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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Quilts appear everywhere in Alias Grace and have several meanings related to women’s lives and well-being. Atwood suggests the symbolic importance of quilts by titling each of the novel’s fifteen sections after the names of quilt patterns and accompanying each title with the image of a quilt block from the pattern. On the most basic level, the quilt symbolizes the kind of domestic labor performed by women from the servant class. Grace recalls how she used to mend Mrs. Alderman Parkinson’s quilts, and she spends each of her sessions with Dr. Jordan sewing quilts. On a deeper level, many quilts are symbolically associated with milestones in a woman’s life. For example, the Log Cabin pattern celebrates marriage by picturing the new home where the couple will settle. The symbolic link between quilts and the traditional rites of passage somewhat troubles Grace, who compares quilts to flags. Just as an army might raise a flag to signal an approaching threat, Grace hypothesizes that women lay quilts on beds as a reminder of the dangers posed by domestic life.
The peonies that Grace sees in a recurring dream symbolize her confusion about her own guilt and innocence. In Grace’s dream, red peonies grow from a gravel path. She knows it’s the wrong time of year for peonies, and when she touches them, she realizes the petals are made of cloth. Then Grace sees Nancy, who is on her knees with a bleeding wound on her head. As Grace approaches, Nancy scatters into a burst of red and white peony petals. Although Grace recounts these events as if they originated in her dreams, in Part VIII, she confesses to the reader that “they were not a dream.” If the petals Grace sees in her recurring nightmare originated in reality, then the scatter of petals may symbolize the spatter of blood that occurred when Nancy got hit over the head. Yet the mix of red and white petals confuses the memory, since red symbolizes guilt and white symbolizes innocence. Grace cannot remember the degree of her own involvement in Nancy’s murder. She therefore remains suspended between guilt and innocence, living in a dreamlike reality that may be as fabricated as the cloth peonies.
The keepsake albums belonging to the women in the Governor’s household symbolize the partial curation of memory and experience. Grace notes disdainfully that the Governor’s daughters fill their albums with random objects, trivial notes from friends, and sentimental poems. The Governor’s wife stuffs hers with newspaper clippings about convicted murderers that she considers potentially innocent. Whereas the daughters use their albums to carefully curate only happy memories, the Governor’s wife uses hers to support her sense of herself as a forward-thinking and charitable woman with influence. Thus, keepsake albums assemble a fragmentary picture of their maker, reflecting back only what they want to see of themselves. Grace thinks about what she would put in her own keepsake album if she ever made one, and she imagines including both positive and negative mementoes to reflect her full self. Yet there is an irony in Grace’s imaginary album. Even though she fantasizes about including bad things, her forgetfulness suggests that she may have already set aside her worst experiences and has already curated her memories.