Alias Grace Through a Feminist Lens
Feminism is defined as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes and the organized activities on behalf of women’s rights and interests” (Merriam-Webster). This includes liberation from sexual, religious, legal, and economic oppression as well as breaking free from rigid gender roles, which are justified by the biological differences between men and women. These differences include, first and foremost, the fact that women bear children. This fact has had effects on the way women in the United States are expected to live and behave. Throughout the history of this country, up until about the 1960s, women had been thought of as subservient to men. Males are typically supposed to be “the provider” in their families and women are supposed to be child-bearers, nurturers, housekeepers, and cooks (Blum 77). This harmful divide of the sexes was put in place by the patriarchy long ago, the effects of which can still be seen today in pay inequality, the media of the modern day, the glass ceiling, and the current division of domestic labor (Blum 83). The issues that feminists face today, however, are but a ripple effect of the mistreatment and oppression of women before and during the nineteenth century. Naturally, this would be reflected in literature written about the time period. Such is the case is Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace. Through the personalities and actions of her characters, Atwood provides much evidence as to why the emergence of feminism was necessary at this time in United States history.
In the 19th century, which is when the novel Alias Grace takes place, the feminist movement was just beginning to emerge in the United States of America. Nineteenth-century feminists became fed up and began to reject the Victorian image of a woman’s proper image and role that had been carried over to the United States (Murdoch 124). The Victorian idea was that men were supposed to occupy the public sphere while women occupied the private sphere in life. This meant that men were expected to participate in talks and activities pertaining to labor and politics, while women were expected to take care of the home and children (Murdoch 121). Based on the biological differences in the sexes, and with no regard to individual capabilities or qualifications, men and women were split into two separate and very distinct roles. Men became breadwinners and women became mothers, wives, and housemaids. The emergence of feminism was a response that challenged this notion, and obviously it was met with much resistance. Queen Victoria herself, at this time, denounced feminism, referring to it as “the mad, wicked folly of women’s rights” in private letters to some of her correspondents (Murdoch 132).
Feminists of the 19th century disagreed, however. In the United States, first-wave feminism consisted of a wide range of women from different backgrounds, ranging from women from Conservative Christian groups that took up the cause to more diverse and radical feminists. Prominent feminist figures during this time period included Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances Willard, Matilda Joslyn Gage, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and the National Woman Suffrage Association. First-wave feminism is considered to have concluded with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the amendment that finally granted women the right to vote in the United States (Siegel). All of this activity was considered new and radical, and was historically unprecedented. For the first time in the history of the United States, along with many other nations including the United Kingdom, Ireland, Scotland, and France, women were able to have a voice of their own as opposed to being expected to marry and stay subservient to their husbands (Siegel).
The protagonist in Alias Grace is a young woman named Grace Marks, who was convicted for the murder of her former employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery along with James McDermott, who was also employed by Kinnear as a stablehand. First, the fact that Grace’s literal partner in crime James McDermott was executed by hanging for the murders and Grace was not speaks volumes about how women were thought of as frail, easily influenced, and inferior to men. While this idea serves Grace in the novel and even saves her life from execution, this ideology is harmful in that it was halting the progress of women’s equality as well as reinforcing this way of thinking in women’s minds so they have less motivation to try to bring about change. When Grace begins talking to Dr. Simon Jordan about her life, she mentions how her mother was often pregnant and she had to deal with a father who did not do much but drink (so one can only imagine that there may have been some domestic abuse involved.) This furthers the idea that women are meant to bear children and take care of the home, and is another case of how this novel illustrates the need for feminism at the time. There are many instances in which Grace is treated in such a way that sexism is hinted at. While this would have been viewed as “normal” in the time period during which the novel takes place, it leaves room for vast inequality between the sexes.
