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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Alias Grace takes place in the nineteenth century, when the emerging field of psychology began to investigate the mysterious inner workings of the human mind. The novel’s main representative from the field of psychology is Dr. Simon Jordan, who pursues research on cerebral diseases. Though keen to discover how the mind works, Dr. Jordan knows that scientists like him understand very little. Dr. Jordan jumps into his work with Grace Marks full of hope that he’ll be able to restore her lost memories. He expects that if he can develop a new technique for recovering forgotten events, he will have experimental evidence to support a grand theory of the mind. Even so, uncertainty plagues Dr. Jordan. He can’t figure out if Grace is telling the truth or feeding him lies, and if she’s lying, he doesn’t know if she’s doing it intentionally. Over time, his struggle to understand Grace causes his own mind to stray toward madness, and he is left with few answers about the workings of the mind.
The novel spotlights the ambiguous nature of truth, which is closely tied to the enigmatic nature of the mind. The various accounts of the Kinnear–Montgomery murders obscure the truth of what happened, and Grace herself seems not to know the full truth about the murders. Dr. Jordan’s primary purpose in working with her is thus to discover the truth of the matter. In an effort to help Grace recall the murders, Dr. Jordan invites Grace to tell her life story. Yet the more information Dr. Jordan gets, the more uncertain he feels that Grace is telling the truth. The very fact that Grace shapes her narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end suggests to Dr. Jordan that whatever truth there is in Grace’s account might be tainted by the addition of fictional elements. As Grace herself confesses in Part VII, her present perspective influences her account of the past. The status of truth in her story therefore remains ambiguous to the end.
Alias Grace depicts a social world where women are subordinate to men. As Grace witnesses repeatedly, this hierarchy places women in a vulnerable position and gives men license to behave despicably. Perhaps the most prominent example of this inequality relates to Grace’s friend and fellow servant, Mary Whitney. Mary fell in love with a wealthy young man who abandoned her when she became pregnant with his child. Whereas he rejected Mary to preserve his own social standing, Mary believed the only way to save her own reputation was to secure an abortion. The operation killed her. Grace herself has frequently suffered at the hands of men, starting with her own abusive father. She was also sexually abused by a doctor and a warden when she first went to prison. She now has a profound distrust of men, including seemingly kind men like Dr. Jordan and Jamie Walsh. Despite appearing committed to her well-being, even these men use their position of authority to get what they want from Grace.