Representations of Race in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace

Sarah McFee is a MA English graduate from Teesside University. Her research focuses primarily on speculative fiction including portrayals of disability in the Victorian Gothic, and representations and constructions of gender and race in Neo-Victorian fiction. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

The aim of Neo-Victorian writers is simultaneously to write a tribute and a critique of the Victorian era, engaging “with the act of (re) interpretation, (re) discovery and (re) vision”[1], not just concerning themselves primarily with recycling literature but doing something innovative that includes a twentieth-century perspective. The genre first gained traction in the 1960s as a result of modern interrogations of identity and inequality such as feminist movements and gay rights advocacy. Authors were particularly interested in the lives of people in the nineteenth century who were not represented accurately or sympathetically in fiction, including women, racial minorities, the lower classes and the disabled.

In Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (1996), Atwood utilises real historical events to create a fictional account of the life of the famous nineteenth-century murderess Grace Marks. Grace tells her story to Doctor Jordan whose aim is to assess Grace’s mental fitness and who makes notes on her psychological composure throughout the novel. Grace Marks is an Irish lower-class immigrant living in Canada and, as Anthony S. Wohl states, “the Irish were held to be inferior, [of] a lower evolutionary order, degeneracy, or criminality.”[2] In reality, Grace may have been perceived as guilty by the public based solely on her racial background, class and sex. Europeans originally began to colonise Canada in the late fifteenth century, and Britain had taken over its French colonies by 1763 after the Seven Years’ War. Canada became part of the British Commonwealth in 1867 and then an independent country by 1931. Canadians viewed their racial background as closely related to the British and therefore superior to those from other countries such as Ireland or nearby America. Newspaper reports regarding Grace Marks may well have noted her racial background in order to support claims of the Irish people being a degenerate race. In the novel, Grace’s red hair is viewed as a sign of her Irish ‘degeneracy’ and is described by the newspapers as “the red hair of an ogre. A wild beast… a monster”.[3]

As a Neo-Victorian novel, Alias Grace should aim for more accurate representation of marginalised people. Grace’s meetings with Doctor Jordan provide readers with a definitive parallel between an Irish working-class woman and an American middle-class man. When given access to Grace’s consciousness, Grace appears in control of the discussion and selects certain parts of her narrative to disclose stating “I need to keep something for myself”.[4] Atwood gives control to the woman within this patient/doctor relationship, and is ultimately gives power to a woman over a man. However, as the novel progresses, Grace appears manipulated by Jordan and wants to impress him with her story: “I found I could talk to him more easily and think up things to say”.[5] Even though these scenes expose the power of men within the medical profession, they can also be interpreted as defining the weakness of women in the presence of men. Grace’s story is told, but it is still ultimately written and represented by a man who has the freedom to edit it as he sees fit. This is a reflection of historiography in general; many historical events have been recorded by an (often male) spectator, someone who has no direct experience of the event, which may make their ‘facts’ prone to error or deliberate false representation, including when recording the views of women. Grace’s withholding of information, however, can also make her appear manipulative and secretive, reinforcing gender and racial stereotypes of the era.

Historically, Grace was perceived as a ruthless killer during her murder trial, and was incarcerated for many years. Atwood’s readers learn nothing new from the novel in this respect; by the end, Grace’s innocence is still questionable. Grace hints in the final chapter that she has manipulated the other characters into believing her innocence and that she has conspired with Jeremiah the peddler to claim madness and possession: “I know my secrets are safe with Jeremiah, as his are safe with me”.[6] Atwood may have provided a female member of a working-class Irish diaspora with power and success in a completely unique way, but this suggestion of deviousness also reinforces sexual and racial stereotypes of sneakiness and criminality.

