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Alias Grace

Margaret Atwood
  • Study Guide
Main Ideas

Key Facts

Main Ideas Key Facts

full title Alias Grace

author Margaret Atwood

type of work Novel

genre Historical fiction

language English

time and place written Canada, early to mid 1990s

date of first publication September 7, 1996

publisher McClelland and Stewart (Canada); Bloomsbury (UK); Doubleday (U.S.)

narrator There are two narrators. The first narrator is Grace Marks, who speaks from her own perspective using the first-person pronoun “I.” The second narrator is anonymous and refers to characters in the third person. The narrative occasionally features letters written by different characters, each writing from their own perspective in the first person.

point of view Alias Grace unfolds through two points of view, each of which corresponds to one of the novel’s two narrators. Grace Marks’s point of view dominates in the sections that she narrates from her own limited perspective. By contrast, Dr. Jordan’s point of view dominates in the sections recounted by the anonymous narrator. Despite speaking in the third person, that narrator has full access to Dr. Jordan’s thoughts and feelings and so describes everything as he sees it from his subjective perspective.

tone Uncertain, skeptical, uneasy

tense Present tense. However, Grace speaks in the past tense in the sections where she recounts her life story to Dr. Jordan.

setting (time) The present time of the novel is 1859, though Grace recounts her life story of the many years before the murders, which took place in 1843. The novel’s final sections move forward in time quickly, and the book concludes in the late 1880s.

setting (place) Ontario, Canada

protagonist Grace Marks

major conflict The major conflict of the novel plays out in the tension between Grace Marks and Dr. Jordan. Although both characters want to determine with certainty whether or not Grace is guilty of murder, neither character feels fully able to trust the other’s motivations and both struggle with mental instability.

rising action As Grace digs deeper into her memories of the days and hours leading up to the murders, Dr. Jordan worries that Grace may be hiding crucial details from him.

climax Dr. Jordan fails to revive Grace’s memories of the murders and agrees to let Dr. DuPont hypnotize Grace. Hypnosis appears to reveal that Mary Whitney’s soul has been trapped in Grace since her death and that she—not Grace—was responsible for the murders.

falling action On the brink of a nervous breakdown, Dr. Jordan abruptly leaves town with a plan to spend time visiting asylums in Europe. Confused and not knowing what transpired while she was under hypnosis, Grace returns to her everyday life in the penitentiary and working in the Governor’s home.

themes The Mind and Memories; Truth; Gender Inequality

motifs Dreams; Madness; The Separation of the Social Classes

symbols Quilts; Peonies; Keepsake Albums

foreshadowing Much of Alias Grace features the protagonist recounting her life’s story, and since she already knows what happened, her account features a great deal of foreshadowing. For instance, Grace tells Dr. Jordan about the game she and Mary played on Halloween that involved tossing an apple peel to determine what letter their future husbands’ names will begin with. Mary’s peel breaks, which foreshadows her untimely death. Another of the many instances of foreshadowing is the story Grace tells of her mother’s death. Grace’s mother died on a ship crossing the Atlantic, and another passenger lamented that the ship’s hold had no windows to open to let her mother’s soul free. This incident foreshadows what happened after Mary’s death, when Grace believed she heard the words, “Let me out!”