The character that most represents the need for feminism and almost a feminist call to action is Mary Whitney. Mary Whitney is an incredibly strong female personality in the novel who influences Grace heavily during their time together at the Parkinson’s in Canada. With Grace having come from the type of family that she did and being left without a strong female figure in her life after the death of her mother on the ship, Mary Whitney acts almost maternally towards her, teaching her how to act the role of a servant. Grace states this directly: “Mary took me under her wing from the very first” (Atwood 151). While Mary is teaching Grace, Grace notices that Mary is more bold and modern than most women during this time. For example, Mary was egalitarian and believed that they should “remember that (they) were not slaves, and being a servant was not as thing (they) were born to, nor would (they) be forced to continue at it forever; it was just a job of work” (Atwood 157). This shows that Mary Whitney believed in the power of the self and that women did have the ability and strength to make better lives for themselves without the help of men. This is furthered by her plans to save her own money to pay for a dowry and marry by choice to become the mistress of her own household, not because she needs a man to survive. This is an example of her taking initiative to start a comfortable life for herself; it is not an example of her feeling inferior to or dependent on any man. One can see Mary’s influence in Grace during Grace’s recollection of the time Mary Whitney asked if she would like to see the street where the whores lived. At first, Grace was scared, but Mary told her there was nothing to be afraid of, and Grace decided she was right and realized she was actually curious. Grace then goes on to say how she would sell her body if she was starving, which actually would have been an honest way to make a living, however unsanitary or unsafe, especially in times of financial hardship. Mary’s strong personality rubs off on Grace in a time when it is necessary to be a more independent woman.
It is necessary to be a strong, at least semi-independent woman, especially as part of the lower class, during this period of time partly due to the rampant misogyny present in society. There is no lack of this contempt for women amongst the male characters in the novel. Dr. Simon Jordan finds himself attracted to Grace, which goes against any professional or medical ethics. Because this is frustrating to him, he literally uses his landlady to alleviate this by having an affair with her regardless of the fact that he does not even find her attractive. Not only is this wrong from a moral human standpoint, but it indicates complete disregard to having any sort of respect for women. Misogyny can also be observed in the comments passed by the guards attending to Grace:
“Oh ho, says the one, that’s what I like, a little high spirits in a woman, a little fire, they say it comes with the redness of the hair. But is it red where it most counts, says the other, a fire in a treetop is no use at all, it must be in a fireplace to cast enough heat, in a little cookstove, you know why God made women with skirts, it’s so they can be pulled up over their heads and tied at the top, that way you don’t get so much noise out of them, I hate a screeching slut, women should be born without mouths on them, the only thing of use in them is below the waist” (Atwood 240).
This type of speech is being allowed in a public institution where the employees are being held to no standards. The attitudes of men towards women in Alias Grace exemplify why feminism was needed in the 19th century. Feminism was needed because women were being openly disrespected and abused, and rape culture was developing exponentially, as can be observed in the aforementioned quote.
Feminism is a cause that more women than ever are starting to take personally and become more and more actively involved with. Women have been fighting for political, economic, and social equality for centuries now. The fight dates back to approximately the beginning of the nineteenth century, when groups of feminists began to organize and become more radical. The first wave of feminism gained women the right to vote in the United States and several acts were passed in the United Kingdom pertaining to women’s marriage and property rights. This activity is reflected in literature written about this time period, including Alias Grace. The need for feminism during this time is clearly displayed through the treatment of female protagonist Grace Marks, the feminist insight of essential peripheral character Mary Whitney who acted as something of a mentor to Grace, and the misogyny spewed by most of the male characters throughout the novel, including Dr. Simon Jordan and the guards attending to Grace. The novel can help one to understand why the feminist movement took off when it did.
Blum, Deborah. Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences between Men and Women. New York: Viking, 1997. Print.
Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.
Murdoch, Lydia. Daily Life of Victorian Women. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2014. Print.
Siegel, Reva B. She the People: The Nineteenth Amendment, Sex Equality, Federalism, and the Family. Yale Law School. Yale University, 1 Jan. 2002. Web. 10 Dec. 2016.
Masculinity in Alias Grace
Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace presents masculinity through several characters throughout the book. In the majority of these cases, the men are portrayed as untrustworthy or dependent on a woman. A few characters that allow the reader to understand Atwood’s relationship and opinion of men include Dr. Simon Jordan, Jeremiah the Peddler, James McDermott, Thomas Kinnear, and Jamie Walsh. Each of these characters represents a consistent idea about men and their interest in women and the development of their own reputation and masculinity. Atwood uses several different “types” of men in order to show the reader how they each have a common trait.
