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Modern Fiction Studies 46.2 (2000) 427-450

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Intertexts of Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace

Hilde Staels

Margaret Atwood's latest novel Alias Grace, set in mid-nineteenth-century Canada, fictionalizes the "true story" of Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant who, at the age of sixteen, worked as a maid in the household of the gentleman Thomas Kinnear. Together with the stableman James McDermott, she was convicted of the murder of her employer and his housekeeper/mistress Nancy Montgomery. McDermott was hanged, but Grace (alias Mary Whitney) escaped death thanks to her lawyer's brilliant defense. Her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but Grace was initially sent to a lunatic asylum in Toronto after several fits of hysteria or "madness." Though convicted of the crime, Grace pleaded not guilty, and her guilt has never been proved. A central character in Atwood's novel, though not a historical figure, is Dr. Simon Jordan, a New Englander and puritan "gentleman" who, as an expert on amnesia, tries to discover the truth about Grace during psychoanalytic sessions held in the governor's sewing room. Using a detective's methods, he attempts to figure out whether Grace actually committed the crime and whether she was insane at the time of the murder. This essay focuses on both the effect of the novel's status as a fictionalized account of a "true" story and the portrayal of the psychoanalyst as detective. [End Page 427]

In Alias Grace, Atwood parodies the fictional conventions of the historical novel and the detective story, both of which originated in the nineteenth century and are characteristic of the period. My understanding of parody in contemporary literary texts is indebted to Linda Hutcheon, who defines it as imitation characterized by ironic inversion or repetition with critical difference (A Theory 37). Hutcheon places parody within the greater field of irony as "the ironic use of intertextual references" (Splitting 146). Martin Kuester, who relies on Hutcheon's theory of parody, claims that "irony is, generally speaking, a structural relationship between two statements, and parody imbeds such an ironical structural relationship in an intertextual (and thus literary) context" (22). In Kuester's view, the parodic difference in repetition is "of special importance in the context of the new literatures in English that have to define their own stances in opposition to a strong literary tradition stemming from the British Isles" (22). The first part of this essay analyzes Grace's first-person narrative and the ways it both affirms and undermines the traditional realistic code underlying both genres. Atwood employs and disrupts realistic conventions such as narrative linearity, the representation of a reality beyond the bounds of textuality, the belief in a fact-based truth, and the assumption that a fictional character is a knowable entity.

Another point of interest is Atwood's use of the fantastic literary mode, which disturbs Grace's realistic representations. 1 Her combination of a realistic narrative with fantastic intertexts is typical of the contemporary genre that Hutcheon has labeled "historiographic metafiction." According to Susana Onega, "the eclosion of British historiographic metafiction in the 1980s shows British novelists catching up with a worldwide phenomenon, which goes back not only to North American experimental 'fabulation' but also to Spanish-American 'magic-realism' and to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gorge Luis Borges in particular" (100). Although Atwood does not allude to specific fantastic intertexts, she uses motifs and archetypal images from the various genres of the literary fantastic that have always inspired her writings, such as ancient myth, the gothic novel, the folktale, and the occult.

Before discussing the novel's fantastic intertexts, I will examine Grace's visionary experiences, which are conveyed in lyrical passages and which in their turn undercut the realistic code. In Grace's daydreams and hallucinations, on a pre-conscious level, nature imagery abounds, [End Page 428] especially metaphors, synaesthesiae, and similes, which are symptomatic of Grace's unconscious desire, and of suppressed traumatic experiences and bodily sensations. For the description and interpretation of Grace's poetic discourse, I rely in part on concepts drawn from the linguistic...


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