The Expression of Powerlessness and Oppression in Alias Grace

The novel, Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood explores the life of Grace Marks, a convicted murderer, through her eyes and the eyes of Dr. Simon Jordan, an expert in the field of mental illness. The subject of Dr. Jordan’s study is the innocence of Grace Marks, whose elusive answers during her trials led to her conviction despite the lack of concrete evidence. However, even Marks herself does not know whether she aided in committing the murder. Because of this, Marks is subjected to life in prison, where she is haunted by her past. The themes of powerlessness and oppression in Alias Grace are represented through the male authority figures who diminish her power in each location of her life.

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Childhood

In Grace’s childhood, Grace is not only repressed by her abusive father, she is also indirectly inhibited by her family. The novel is told in a narrative fashion, switching from Grace to Dr. Jordan, as Grace recounts the story of her life to Dr. Jordan. Grace is characterized as a “little pitcher with big ears” (Atwood 105). By eavesdropping, she learns her father resented his wife and children because he felt there were “too many in number” (Atwood 108). Her father suffers from alcoholism and is therefore unable to provide for his family as the majority of the money he makes goes to fuel his addiction. Her mother is frail and weak in the mind, body, and spirit. Because of this, there is very little money left for the family. Since Grace is the second oldest child in the family, when her sister leaves, she has to help her mother with sewing to help her earn money. At an early age, she is forced to take on more responsibility than a typical child at that time, which acts as a barrier to her. She even says that when she brought the children out for excursions to the ocean, she thought about “push[ing] one or two of them over” (Atwood 108) so as to relieve the pressures of having to feed and take care of them. But, not only did her father strip her of her power by pushing his responsibilities onto Grace, he also physically abused her. 

When Grace is in her early teens, her family sets sail for Canada. On this journey, her mother passes away and is buried at sea. When they arrive in Canada, her father, often coming home in drunken stupors, begins to mistake her for her mother and one night, “[throws her] against a wall… shouting that [she] was a slut and a whore” (Atwood 129). Moreover, in “Quilting her Story,” Edina Szalay explains how “quilting, sewing, knitting, and embroidery” is used in Atwood’s writing to capture the story from a female point of view. Grace is often depicted making quilts, and when prompted by Dr. Jordan, explains how she thinks that quilts ‘make the bed the most noticeable thing in a room’ (161). She also comments on the danger of the bed for women, noting that many women pass away because of childbirth on their beds. For Grace, a different danger is posed. Her father repeatedly tried to rape her while she was sleeping as he confused her for her mother. Her father continues to interfere in Grace’s life until she begins to work at the Alderman Parkinson’s household when he tells her it is time for her to “earn [her] own bread” (Atwood 127), though she is not even 13 years old.

 At her new place of work and residence, she meets Mary Whitney, whose name she uses as her alias when she checks into the hotel with Jame McDermott after the murder of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery later in the story, and they become very close friends. When Grace’s father comes seeking wages from Grace, Mary Whitney chases him away with a few of the stablehands. Mary and Grace remain close friends until Mary’s death when she receives an abortion from an illegitimate doctor. Her death plants a seed of distrust towards all men and sex in Grace’s brain, as the man who had impregnated Mary had told her that he would marry her but instead left when she became pregnant. In her speech, “In Search of Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction,” Atwood explains how during the time that Grace was working, Canada was still feeling the effects of the 1837 rebellion, in which a third of the country- most likely the poorer third- left the country, which led to a shortage of servants so “Grace was able to change jobs more frequently” (Atwood 1504). Therefore, soon after the death of Mary Whitney, Grace decided to take a new job with a different employer. She went through five different employers before meeting Nancy Montgomery, who was “in Toronto to make some purchases at a dry-goods auction” (Atwood 200). Grace saw many similarities between Nancy and Mary Whitney; so, she believed it was a good idea to move to the Kinnear residence.

Kinnear Residence

At the Kinnear residence, her employer, Thomas Kinnear, oppresses her through his sexual actions towards her and through the jealousy that develops in his housekeeper, Nancy, towards Grace. She is also harassed by the stablehand James McDermott, making suggestive comments to her and attempting on multiple occasions to rape her. Upon arrival at the Kinnear residence, Grace noted many unusual privileges that Nancy has for a housekeeper. For example, Nancy had nice clothes and diamond earrings, which Grace remarks upon repeatedly throughout the novel, that she should not have been able to afford on a housekeeper salary. There are also instances in which Nancy had stains on her petticoats, which the reader can assume is because of her sexual interactions with Kinnear. Grace, however, does not recognize this relationship between the two until Nancy asks Grace to go to church with her and she sees how the churchgoers discriminate against Nancy. McDermott tells her after about the relations between Nancy and Kinnear. This causes Grace to lose all respect for Nancy as Mary Whitney had done the same thing but had died. At the time, McDermott suggests to Grace the idea that he should kill both Nancy and Kinnear, which Grace shoots down. After, Grace hears Nancy speak to Mr. Kinnear about how she wants to fire Grace and McDermott. This terrifies her, and that night she has a dream about angels in bloody dresses sat upon the house in judgment.