A general idea that remains consistent throughout the book is the attitude of men that women are objects that are merely there for sexual exploitation. Grace is often sexually harassed by the prison guards who may assert suggestive advances such as “let’s just nip up the side alley, into a back stable, down on the hay, it won’t take long if you lie still…” (240). Mary Whitney, even after her wise teachings to be extremely cautious when it comes to men, ends up seduced by her employer’s son. She may have truly believed his promises of a future because of the ring he gifted but as soon as Mary revealed her pregnancy, he gave her some money for an abortion and deserted her. She later dies of the procedure, leaving a traumatizing mark on Grace. Nancy experiences similar circumstances. She was used sexually by Mr. Kinnear, her employer, and later moved in as his mistress. After Grace moved in and Nancy was pregnant, Mr. Kinnear began taking an interest in Grace, leaving Nancy similarly deserted.
Dr. Simon Jordan was an essential character in Alias Grace. He took a professional interest in Grace due to her unique situation and his curiosity in psychology. He wanted to study her reactions and memories in order to determine whether or not she was guilty. He visited her several times in order for her to respond to several fruits and vegetables he brought in, and for her to tell him her life story so he could analyze her reactions. By surrounding himself with this one subject for an extended period of time, his mind began to wander and resulted in sexual fantasies. At one point in the book his landlady, Ms. Humphrey, makes advances on him. He believes he is dreaming which he has done in the past but later he “[realizes] he’s not dreaming; or not dreaming the woman. She’s really here, in the flesh, lying motionless beside him in the suddenly too quiet bed, arms at her sides like an effigy; but she is not Grace Marks. Impossible now to mistake her boniness, her bird’s ribcage, her smell of singed linen and camphor and violets. The opium taste of her mouth. It’s his thin landlady, whose first name he doesn’t even know.”(352). This marks the beginning stages of Dr. Jordan’s descent into a mental breakdown, proving to the reader that not only Grace cannot be trusted, but Dr. Simon Jordan as well. Dr. Jordan’s mental state is not helped by the visit he takes to Grace’s lawyer, Mr. Mackenzie. After learning the intricate tactics of manipulation and fabrication that criminals have been known to use, Dr. Jordan no longer trusts any of the observations and conclusions he has drawn. Atwood uses Dr. Jordan to show that men are driven by their sexual desire, and this allows them to be left open to manipulation and doubt of their own findings.
Jeremiah the Peddler is a mysterious character that makes several appearances throughout the course of Alias Grace. He has always been nice to Grace and even sold her some items when she first began working. When he later finds her at Mr. Kinnear’s residence, he offers that “You could travel with me, he said. You could be a medical clairvoyant; I would teach you how and instruct you in what to say, and put you into the trances. … I said, wouldn’t that be a deception and a cheat? And Jeremiah said, no more than at the theatre.”(268). This comes back into play later in the book when Grace is asked to undergo hypnotism by a professional. This “professional” is later revealed to be Jeremiah himself, under a new name. Atwood presents Jeremiah as an attractive and cunning young man that takes a friendly interest in Grace. She reveals early on that he may not be the most trustworthy and that he uses tricks and deceptions to make a living. This solidifies Atwood’s skeptical portrayal of male intentions in Alias Grace.
James McDermott is a tricky character to analyze due to the unreliable nature of the narrator. On one hand, McDermott may be a manipulative colleague of Grace’s that kills Mr. Kinnear and Nancy simply because of how they have treated him. This would make McDermott the one who manipulated Grace. On the other hand, McDermott may have been the one manipulated by Grace. By seducing him, she may have been able to convince him to help her murder their employers. The second theory may not have been as plausible in the eyes of society in their time simply because it was not common for a woman to have such control over a man. It may, however, not have been as difficult as one would have thought for a woman to manipulate a man into doing her dirty work because ”Clearly the prospect of spending time with and being in physical if not sexual contact with a woman had a great appeal to the multitude of men”(Belshaw). Atwood later reveals in an interview her awareness that in a case of a woman and a man being guilty of a man, the man is always guilty and the woman is either a poor victim or it was an equally agreed upon deal. Atwood may use this ambiguity to either enforce her position that men are manipulative, or she may use this to bring the reader’s attention to the fact that men are not the only ones that have this ability.
