wrote a play for television which was based closely on Moodie’s recounting of the case, but in returning to the story twenty years later in Alias Grace, recounts a much more ambiguous, open - ended tale than the cut and dry ‘femme-fatale urges dim farmhand to murder’ account rehashed in Life in the Clearings.

Alias Grace can therefore be read both as a fictionalised account of a notorious true life case and also as a genuine instance of post-colonial ‘writing back’, as Canada’s most prominent present day (female) novelist, a leading exponent of modern Canadian literature, significantly revises a tale recounted by a female literary antecedent who spent most of her time unfavourably comparing the Canadian colony to ‘Home’.

In 18...


... middle of paper ...


...llowing exchange between Simon Jordan and Grace’s ally, the Reverend Verringer, for it not only emphasises the manner in which Atwood’s novel is in some ways a ‘writing back’ to Moodie, but also casts a significant light on Grace’s entire narrative, by suggesting that patchwork quilts are not the only things she constructs from virtual scratch .The exchange between Verringer and Simon whilst discussing Susanna Moodie’s account of the Mark’s case is highly relevant :

‘Mrs Moodie is a literary lady, and like all such, and indeed the sex in general, She is inclined to- ‘

‘Embroider’, says Simon.

‘Precisely’, says Reverend Verringer. (p223)

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Alias Grace. London : Virago, 1997.

Hutcheon, Linda. ‘Circling the Downspout of Empire’. The Post-Colonial Studies Reader. London : Routledge, 1995. p130-135.

Le Clair, Tom. ‘Quilty Verdict’. (Review) The Nation, September 1996.

Litvack, Leon. ‘Canadian Writing in English and Multiculturalism’. English Post-Coloniality. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. London: Routledge, 1998.

Van Herk, A. ‘Alias Grace’. Canadian Literature (1998) 156, 110-12.

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