Sketching the Essence of Insanity and Crime in Netflix’s Alias Grace (Episode One)

NeveeenNeveen Badr is an Egyptian double B.A. holder in both Business Administration and English Language. She is currently seeking her pre-masters in English Literature from the Faculty of Arts, Cairo University. Due to being unable to choose a double major, her fascination with Victorian times and Gothic literature has led to her obtaining another degree and, furthermore, striving for a master’s degree. When she is not reading or writing her focus is on shooting Archery and looking after her large number of pets. If you wish to support her, please visit her blog, Glacier Mellow.


Sketches of Grace Marks and James McDermott from their trial in 1843. (Collection of the Toronto Public Library)

The sinister act of murder remains a frightening evil, yet, despite the dreadful situations of these crimes, many people have developed murder-enchantment. Thus the continued interest in Jack the Ripper, the nineteenth-century East End murderer, who had all the aspects of the serial killer fascination: enormous press coverage (fuelled by campaigners who sought to raise awareness of poverty in London’s East End); gruesome details; speculation; a focus on the murderer rather than the victims; a nickname for the killer (the nickname ‘Jack the Ripper’ came from a letter which was supposedly sent to a news agency by the killer); and the compelling figure of a mysterious, clever murderer who was apparently fooling the public and the police (Hankinson, A. 2017, November 30).

The same intrigue captured the imagination of Canadian actress and writer Sarah Polley, who asked Margaret Atwood for permission to write the adaptation of ‘Alias Grace’. The novel is a retelling of the most famous and controversial Canadian murder. The story preserves the trial of Grace Marks and James McDermott, who murdered their master Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery.

On July 28, 1843, Thomas Kinnear, a wealthy Ontario farmer, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, were murdered. Kinnear’s stable hand, James McDermott, and 16-year-old maid, Grace Marks, were tried and convicted for the act. McDermott was hanged, but Marks’s sentence was commuted to life because of her youth and sex, and she entered the Provincial Penitentiary in Kingston, Ont., on Nov. 19, 1843. (Blanco, J. I. (n.d.))


The Trials of Grace Marks and James McDermott

Grace Marks and James McDermott plotted to kill their master and housekeeper by strangulating Nancy with a scarf and shooting Kinnear. “Marks was tried alongside James McDermott. They were tried for the murder of Kinnear, and the trial for Montgomery’s murder was to follow but was seen as unnecessary, as they sentenced both to death. Marks was initially committed to an asylum but was later transferred to Kingston Penitentiary while McDermott was hanged. After almost thirty years of incarceration, they pardoned Marks, and she moved to Northern New York. After that, all trace of her was lost.” (Blanco, J. I. (n.d.))

One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted —
One need not be a House —
The Brain has Corridors — surpassing
Material Place —
Ourself behind ourself, concealed —
Should startle most —
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror’s least.

Part one opens with Emily Dickinson’s “One Need Not to Be A Chamber To Be Haunted” (above) which hints at the haunting mysteries beyond Grace’s mind and the truth of her story. The episode unfolds with Grace at the governor’s house working her daily cleaning duties, yet to pause for a moment to gaze upon her reflection. We are introduced to her self-awareness as a woman, associated with an alertness of her fame. She understands that people have given her many names; they have called her demon, victim, and a good girl with a pliable nature. Hitherto, she carries the burden of the murder, thus if someone praises her then she prefers to be called a murderess.

The first part introduces the numerous experiments she has encountered: doctors trials and applications of treatments and taking of measurements whether in the asylum or the governor’s house. It’s accepted that doctors could cut her open to see how a murderer functions, yet a merciful measure is taken by assigning Doctor Simon Jordan to assess and report on her situation.

Dr Jordan earns her trust by the simple, compelling promise that he will never abuse her or cut her open. Due to the conflict between her memory and earlier testimony, members of high society assign him the task of writing a report that will grant her pardon. The young and handsome doctor attempts to untangle the mystery of her lost memories. The controversy surrounding Grace’s trial is due in part to the apparently vanished pieces of her memory of the time of actual murder. Nevertheless, the audience has the luxury of observing Grace’s memories while they are revealed in part to the doctor, though she hides the rest for herself.

Doctor mesuring her head

A Doctor examining and measuring Grace’s head – Alias Grace, 2017: S01 E01 (Netflix, inc.)

As a psychologist, Dr Jordan employs the simple method of conversation; Grace indicates that she has hardly communicated in the past fifteen years. She does not know what he wants her to say. Besides, Grace is busy making a quilt, always sewing, though Dr Jordan wants to discuss the quilt she is making during their sessions. The enthusiasm represented by Grace while explaining quilts and the traditions of sewing them gives the impression of belonging. She underlines their importance: “It means the home, and at the centre, there’s always a red square which means the hearth fire.” Her words illustrate her distress at her own daily circumstances and her mistreatment by the guards at the asylum; they silence her and take liberties. Both these quilts and her owning the name ‘murderess’ suggest that she wishes to be acknowledged for her individual identity.

In the first assessment of virtue, the doctor offers an apple — “The apple of the tree of knowledge is what you meant, Dr Jordan. Good and evil. Any child could guess it.” — testing the fact of her sanity and ability to recognise difference. He takes the opportunity to point out of the extra name written under her confession’s portrait. The inscription refers to, “Grace Marks, alias, Mary Whitney.” Grace first says the alias is “just a name” she gave when McDermott was rushing away with her. But, upon further enquiry, she explains Mary Whitney was “a particular friend” of hers who had died by the time of the murders. “Without her, it would have been a different story entirely,” Grace admits.

Continuing with her narrative, Grace tells Dr Jordan about her early life, which takes the form of a flash-back to the moment she sailed on a ship from Ireland to Canada with her family. Her father was an English Protestant while her mother was an Irish woman. Dark omens surround the voyage indicating misfortune: “Three crows in a row mean death” remarks Grace’s mother, predicting she will die on the voyage. Due to the awful conditions on the ship, her mother catches an illness and dies. “Perhaps you’d like to open a window”, suggests an old lady referring to the freeing of her mother’s spirit. Grace cannot find a window to open, and her mother’s suffering ends as they bury her in the heart of the ocean.

The passengers aboard the ship were heading to the new world, yet this voyage brings Grace to sorrow. The filthy streets welcome her, and the burden of young siblings and an abusive father seem to be Grace’s fate. Living with her drunken father was once Grace’s mother’s dilemma, and her mother’s death only makes his temper worse. Grace endures verbal abuse followed by physical abuse that turns eventually to sexual abuse. Despite Grace’s silent thoughts of murdering her father (she almost suffocates him once) she does not go further with this intention. She goes instead to act as a maid within a fine Toronto house to send him her monthly wages. Working as a maid might not seem like a good prospect, but it is the part she refers to as “a happier part of my story”. This concludes the chain of incidents that introduce Mary Whitney.

Episode Two of this review will be up very soon.


Hankinson, A. (2017, November 30). This is why are we all so obsessed with serial killers. Retrieved from ychology/57832

Blanco, J. I. (n.d.). Grace Marks | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers. Retrieved from

Alias Grace (2017) s01e01 Episode Script | SS. (n.d.). Retrieved from


[Sketches of Grace Marks and James McDermott from their trial in 1843]. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2018, from

[The trial of Grace Marks and James McDermott]. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2018, from

Alisa Grace, episode 1 [The doctor measuring Grace’s head]. (n.d.). Retrieved November 24, 2018, from


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