This stereotyping can also be seen at play in the character of Mary Whitney, a servant Grace works alongside, the only person linked to Native American people in Atwood’s novel: “She claimed that her grandmother had been a Red Indian, which was why her hair was so black”.[7] Native peoples are nowhere else mentioned in the novel and there are no Native American or First Nations characters, meaning their narrative is almost completely absent. The only reference is in this discussion between Grace and Mary as they comment on how free they believe the Native Americans are. They admire that none of them have to “pin up their hair or wear stays…”[8] which is the servants’ idea of freedom, but this also connotes a lack of order and respectability within Native American culture. Mary herself is represented as sly and disloyal, enforcing stereotypes of other races and their predisposition towards criminal behaviour. Mary is also described by Grace as having a crude nature, saying controversial comments such as “the real curse of Eve was having to put up with the nonsense of Adam”.[9] Her disregard for Christian religion and ‘proper’ ways of behaving emphasise Atwood’s characterisation of Mary as an unstable, rebellious and possibly dangerous individual.

Another stereotyped character is Jeremiah (or Doctor Jerome), who is also depicted as untrustworthy and unreliable. During his possibly fraudulent hypnosis of Grace, he deceives the middle classes, his own sex and the medical community. Grace describes him as a “deft and nimble man, with a long nose and legs and skin all browned by the sun, and a curling, black beard. Mary said that although he looked like a Jew or a gypsy, he was a Yankee with an Italian father”.[10] Jeremiah’s racial identity and immigrant status is a mystery: “The ease with which Jeremiah crosses the borders of class, race and profession disrupts the authority of each.”[11] This is an interesting statement, but his freedom also exposes how much easier it was for men to transcend class and profession in comparison with female characters such as Mary. His fluidity represents Victorian fears of immigrants’ mobility in the class system and, because of this, Jeremiah has to keep his identity a secret. However, his betrayal of the other characters gives some fulfilment to this Victorian fear, and Atwood ultimately creates a character who does not deserve the freedom that he has.

jeremiah

Jeremiah as depicted in the Netflix Original Alias Grace. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_WSJSu3Pcs

Throughout the novel, Atwood utilises supernatural and postmodern techniques to expose the unreliability of historical accounts[12] which are not always factual and can be rewritten. Through the events and characters in Alias Grace, Atwood proves that not everything is as it appears, and that true events are often shrouded in mystery. Our perspective of the Victorians comes from the texts we have access to; we cannot possibly know the complete truth. As Matthew Sweet states, “the Victorians invented us, and we in turn invented the Victorians”.[13]

Yet, though Atwood succeeds in exposing the unreliability of history and Victorian literature, she does not appear to fairly represent marginalised voices; instead they are exposed as criminal, weak or sly characters. Grace is an example of a historical character made up of “fabrications or composites”,[14] and so Atwood does not provide readers with a definitively innocent character. Instead of challenging stereotypes, the author has succeeded in merely “sticking to the paths already cut by those who have already passed the same way”.[15]

Notes

[1] Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewellyn, Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century 1999-2009 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) 4.

[2] Anthony S Wohl, “Racism and Anti-Irish Prejudice in Victorian England,” The Victorian Web, www.victorianweb.org/history/race/Racism.html (5th October 2015)

[3] Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (Great Britain: Virago Press, 1997) 36.

[4] Atwood 114.

[5] Atwood 79.

[6] Atwood 530.

[7] Atwood 173.

[8] Atwood 173.

[9] Atwood 190.

[10] Atwood 177.

[11] Fiona Tolan, Margaret Atwood: Feminism and Fiction (Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2007) 234.

[12] Esther Saxey, ‘The Maid, the Master, her Ghost and his Monster: Alias Grace and Mary Reilly,’ Haunting and Spectrality in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Possessing the Past, ed. Patricia Pulham and Rosario Arias (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) 63.

[13] Matthew Sweet, Inventing the Victorians (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2001) xi.

[14] Marlene Goldman, Dispossession. Haunting in Canadian Fiction (McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal & Kingston, 2012) 154.

[15] Sweet 230.

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