Thomas Kinnear is once again an excellent example of men’s sexual desire for the “wrong” women. As was earlier noted, Dr. Jordan ended up falling for and lusting the idea of being with a celebrated murderess like Grace Marks. Nancy was originally employed as a housekeeper in Mr. Kinnear’s household, but Mr. Kinnear soon took an interest in her and eventually Nancy moved in not only as an employee but also as Mr. Kinnear’s mistress. This is frowned upon by the village and society as a whole. After Grace was hired, Mr. Kinnear took a subtle interest in her without making dramatic advances. Soon after Grace’s employment, Nancy gets pregnant which is around the time Mr. Kinnear takes a greater interest in Grace. This is a pattern in the book. When a woman gets pregnant, they are immediately less attractive in the eyes of the man. We learn much later in the book that Grace and Mr. Kinnear had been seeing each other in the week leading up to the murder. These were characterized as periods of amnesia in Grace’s mind, but are later under hypnosis revealed to have been pursued by her “alternate personality.” These events allow the reader to identify Mr. Kinnear as a nice man that is, once again, driven by his sexual desires. Reflecting Dr. Jordan’s, they are both interested by the perhaps unorthodox relationships that were slightly rebellious and edgy for their time. “All of the Atlantic colonies sought to punish “fornication” (heterosexual relations outside of marriage) and adultery”(Belshaw), which led the other members of the society to dislike the Kinnear residence, and may have led them to dislike Grace simply by assuming her involvement. As Nancy was becoming more and more rejected by Mr. Kinnear in place of Grace, she became more irritable in the direction of Grace and McDermott. This enforces the 19th century ideal that “a woman’s identity and property always connected with the men in her life.”(Gender and Sexuality in Colonial America). Atwood uses Mr. Kinnear as a character to show the true effect that sexual desire can have on a man and how it does not necessarily matter who it is with. This reinforces her elaborate construction of men as sexual creatures, giving no mention to the personalities of the men themselves. This goes to show that Atwood is not trying to portray men as an actual human being with love and affectionate traits, but rather as goal driven and somewhat cold.
Jamie Walsh was a young boy who took an interest in Grace when she moved into the Kinnear residence. He was portrayed as very young in the book, although the age difference was a mere three years. On Grace’s birthday Jamie chats with Grace and admits his affection toward her. She tells him he is too young but allows him a kiss on the cheek. At the end of the book, after Grace is released, he proposes to her and they end up in a good relationship. Grace admits it may not have been her dream marriage, but given the circumstances it was fine. An annoying circumstance to Grace, however, was that “every once in a while Mr. Walsh becomes very sad; he takes hold of my hand and gazes at me with the tears in his eyes, and he says, To think of all the sufferings I have caused you.”(456). This shows that men can also be needy for attention or in this case also forgiveness. This may once again factor into sexual fantasies Jamie allows himself to create. He may like the idea of him controlling her fate as “He likes to think it was him that was the author of all, and I believe he would claim the death of my poor mother too, if he could think of a way to do it. He likes to think picture the sufferings as well, and nothing will do but that I have to tell him some story about being in the Penitentiary, or else the Lunatic Asylum in Toronto… He begs me to tell him yet more.” (456). Jamie Walsh is Atwood’s attempt at introducing a character that is believed to be a good and normal guy that is sensitive to women, but still incorporating that aspect of sexual drive that haunts every male character in the book.
Atwood seems to present a sort of mistrust for those of the opposite sex by presenting them as untrustworthy, perfidious, and deceitful. She also repeatedly enforces the idea that men are sexual creatures that see sexual dominance as a confirmation of their masculinity. Men in the 18th century had to be especially dominant as this was when masculinity in the modern society was beginning to be defined. Men were expected to be strong and powerful and in many cases, sexually dominant. An additional factor in the male quest to prove themselves as masculine, is the development of open homosexuality in the community. Homosexuality was not yet accepted at that time so more and more people became subject to the question of how much of a man they may be. The development of masculinity and the development of feminism in this era were almost contradictory as we see in the novel. Grace and Mary are early feminists that do not want to be controlled, harassed, or manipulated by men, as was common in that era. All her encounters, however, go to show that with the development of masculinity, these situations were difficult to avoid.
Atwood, Margaret. Alias Grace. New York: Nan A. Talese, 1996. Print.Belshaw,
John Douglas. “10.7 Gender Roles.” Canadian History: Pre-Confederation. BC Open Textbooks, n.d. Web. 8 May 2016.”Gender and Sexuality in Colonial America.” Gender and Sexuality in Colonial America. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 May 2016.