Alias Grace and the Present Past

November 6, 2017 § 3 Comments

On Friday, November 3, Netflix premiered Alias Grace, a six-part miniseries adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel of the same title. The pairing of the acclaimed novelist and a major streaming service was bound to generate much interest, not least owing to Netflix’s rival Hulu’s hugely successful small-screen iteration of Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year.

Some parallels between the two Atwood adaptations are clear, inevitable, and, one might say, even encouraged. Both Alias Grace and The Handmaid’s Tale concern the plights and oppression of women under patriarchal structures, ideas that strike a particularly sensitive nerve in the wake of recent revelations of an entrenched culture of sexual abuse. Yet The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, despite this shared premise, diverge in crucial ways: most importantly, whereas The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a dystopian future ruled by an authoritarian government that strips women of their rights and forces them into sexual slavery, Alias Grace derives its stories of wronged women from actual historical record. One is speculative, the other historical, and this distinction in genre is rendered visually – for instance, the crimson red of the Handmaids’ gowns stands out amid the muted tones of gray in The Handmaid’s Tale to lend an almost unreal, parable-like quality, and the more subtle and varied color palette of Alias Grace brings to viewers’ minds the style of familiar historical drama pieces that carry the impression of being grounded in specific times and places.

Alias Grace seems to adhere to the facts, or the specific and even irrefutable details of “who,” “what,” “when,” “where” and “how” that pertain to the true crime case of the real-life figure of Grace Marks. Marks, an Irish immigrant to Canada, was convicted alongside a fellow servant, stable-hand James McDermott, of murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his pregnant housekeeper and mistress Nancy Montgomery, in 1843. McDermott was hanged and Marks sentenced to life imprisonment, later released. These bare facts, however, fall woefully short, as the show illustrates, when tasked to explain the “why” of the case, and account for the 1840s Canadian public’s horror-mingled fascination with this servant girl-turned-“celebrated murderess,” a more specific example of which can be found in the increasing obsession of Grace’s interlocutor, Atwood’s invention Dr. Simon Jordan, whose once-comfortable conviction in the truth-discovering powers of “scientific” methods slowly crumbles. In the end, even the ascertained “facts” mentioned above begin to unravel as viewers start questioning the validity of any single view or narrative. The breakdown in communication and the elusiveness of knowability are underscored by the multiple, never-quite-aligning story-driving threads: the conversations between Grace and Dr. Jordan, Grace’s perspective of the past as shown in flashbacks, and the fleeting emotions that ghost across Grace’s face, the expressions of which range from shy, naïve and innocent to cold, hard, and resentful, and which is at other times sly and coy, never to be pinned down with either surety or exactness.

In a curious and quite ingenious twist, I would say, as Alias Grace progresses, the “why” element emerges as the most constant and perhaps even knowable, if that can be said to be the right word. This is not to say that the show succeeds in spelling out in explicit terms the reasons for the double deaths of Kinnear and Montgomery. Instead, it shifts focus from the “celebrated murderess” to the society that christens her with this name, diffusing viewers’ attention from the gory and sensationalist details of the murder to the yet more grim realities of a world that would drive a young, poor, and helpless woman such as Grace Marks to her breaking point after a lifetime of tragedy, exclusion, and exploitation (the show is at pains to remind us at every turn that Grace has faced unrelenting oppression by virtue of her gender, race, class, nationality, religion, and even family circumstances). It is perhaps fitting that so many scenes take place in domestic spaces that unite the show’s concerns with class and gender, and more so that Grace and Dr. Jordan hold their regular interviews in the sewing room, with Grace engaged in quilting, or an extension of the housework or domestic drudgery to which she is constantly subjected. (It is, however, also worth mentioning here that Grace’s quilt-making carries subversive undertones, as a seemingly mundane household chore that can be imbued with creative vision and the joining together of various parts.) The sewing room, in turn, is part of the home of the Governor of the Kingston Penitentiary in which Grace is employed following her pardon from imprisonment in the facility for her “exemplary” conduct. Throughout the show, Grace trudges from one domestic space to another, and such spaces, as viewers observe, are further stratified according to class and gender, among others.

Set in Canada in the 1840s, Alias Grace offers a glimpse into the pervasiveness of Victorian values as they pertain to women and minority groups in remote settings such as Canada and their specific effects on a character such as Grace Marks. If Alias Grace is descriptive in its depiction of Canada of the 1840s and the wider, far-reaching influences of Victorian values outside England, especially as they pertain to women and minority groups, it is also prescriptive in the sense that it serves as a harrowing reminder of the persistent or lingering presence of the past in the present and the possible directions in which such presences could lead us in the not-so-distant future. In other words, works such as Alias Grace reinvent our memories of the past to weaken or collapse notions of their safe and secure distance from the present or even a dystopian future.  To return to matters of genre, the historical and the speculative might perhaps not be so distinct after all.