 In “The Eroticism of Class and the Enigma of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace,” the author explains how the effect Grace had on men was partially caused by her servant status. For example, when Grace is scrubbing the floor, Kinnear stares at her lustfully, watching her “bare ankles and legs” (Atwood 275). Kinnear’s actions can be explained through the desire of the male gaze “to penetrate Grace… in which the master/doctor attempts to possess the servant” (Stanley 372). Because of the attention given to Grace from Kinnear, Nancy mistreats her. Nancy’s behavior, which Grace describes as two-faced, is already tumultuous, but the added jealousy dissolves the shaky relationship between Grace and Nancy. Nancy forces Grace to do many things that she does not want to do. For example, when Mr. Kinnear left the residence for a trip, Nancy asks Grace to go find McDermott to kill the chicken. Grace is unable to find McDermott so Nancy forces Grace to take on the task herself, despite never having killed a chicken and being utterly terrified of it. Grace begins to cry, and Nancy slaps her and pushes her into the yard to kill the chicken. Through this display, Nancy shows her disdain for Grace and her lack of acknowledgment of her emotions.

Courtroom

In the courtroom, Grace’s power is restrained through the alteration of her story by different parties. In Atwood’s “In Search of Alias Grace,” she speaks about how for each story, there is not only a teller, but also an audience; both of which are influenced by “climates of opinion, about politics, and also about criminality and its proper treatment, [and] about the nature of women-their weakness and seductive qualities.” Grace is habitually undermined by male authority figures and is unable to tell her version of the story. For example, Grace speaks of how many conflicting stories arose inside and outside the courtroom, such as whether she was “an inhuman female demon [or] an innocent victim of a blackguard forced against my will and in danger of my own life” (Atwood 23). Her lack of control over the story demonstrates the usurping of her power at the hands of the authority figures in her life. The way that she was represented by the media also affected her self-image. The newspaper said that she was “a wild beast… a monster” (Atwood 33). In response to this, Grace began to think about acting wild and said that if they wanted a monster so badly, they should have one. She knew, however, that if she was, she would be put back into the asylum. So, although the media changed her self image, she had to control herself in order to prevent further harm. Furthermore, her role in the murder was romanticized, and the people didn’t really care if she was innocent; their chief concern was whether “[she was] really a paramour” (Atwood 27). 

Grace is often described as beautiful by the men around her, which affected the manner in which she was treated as well. For example, McDermott asked Grace whether she “had a sweetheart, as a pretty girl like [her] might be expected to have one (Atwood 226) and Kinnear said that “if he put [her] in the right clothes and told [her] to hold [her] head high and keep [her] mouth shut, he could pass [her] off for a lady any day” (Atwood 279). Men often perceived her as weaker and fragile, and this is why her lawyer, Kenneth Mackenzie, told her that her best chance was to be perceived as unintelligent because regardless of what happened, at the time of the murder, she was little more than a child. When Mackenzie was speaking to Dr. Jordan on the subject of Grace, he had told him that “the poor creature has fallen in love with you…you are doubtless the object of her waking daydreams” (Atwood 377). This demonstrates how Mackenzie perceived Grace to be feeble-minded, instantly falling in love with anyone who showed her any type of affection. 

Therefore, it can be assumed that this perception of Grace is the reason why Mackenzie decided to argue for her idiocy. Grace said she was “angry with him over that”, showing her disapproval over the way her case was argued and the lack of choice she was given. In the courtroom itself, Grace’s story was altered by those who were testifying against her. For example, Jamie Walsh, a farmhand at the Kinnear Residence, developed a crush on Grace during the time that she worked there. Grace recalls on multiple occasions how Walsh would visit the residence and play his flute for Nancy and Grace and Walsh even helped Grace butcher the chicken when Nancy forced her to kill it. On her sixteenth birthday, Nancy allows Grace to go on a walk by herself, in which she encounters Walsh. On that day, he proposes to her and although she does not believe that he is serious, she tells him that she will consider the offer so as to not hurt his feelings. However, Walsh was too young so Grace did not return the affections. This led Walsh to harbor some resentments towards Grace and when he testified against her in court, his testimony turned the public opinion against Grace and played a large part in her incarceration. In this situation, Grace’s feminity gave her power and took it away as she held influence over Jamie Walsh because he was in love with her; but, her lack of reciprocation had repercussions like the testimony that lead to her guilty sentence.

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The Expression of Powerlessness and Oppression in Alias Grace. (2022, Sep 05). Retrieved October 4, 2022 , from
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