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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (2001) 421-447
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Rethinking History as Patchwork: The Case of Atwood's Alias Grace
Magali Cornier Michael
Like the quilt patterns that adorn the title pages of each of its fifteen sections, Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace presents an intricate patchwork of texts as an "other" means of representing historical events and persons that rejects the mono-vision of traditional histories and highlights the processes of framing and arranging pieces in particular juxtapositions. 1 This mode of representation undermines linearity and the cause-and-effect logic that derives from it. The result, however, is not chaos but rather a deliberate and more spatial construction that functions as a dynamic, ever evolving whole while retaining the integrity of its separate pieces. Through its juxtaposition of a gradation of official and authorized texts--published histories, newspaper clippings, interviews, confessions, letters, poems--with the more overtly fictionalized first-person narration of Grace Marks and third-person narration, Atwood's novel engages in a curious leveling out of the authority of all the texts it presents. The various texts come to occupy equal status as neither/both valid and fiction/fabrication. By being placed side by side, all the texts that make up the novel begin to challenge one another's authority as well as any universal notion of "truth." The texts all become suspect and yet, taken together, they become the only means of approximating/representing [End Page 421] material events and persons located in the past. While the novel disrupts certain established conceptions of history, it thus also offers its spatial, unstable, disunified mode of representation as a means of validating the enterprise of writing history--albeit in an alternative way.
Atwood's novel focuses on the highly publicized case and trial of Grace Marks during the 1840s in Toronto. Subsequent to the murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper/lover, Nancy Montgomery, the historical sixteen-year-old Grace Marks was arrested fleeing Canada with James McDermott, Kinnear's stable boy. After a notorious trial in 1843 that received extensive coverage by the Toronto newspapers of the time, James McDermott was convicted of first degree murder and hung while Grace Marks was convicted as an accessory to the crime and her sentence commuted to life in prison. She was subsequently released in 1872 following repeated petitions by local supporters of her case, including clergymen. Atwood makes use of the bounty of historical documents surrounding the case to craft her novel, claiming in her afterword that "Alias Grace is a work of fiction, although it is based on reality" (461) and that she has "not changed any known facts, although the written accounts are so contradictory that few facts emerge as unequivocally 'known'" (464-65). Although the "truth" about Grace Marks's role in the 23 July 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery remains absent from the novel's pages, the historical events and persons not only become compelling but also achieve a certain "reality status" through their presentation as the sources of an active proliferation of competing multifaceted versions/texts--even if these versions/texts are all suspect in one way or another. I am thus arguing that Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace is an example of a text that engages in a rethinking of history that does not merely reflect but rather actively participates in the contemporary reconceptualization of history as a socially, culturally, and textually constructed process that is mediated in countless ways but that nevertheless remains a crucial enterprise.
As Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra (among others) have aptly demonstrated and have worked to counter, historical methodology since the nineteenth century has tended to efface "the active role of language, texts, and narrative structures in the creation and description of historical reality" as well as the ways in which "structures of thought [End Page 422] and symbolic meaning are an integral part of everything we know as history" (Kramer 97-98). Influenced by the French Annales School, which sought to "document, describe, and analyze the history...