Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Ghosts, Knowledge and Truth in Atwood: A Reader's Guide to Six Responses*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Ghosts, Knowledge and Truth in Atwood: A Reader's Guide to Six Responses*

Article excerpt

I have been deUghted and enUghtened by the six responses to "The Return of the Dead in Margaret Atwood's Surfacing and Alias Grace." The aim of the present reply is to assist readers in finding their way around my essay and the various comments and criticisms contained in the responses. Thus I will first summarize how the responses relate to my argument (contradiction, extension, elaboration, ...) and what their principal claims are. Then I will conclude with some remarks in defence of my views.

My essay may be summed up as foUows. There are several ghosts in Surfacing, most notably the narrator's parents and her child, whom she imagines to be living with her divorced husband. The narrator needs to confront these ghosts and to recover the painful knowledge associated with them before she can be restored from her death-in-life state. Alias Grace shares many characteristics with the earlier novel: the detective plot, the traumatisation of the narrator, the impact of this traumatisation on her memory, the presence of ghosts, and the ambivalent nature of these ghosts, who haunt the protagonists but also help them to survive. Despite the many similarities, there is one crucial difference between the two novels. Whereas in Surfacing recovering the knowledge of one's past has a salutary effect, the survival of the protagonist in Alias Grace depends on the repression of such selfknowledge. It is not knowing the truth that makes Grace free.

While the writers of the responses have paid me very handsome compliments, none of them has extended her politeness so far as to actually agree with me on an important point. My reading of Alias Grace takes the hypnosis scene in chapter 48 at face value: Grace is possessed by the ghost of her friend Mary Whitney, who behaves like an alter in a case of dissociative identity disorder (or multiple personality); it is this being who seizes control of her body from time to time and who also participated in the murder of Nancy Montgomery. Thus there is a solution to the detective plot. While Grace herself remains ignorant of this solution, the reader is in the know. Many critics see this solution as merely one hypothesis among many others. On this view, the difference between Surfacing and Alias Grace consists in a shift to postmodern scepticism and uncertainty: Alias Grace is a work of historiographical metafiction that emphasizes the unknowability of history and offers many different versions of the past without privileging any one of them.1 Margaret Rogerson devotes her response to a defence of this view against my reading. She points out that the credentials of the professional in charge of the hypnosis, Dr DuPont alias Jeremiah the peddler, do not inspire much confidence, and she argues that, in Alias Grace as well as in other works, Atwood plays the role of a narrative trickster who uses "the technique of uncertainty [and] challenges readers to come to conclusions but also problematizes whatever they invent" (90).

Like Rogerson, Janice Fiamengo reads Alias Grace along sceptical lines, arguing that "[t]he ambiguities of the hypnotism scene [...] are inextricable from the narrative playfulness and skepticism that characterize the novel as a whole" (55). However, Fiamengo interestingly differs from Rogerson and from many other critics in that she takes a surprisingly dim view of this playful scepticism. In her comparison of the two novels, she expresses a clear preference for the earlier one. Surfacing, she argues, is an original and unorthodox novel out of step with the cultural fashions of its day. It undermines Canadian antiAmericanism by revealing the similarities between Canada and America, it is critical of sexual Uberation and of abortion, and it explores difficult moral and reügious themes such as evil, sin and redemption. Alias Grace, on the other hand, conforms to the Zeitgeist of the mid-90s, for instance in its use of repressed memory syndrome, in its endorsement of female discursive empowerment, and in its somewhat simpUstic and unfavourable portrayal of the Victorian male elite. …

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