Academic journal article Studies in Literature and Language

The Social Critical Function of Female Discourse in Alias Grace

Academic journal article Studies in Literature and Language

The Social Critical Function of Female Discourse in Alias Grace

Article excerpt


In her ninth novel, Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood shifts her perspective on the Canadian past and reconstructs a historical murder case of the 1840s with her powerful imagination. Women's living condition is still the central concern. Grace Marks, the marginalized silent "other", is granted with female discourse to tell stories of lower-class women's miserable fate, which forms a spicy criticism and irony against the hypocritical Victorian social and gender ideology.

Key words: Margaret Atwood; Alias Grace; Female discourse; Social critical function


Margaret Atwood (1939- ), noted as the "the Queen of Canadian literature", enjoys a worldwide reputation for her gifted talents and prolificacy in literature creation. Her multiple works have been translated into more than forty languages and won her numerous awards including the Governor General's Award, the Giller Prize and the Booker Prize. In her works, Margaret has touched upon various themes which focus on the three major concerns- the female living condition, the environmental problems and the nationalism.

Alias Grace, Atwood's ninth novel, became a bestseller since its publication in 1996. The Handmaid's Tale and other novels have witnessed Atwood's talent for vivid imagining the present and even the future. In Alias Grace, again, Atwood uses her powerful imagination to revive a woman living in the Canadian past and brings to life a historical murder case of the 1840s. Grace Marks, a 16-year -old Irish immigrant, was accused of murdering her master, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper and mistress, Nancy Montgomery. The case incurred wide dispute for its sensationalistic nature, and Grace consequently became the subject of newspaper, historical documentation and literary works. Various descriptions of Grace leave people in delusions about her true nature and thus inspire Atwood's passion for rewriting the historical story. It should be said that the truth of the case is not the highlight of the novel. Instead, Atwood focuses more on the creation of a historical novel, just as she said, "in and of itself, [the past] it tells us nothing. We have to be listening first, before it will say a word, and even so, listening means telling, and then retelling. It's we ourselves who must do such telling, about the past [...]" (1998, p.1516). When listening to the past, the readers may come to their own conclusion.

In the novel, Atwood reconsiders the gender and class problems involved in the murder case. As the notorious murderess, Grace becomes the central topic of the public discourse. That public discourse is closely related to the Victorian ideology and especially the gender ideology, which prescribed women as "the angel of the house" and that women should follow the "cult of true womanhood". Therefore, a woman like Grace, who dared to transgress the lines and committed a murder, was certainly despised as "demon". "Divided as public opinion was, Grace is defined in terms of the patriarchal anima figure: saint or whore, innocent or guilty" (Adamo, p.148). Ironically, Grace is like a doll in the box being deprived of her own voice, as she herself recognized, "There are always those that will supply you with speeches of their own, and put them their voice, at fairs and shows, and you are just their wooden doll. And that's what it was like at the trial, I was there in the box of the dock but I might as well have been make of clot, and stuffed, with a china head; and I was shut up inside that doll of myself, and my true voice could not get out." (Alias Grace, p.295) However, Atwood doesn't put Grace totally in a position of nonmotility under the control of the 19th century ideological system. Atwood uses poetic license to restore the voice that history has extinguished (Seidman, p.5052). In the discourse space with the psychologist Simon Jordon, Grace could utter her own voice. Instead of exposing to Jordan the truth of the murder, Grace tells stories of lower-class women, such as her mother, Mary and Nancy, whose miserable experiences constitute a spicy criticism and irony against the hypocritical social and gender ideology. …

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