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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Dreams appear frequently throughout Alias Grace and showcase the mysterious relationship between sleeping and waking states. The novel indicates the importance of dreams from the opening passage, in which Grace recounts a dream of Nancy Montgomery with a bleeding head wound. As the reader learns in Part IX, this is the dream Grace had the night before Nancy’s murder, and she’s dreamt it many times since. Grace’s dream foreshadowed Nancy’s death, suggesting that her sleeping self knew something before her waking self. As the motif repeats throughout the book, the boundary between sleeping and waking increasingly blurs. One night, in the midst of a dream, Dr. Jordan wakes up and sees Grace standing over his bed. He begins to have sex with Grace, only to wake up again and realize he’s actually having sex with Mrs. Humphrey. As Dr. Jordan reflects in Part VI, one nineteenth-century school of thought considered dreams “a manifestation of the animal life that continues below consciousness,” and Dr. Jordan wonders if the hinges that held together “the chain of memory” could be located in dreams.
The motif of madness exposes a social bias that considers women as having weak minds. One of the central questions Dr. Jordan hopes to resolve in his work relates to whether or not Grace is, or ever was, mad. Her history of fainting spells and her fragmentary memory make many assume she’s mad. Even though Dr. Jordan identifies as a scientist and tries to maintain an objective perspective, his perception of Grace remains clouded by bias. When he first meets her, Dr. Jordan thinks Grace looks like stereotypical lunatic, stooped over and with messy hair. He quickly realizes the inaccuracy of his first impression of Grace, who actually looks perfectly poised and neatly dressed. The shift in Dr. Jordan’s way of seeing Grace suggests that madness may be a matter of perception. Grace confirms this suggestion when she reflects that many of the women she met in the asylum did not have troubled minds but were simply pretending to be mad to escape abusive husbands or secure a warm place to sleep. These women didn’t have weak minds. Instead, their “madness” derived from their terrible treatment by a patriarchal society.
The separation of the gentry from the servant class is a significant motif in the novel. This motif first appears soon after Grace lands her job as a live-in servant for Mr. and Mrs. Alderman Parkinson. In the homes of wealthy people there are usually two staircases: one in the front of the house and one in the back. Only the family members may use the grand staircase in the front. Servants, by contrast, must stick to the back staircase to stay out of the family’s way. Grace recalls this arrangement later, when she begins working for Mr. Kinnear. Grace notes several oddities in the layout of Mr. Kinnear’s house, including the lack of separate staircases and the lack of spatial separation between Mr. Kinnear’s bedroom and that of his housekeeper. Grace suggests in Part VIII that the lack of proper separation between Mr. Kinnear and his servants contributed to the events that followed. As she speculates to Dr. Jordan: “All would have gone better if there had been a separate staircase for the servants at the back of the house.”