- Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace and the Construction of a Trial Narrative
Many of the articles published on Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace since the late 1990s reveal a measure of discomfort with what appears to be the novel's incompatible aims, namely those of providing a postmodernist critique of history within the framework of nineteenth-century literary conventions. I argue that these two aims are reconcilable when the novel is understood as a trial novel that questions the construction of a teleological courtroom narrative1 deliberately based upon nineteenth-century novel-writing strategies and delivered in large part by a fictional Grace Marks, who acts throughout the novel as her own defence attorney.
Critics have noticed contradictory currents in Atwood's writing yet have failed to harmonize them. Hilary Mantel, Burkhard Niederhoff, Alice Palumbo, Barbara Hill Rigney, and Margaret Rogerson, for example, acknowledge the postmodernist sensibility and techniques at play within Alias Grace. Mantel lays emphasis on the novel's fragmentation (4); Niederhoff classifies the novel as an example of historiographic metafiction and concedes that such a genre is “fundamentally sceptical, eroding the [End Page 101] distinction between fact and fiction as well as undermining all claims to truth and knowledge” (81); Palumbo characterizes Atwood's work as one which makes it clear that “it is nearly impossible to expect one single 'true story' to emerge from the wealth of alternatives” (85); Rigney similarly states that Atwood's major thesis is “the inherent ambiguity of the nature of truth” (159); and Rogerson recognizes the novel's function as process rather than mere product when she refers to its central quilting metaphor and suggests that in the act of reading and interpretation, the reader him-or herself becomes a quilt maker (9). The same scholars, however, give voice to a certain anxiety when they attempt to make sense of Alias Grace's outcome. Despite the work's skeptical stance toward truth, the matter of whether the character of Grace Marks is guilty or innocent, a temptress or a victim, a liar or a paragon of integrity is one which these critics are unwilling to abandon. Mantel raises the question:“ [W]ith her background of deprivation, how likely is it that she had retained any innocence at all? Grace is a deceiver” (4). Niederhoff, in turn, concludes that Atwood is after all less interested in the truth value of historical reconstruction “than in its effects on people's lives” (82). In his reading of the novel, he accepts unequivocally that Grace was involved in the murders as Mary Whitney (80).
Among Atwood scholars, Magali Cornier Michael is perhaps the one who is most persuasive in her attempt at resolving the dichotomy between Atwood's postmodernist approach and her love of nineteenth-century narratives. Michael does indeed see in Alias Grace a feminist, postmodern approach to the recovery of the past that deals a clear blow to the scientific positivism that continues to dominate Western thought (423). The novel, she argues, insists on the validity and importance of women's oral history. Grace's quilting itself stands as a metaphor for alternative forms of thinking about and narrating the past (427). Narrative, however, is offered both as the key to times gone by and as a fallible tool because, as Atwood herself puts it in “In Search of Alias Grace,” “[H]uman beings [...] are subject to error, intentional or not, and to the very human desire to magnify a scandal, and to their own biases” (32). Michael also briefly looks at the role of trial narratives within her reading of the novel. She asserts that Alias Grace presents a legal case and a convicted murderess as its focal point and claims that although “the legal process presents itself as an objective, positivist enterprise in its aim to uncover the 'truth,' its thoroughly discursive nature highlights the impossibility of accessing the past outside of narrative.” Thus, for Michael, the novel's references to the law become one more way to stress both the importance and the relative value and [End Page 102] impact of narrative, generally (425). Unfortunately, Michael hints at but stops short of developing the ways...