‘Alias Grace’ and the Concept of the Fallen Woman

Any reader of Victorian literature, or any student of the history of the period, will be aware of the concept of the fallen woman. If not, the Wikipedia page is a good place to start. It’s a depressingly detailed page. For an era in which society began to move away from the government of Christianity (thank you Darwin and your fellow evolutionists!), the 19th century was one that made a national phenomenon out of the concept of a woman fallen from God’s Grace.

Grace Marks, the protagonist of Alias Grace, was a real person. In 1843 she was convicted of murdering her employer, Mr Kinnear, and suspected of the murder of his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. This brought her to the public attention, and eventually, to that of Margaret Atwood. Alias Grace is a fictional account of Grace’s life, the murders, and her time in prison afterwards. Her supposed accomplice is James McDermott, who also worked for Mr Kinnear. He was hanged, but she was spared that sentence at the last moment, and sent to prison. She became a momentary celebrity, with the trial being covered widely in the media.

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The frame of the novel consists of meetings, in prison, between Grace and Dr Simon Jordan. He is interested in criminal behaviour and mental health, and aspires to open his own modern asylum with progressive treatments. He meets with Grace and asks her about the murders; during her trial she stated that she could not remember most of what happened, and Dr Jordan spends a lot of his time trying to get her to remember. Even though large sections of the book are narrated by Grace, we are never quite sure exactly how much she does or does not remember. Grace is an unreliable narrator, but so is Margaret Atwood.

One of the things Dr Jordan wants Grace to speak about is the relationship between her and McDermott. In the papers at the time of the trial it is claimed that she is his ‘paramour’, implying they are lovers. This incriminates Grace further by implying she colluded with McDermott entirely, and that they had the same aims. Grace’s version is that they were not lovers, that she did not like him, and that he killed both Kinnear and Nancy. She was there at the time, and tried to convince him not to do it; that was all. During the trial the media, as well as the members of the court, are frankly obsessed by the question of whether or not Grace and McDermott were lovers, and so is Dr Jordan. This is partly to establish their relationship, and how this played a part in the murders; but it also because of the desire for scandal and sensationalism. If it was proved that Grace has slept with McDermott, she would be even more guilty. Even if proved innocent she would still be guilty of premarital sex, and would still be judged by society.

Her apparent lack of memory makes her something of an enigma during the trial, and indeed she is still very enigmatic with Dr Jordan – even in her first person narrative. People want to understand her, to understand the mind of a person who has committed a crime, and they are obsessed with her virtue. She must either be innocent and therefore ‘pure’ and ‘good’ as a woman should be; or she should be guilty and therefore prove the weakness and inherent sin of woman, and be ‘fallen’. Society condemns her to be one or the other, and in my opinion she is somewhere in between, like most people. As with our modern treatment of female murderers, Grace is demonised so much partly because she is a woman, and we find it harder to believe that women can be as evil as men. As soon as they show any sign of wrongdoing, in any way, we are very quick to demonise them. Look at the media portrayals of female murderers, such as Aileen Wournos or Myra Hindley, or even those of non-criminals that are perceived as doing something wrong, such as Theresa May or Katie Hopkins. These women may do things we don’t like (or that are monstrous in case of the two former), but they are always treated differently to men who do similar things. How could a woman kill another person, or a child? How could a woman be tough or vitriolic?

The duality of ‘pure vs fallen’ still exists today, even without the explicitly religious context. In the eyes of the public, and of Dr Jordan, Grace must be one or the other, and there is little room for complexity in her character. The Victorian ignorance of the human psyche is frustrating, but the demonisation of women is infuriating. Mental illness is also demonised to some extent, and as the novel goes on it seems that this may affect Grace too. I’m not going to write about what happens at the end of the novel for those who haven’t read it, but the duality is very clear there as well. Grace must be either an angel or a demon, and nothing in between. Women must be either the angel in the house, or the demon in the asylum.

For anyone to be equal, they should be allowed to show their complexity and humanity rather than conform to a stereotype. Grace is trapped within hers, and it affects her whole life. If she had been a man she would either have been hanged with McDermott, or sent to prison forever and forgotten about. Dr Jordan is so fascinated with her partly because of the ambiguity over her guilt, and also because she is a woman in her particular situation. We are never quite sure whether she is guilty or not, and in some ways that was the right choice on the part of Atwood; how can we ever know the reality of another person, or what really happened? How can we ever know if a person is good or evil – or indeed if it’s possible to just be one or the other?

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Alias Grace was first published in Canada and the UK in 1996 by McLelland & Stewart, and Bloomsbury Publishing. I read the 2001 Virago paperback edition (pictured above).

Purchase from Foyles here.

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4 thoughts on “‘Alias Grace’ and the Concept of the Fallen Woman”

  1. Excellent review. It infuriates me that we still have these double standards about women’s behaviour in the 21st century. I remember this as being. One of my favourite Atwoods but it’s ages since I read it – must revisit!

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  2. I reviewed this book, too.

    One of the things that make it unique is that, while criticizing a patriarchal society it still recognizes there is some privilege to being second-class. Since Grace is ‘only a woman’, she doesn’t suffer the punishment of McDermont.

    If you haven’t read anything else by Atwood, I highly recommend you do. Blind Assassin is fun but a mess. Life Before Man and Cat’s Eye are brilliant. Atwood deserves to be the face of feminism in literature. She doesn’t care about empowerment, but about subverting ideas and developing characters.

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  3. […] And lastly I want to mention the book I recently posted about, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. It is the first book of Atwood’s I have read, and I think it was a good place for me to start. This is more my kind of thing than her science fiction/fantasy novels, and I will definitely read more of her work – just not all of it. I loved Alias Grace for a lot of reasons – I loved the setting and the atmosphere, the descriptions of daily life in Victorian Canada (and learning about that country’s history), and I loved the ambiguity and nuance of Grace and her story. Read more in my recent post here. […]

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