The Truth To A Ballad

The Truth To A Ballad

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The Truth to a Ballad
     “At her Redeemer’s throne she’ll stand, And she’ll be cured of woe, And He her bloodied hands will wash, And she’ll be white as snow” (15). This quote concludes the beautifully written ballad located in the first chapter of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace. By summarizing the events leading up to the murders, the murders themselves, and the ensuing trial, the poem presents the reader with what appears to be a foreshadowing of things to come. However, though the ballad reflects many of the novel’s events, there are several differences which contradict Grace’s narration.
     The poetic verse and the story told by Grace contain numerous similarities. As the ballad states at the beginning, Grace says she was sixteen years old when the murders at the house of Thomas Kinnear occurred; James McDermott worked as a stable hand, and Grace was the serving maid. Also alike is the poem’s description of Nancy as a “no well-born lady….who goes in satin and silk, The finest ever seen” (11). When first meeting Nancy, Grace wonders why “a housekeeper would be wanting a dress like that,” (200) immediately noticing Nancy is dressed rather well considering her occupation. When the murders take place in the novel, James strikes Nancy on the head with an axe and throws her into the cellar where she eventually died with an unborn baby in her womb. This event was depicted in the poem, as was the scene where James and Grace steal valuables from Mr. Kinnear’s house and fled across the lake to the Lewiston Hotel in the United States. As the ballad progresses, the two are later arrested at which point Grace states she does not remember seeing the murders take place. Also similar, is James’ declaration of Grace being the one who lead him on, and if not for her the murders would have never happened. When the poem explains how Jamie Walsh marked Grace a murderer at the trial, yet she was given a life sentence while James was hung and dissected at the University, Grace’s tale is reflected perfectly. The ballad concludes with Grace receiving forgiveness and entering a life of paradise. This appears apparent at the end of the novel as Grace is pardoned, and then fulfills her “apple skin prophecy” of marrying a man with a first name beginning with ‘J.’ Though the above events are comparable to the story Grace tells, the ballad contains several discrepancies as well.

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     The beginning of the poem describes Thomas Kinnear as a “gentleman” whom “did love his housekeeper.” However, Grace does not perceive Mr. Kinnear as a gentleman, and like the rest of the town, is “a little curious” (220) of the relationship he has with Nancy. The ballad’s descriptions of Grace charming James McDermott into murder and being in love with Mr. Kinnear are also not reflected in Grace’s narration. Grace never says she was in love with Mr. Kinnear, even admitting to Nancy that she “meant nothing by it” (220) when she complimented him. In a shocking twist, the novel later revealed Grace’s split personality, Mary Whitney, as the one who charms James McDermott into murder, of which Grace has no recollection of in her story. Mary Whitney, a deceased friend whom Grace thinks and dreams of throughout the novel, is never mentioned in the ballad, yet plays an intricate role in the story of Grace Marks. Before Nancy was murdered, she did not tell Grace she would give her three dresses if spared, and the alter ego of Mary Whitney helps strangle Nancy, unlike the poem’s version of Grace as the culprit; once again, Grace cannot remember committing and wrongdoing when she tells her story. The ballad then says “To save ourselves…We must murder Thomas Kinnear,” giving the impression Mr. Kinnear’s murder was circumstantial, but in Grace’s version, James planned to kill Mr. Kinnear from the start. After the murders were complete, James uses the power of fear when forcing Grace to accompany him, but did not threaten to shoot her as the poem states. Towards the end of the poem, the spirits of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery are joined by the junction of the vine growing from Mr. Kinnear’s grave, and the rose bush of Nancy’s. However, when Dr. Jordan visits the grave in the novel, a rosebush blooms at the foot of Nancy’s grave, while Thomas Kinnear’s is barren. Simon thinks to himself, “The old broadstreet ballad, then, was prophetic – but no vine in Thomas Kinnear’s” (386).
     The ballad at the beginning of Alias Grace provides beautifully written images of occurrences to come, leaving the reader to consider which events will actually take place. Not all of the poem’s accounts are similar to Grace’s story however, and many differences can be seen. Although, the ballad did contain many truths: a murder was committed, Grace was involved, she was punished for her involvement, and a legend was born.
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