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Alias Grace opens with a short chapter written from the first-person point of view of the novel’s protagonist, Grace Marks. The year is 1851. Grace will soon turn twenty-four years old, and she has been in prison for nearly eight years. Walking in formation with other prisoners along a path, she looks down and sees dark red peonies growing out of the gravel. The peonies remind Grace of the white peonies that grew in a man named Mr. Kinnear’s garden, and she recalls a woman named Nancy cutting them and placing them in a flat basket. Since it’s April, Grace knows peonies shouldn’t be blossoming now. She touches one of the flowers and realizes it’s made of cloth.
Looking up, Grace sees Nancy on her knees. Blood runs down her face and she holds out her hands as if to beg for mercy. Nancy is wearing a pair of gold earrings that Grace used to envy, but Grace thinks to herself that Nancy can keep the earrings because, unlike last time, Grace will run for help. Also unlike last time, Mr. Kinnear will come home and retire safely to the parlor while James McDermott takes his horse to the stable. As Grace approaches Nancy, Nancy’s image scatters into dark red cloth petals. Suddenly, it’s dark, and a man with a candle blocks Grace’s way to the stairs. She feels trapped and knows she will never get out.
At the end of this chapter, Grace explains that the above account is what she told someone named Dr. Jordan when she came to “that part of the story.”
Part II consists of a 34-stanza ballad that recounts the murders of Mr. Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, as well as the trials of Mr. Kinnear’s serving maid, Grace Marks, and his stable hand, James McDermott.
According to the ballad, Mr. Kinnear was in love with Nancy and lavished her with expensive gifts. Meanwhile, Grace loved Mr. Kinnear, and McDermott fancied Grace.
Grace promised to become McDermott’s lover in exchange for helping her kill Nancy. McDermott struck Nancy on the head with an axe and dragged her to the cellar, where he and Grace strangled her with a kerchief. McDermott wanted to kill Mr. Kinnear as well. Grace protested since she only wanted Nancy dead so she could have Mr. Kinnear for herself. But McDermott, who insisted on holding Grace to her earlier promise, shot Mr. Kinnear through the heart.
Grace and McDermott then ransacked the house and fled across Lake Ontario to the United States. Authorities tracked the two down and arrested them. Grace denied her involvement, swearing that she didn’t see the murders and McDermott had forced her to flee with him. McDermott claimed that he had only committed the murders at Grace’s behest. McDermott was hanged, and Grace was sentenced to life in prison. The ballad ends with the prediction that if Grace repents for her sins, she will be redeemed and go to Heaven.
Alias Grace opens with an enigmatic first chapter that introduces the important role that dreams will play in the novel. Part of what makes the chapter ambiguous is how the writing blurs the distinction between dream and reality. At first, it appears that Grace is really walking along a gravel path, but the sudden appearance of red peonies growing at the wrong time of year signals to the reader that something is not right. The narrative gradually confirms the reader’s suspicions, first through Grace’s realization that the peonies are made from cloth, and then when the vision of Nancy explodes into a burst of red cloth petals. By the end of the chapter, the reader fully understands that Grace has recounted a dream, but it remains unclear whether the people and events she has dreamt of are real or figments of her imagination. The reader’s confusion grows when Grace concludes, “This is what I told Dr. Jordan, when we came to that part of the story.” Although we don’t yet know who Dr. Jordan is, the dream Grace has just recounted clearly belongs to a larger story.
Whereas Part I opens the novel by developing a sense of mystery, Part II provides the reader with context that clarifies Grace’s alleged involvement, alongside James McDermott, in the murders of Mr. Kinnear and Nancy. Although Part II offers an account of the murders and the subsequent trial and conviction of Grace and McDermott, it is significant that the account appears in the form of a ballad. A ballad is a type of narrative poem composed in four-line stanzas. Historically, poets wrote ballads to celebrate the achievements of local heroes or recount the foul deeds of criminals. Such ballads often appeared in newspapers, and singers sang them on street corners to any number of popular tunes. Balladeers often gravitated toward sensational events that could readily draw an audience. Thus, even though ballads may tell of real events, they often exaggerate or distort the truth. For this reason, the reader should view the information presented in this ballad with suspicion. Although it provides useful context about Grace, the “history” it offers may not be trustworthy.
Taken together, Parts I and II have the overall function of establishing a tension between divergent points of view that the novel will go on to develop and complicate. Part I centers Grace’s point of view, and as the mysterious nature of her dream suggests, her perspective is highly subjective. If the dream she recounts here is indeed part of a larger story about real people and events, then the obscure and fragmentary quality of her perspective might make it difficult to establish an objective view of what really happened. By contrast, Part II adopts a more distant, third-person perspective that appears to recount historical events with greater objectivity. The ballad tells a compelling story about Grace and McDermott, explaining not only what they did but also why they did it. The clarity of the story recounted in the ballad offers a seemingly complete picture of the events that might make it appear more trustworthy than the dream-image provided by Grace. Ultimately, however, the reader will have to decide which, if any, point of view to trust.
The final stanzas of the ballad in Part II introduce two opposing views of how Grace’s story could end, effectively posing a question that cannot be answered until the end of the novel. The first view involves no change in Grace’s fortunes. If she remains unrepentant, she will live out the rest of her life sentence in the Kingston Penitentiary and die a dreary death. However, should Grace atone for the sin of her involvement with the murders of Mr. Kinnear and Nancy, she might find redemption in God’s grace. Although she will still die in prison, upon her death she will be cured of all her woes as she passes into Heaven. Thus, the ballad’s conclusion foreshadows the possible endings of the novel. At the same time as Parts I and II introduce questions about what really happened in Grace’s past, they also offer a vision of what will happen in her future.