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§ 3 Responses to Alias Grace and the Present Past

  • Marianne Zumberge says:

    Thank you for sharing your astute observations on an engrossing miniseries, Lucy! I found “Alias Grace” so compelling that I consumed it all in one evening — I think this was chiefly driven by the fact of its measured ambiguity.

    As you point out, Atwood’s story feels disturbingly relevant in 2017. Midway through the narrative, we see Grace process her position under the patriarchy via a dream sequence that some have written off as “goofy” or “heavy-handed.” In it, Grace is physically passed among the prominent male figures of her life, all of whom seductively caress her in a moonlit garden. The tone of this dream, however, is decidedly unromantic; it’s a nightmare.

    I haven’t been able to shake this scene since first viewing it, particularly in light of the landslide of sexual harassment accusations currently populating the news media. Grace’s nightmare must feel familiar to countless women.

    One of my favorite alt-ac writers, BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen, articulates the uncomfortable resonance of “Alias Grace” best:

    “It’s not just that Grace — as an immigrant, and a servant, and a woman — lacks power. It’s that those who do have power in her world exploit the imbalance in horrific ways, to the extent that she’s driven to her own act of horror in order to end it. That act isn’t portrayed as vicarious wish fulfillment, or cathartic in any way. Instead, it’s a testament to what women are taught to tolerate — both in Grace’s time and today — until they break under the burden.” (more at

    I’ll be interested to see how the uniquely violent convergence of gender, otherness, and domesticity intersect in our discussion of Octavia Butler’s “Kindred,” as well. Yay feminism!

    Liked by 1 person

  • MRC says:

    Thank you for your post, Lucy! I had not heard of Netflix’s production of Alias Grace but given your description of it along with my affinity for the Handmaid’s Tale (television show and book), I am certainly going to watch it in the near future. I am particularly interested in Atwood’s ability to create speculative fiction that is based on but slightly diverges from our actual history. Although The Handmaid’s does not seem to be as closely based on actual events as what Alias Grace is, I am fascinated by Atwood’s foreword of her creation and development of The Haidmaid’s Tale and how by her grounding it in the historical makes for a more plausible and realistic tale. Some examples of this verisimilitude include: Atwood’s framing of The Republic of Gilead “on a foundation of the 17th-century Puritan roots that have always lain beneath the modern-day America we thought we knew, [….] The biblical precedent is the story of Jacob and his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and their two handmaids. One man, four women, 12 sons — but the handmaids could not claim the sons. They belonged to the respective wives,” and the wall where the bodies of non-conformist are displayed is none other than a wall at Harvard University where executed bodies were actually displayed.
    I certainly agree with you, Lucy, Atwood’s speculative fiction grounded in a not so distant past is certainly not far from the (real) world in which we currently reside.

    There are more parallels that can be found in a recent article Atwood published by the New York Times, titled “Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Means in the Age of Trump.”


    Liked by 1 person

  • mkabugi says:

    Hi Lucy,

    Thanks for this really interesting post. Reading about Alias Grace reminds me of the current debate within Af-Am lit and film concerning the relationship between speculative/historical fiction and the contemporary racism we see today. Roxane Gay, an English professor at Purdue and a frequent New York Times editorial writer, published an interesting piece in the Times this summer called “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction,” in which she critiques a controversial upcoming HBO drama called “Confederate.” The show imagines an alternate history in which the Civil War ends in a stalemate, and the South successfully secedes from the Union. As a result, black people who are not able to make it across the “Mason-Dixon Demilitarized Zone” remain enslaved. Roxane Gay argues that she is “tired” of seeing TV shows that fetishize black pain and oppression when America is still reeling from the effects of slavery in the present day. She writes:

    “My exhaustion with the idea of “Confederate” is multiplied by the realization that this show is the brainchild of two white men who oversee a show that has few people of color to speak of and where sexual violence is often gratuitous and treated as no big deal. I shudder to imagine the enslaved black body in their creative hands. And when I think about the number of people who gave this project the green light, the number of people who thought this was a great idea, my weariness grows exponentially.” Many people online have criticized Roxane Gay’s analysis, saying things like “You have the option not to watch it if you don’t want to” or “The creators aren’t condoning slavery. It’s called fiction.”

    On the other hand, there are works of speculative fiction by black writers that have been critically acclaimed for their imaginative and powerful reflections on history, ranging from Stephen L. Carter’s “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln” (in which Lincoln survives his assassination attempt and has to stand trial for exceeding his presidential authority by freeing the slaves), to Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” (which reimagines the legendary escape route as a literal underground network of trains, rail stations and transfers). I believe that speculative fiction can be a powerful way for black writers to reflect and reckon with the past, but the same literary form can become problematic when it lacks that redemptive and reflective mission, or even the awareness of a need for such a mission.

    Liked by 1 person

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