Alias Grace | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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Alias Grace | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


A Celebrated Murderess

In 1851 young Grace Marks has been in the Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario, Canada, since she was sentenced to life in prison at age 16. Her crime was the 1843 killing of her employer, Mr. Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. In the prison yard, Grace sees red cloth peonies and thinks of her first day at Mr. Kinnear's, when Nancy was cutting flowers as she arrived. Grace imagines how things would be different if she had helped Nancy when the housekeeper was attacked. She has a vision of herself trapped in the cellar. This is one of the things she will discuss with Dr. Simon Jordan, a doctor of mental health, later in the novel.

By 1859 Grace is considered a model prisoner, and, as a "celebrated" murderess, she arouses much public interest. For these reasons, she is allowed to spend her days at the Governor's house working as a servant. The Governor's wife and Reverend Verringer are part of a group hoping to prove Grace's innocence. Because Dr. Jordan is interested in Grace and her case, they arrange for Dr. Jordan to interview her at the Governor's house in the hopes he will write a positive report and secure Grace's pardon.

Grace Tells Her Own Story

Dr. Jordan brings an apple to his first interview with Grace. She is wary of him at first but after a few meetings starts opening up to him and telling him her story. She begins by recounting her family history, a tragic one. She was born in Ireland and lived there with her parents and siblings until her father's drinking interfered with his ability to provide for his family. Grace's uncle, tired of having to spend money to help support them, paid the Marks family's sea passages to Canada in order to get them off his hands. During the voyage, Grace's mother died and was buried at sea. Grace was distraught because on board the ship she could not open a window to let out her mother's soul. Once in Canada, Grace's father forced her to get a job, and she found employment at Mrs. Alderman Parkinson's house as a servant.

Grace recounts how her employment marked the happiest part of her life. Mary Whitney, a fellow servant, befriended Grace and showed her the ropes. Mary defended Grace against her father and shared many stories and fun times with her. Later, Mary became distant, and Grace realized Mary was pregnant. Having been rejected by the man who got her pregnant, Mary knew she would be fired and unable to get another job if anyone found out. She got a botched abortion and the same night died in their bed. Grace failed to open the window to let out Mary's spirit and heard a voice that said, "Let me in." Grace believed this voice was Mary speaking to her. Then Grace blacked out for a time. The other maids told her she was asking where Grace was. This was her first incident of amnesia.

The Job that Changed Everything

After Mary's death, Grace worked at several other places before landing at Mr. Thomas Kinnear's. Grace hoped to have a close relationship with Mr. Kinnear's housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, but Nancy was two-faced. She was nice enough to Grace when they are alone, but when Mr. Kinnear was around, Nancy was stern and easily angered. Then James McDermott, Mr. Kinnear's hired man, revealed to Grace that Nancy was Mr. Kinnear's mistress. Grace lost respect for Nancy and began to talk back. Jeremiah the peddler, a friend Grace met while at Mrs. Alderman Parkinson's house, visited Grace and warned her that she was surrounded by dangers. He offered to take her away with him, but she refused.

Grace's and McDermott's disrespect toward Nancy caused Nancy to fire them. Grace cried, and McDermott declared he would kill Nancy for firing them both. Grace did not believe him at first, but she tried to warn Nancy anyway. Nancy thought McDermott was all talk; however, the next day McDermott attacked Nancy with an axe and then strangled her in the cellar. When Mr. Kinnear returned, McDermott lured him into a trap and shot him with a rifle. Grace tried to run, and McDermott shot at her, too. When she awoke, she was in her bed, having blacked out again. McDermott wanted to have sex with her, but she put him off. They gathered up the valuables in the house and took the horse and cart to Toronto to catch the ferry to Lewiston, New York. Once in New York, they took separate rooms at an inn. Grace adopted the alias of Mary Whitney. The next morning, the two were escorted back to Toronto and jailed.

A Possible Explanation for the Murders

Grace explains that at their trial witnesses including Jamie Walsh testified against her. Grace was disheartened because Jamie had once been sweet on her. James McDermott was hanged, but Grace was given life in prison because she was so young. Grace spent time in prison and at the asylum in the years before Dr. Simon Jordan visited her.

Dr. Jordan is fascinated by her story, but he has come no closer to unlocking Grace's memories from her blackout periods. He consents to have Dr. Jerome DuPont (an alias of Grace's friend Jeremiah) hypnotize Grace. During the hypnotism, Grace speaks in an odd voice that reveals itself to be that of her dead friend, Mary Whitney. Mary confesses to the murders and says Grace knows nothing about them. Dr. Jordan cannot be sure of what he heard, but to include it in a report would ruin his reputation. Already embroiled in an unwise affair with his landlady, Mrs. Rachel Humphrey, Dr. Jordan gives up, leaves town, and returns home.

In the intervening years Reverend Verringer continues to try to secure Grace's release. As a witness to the hypnotism, he is convinced that Grace suffers from double consciousness (multiple personality disorder) and her dominant personality is unaware of her secondary personality's heinous acts. Dr. Jordan is injured and loses his memories of meeting Grace. Finally, after nearly 30 years of imprisonment, Grace is released. She is brought to New York, where Jamie Walsh proposes to her, and she accepts. A year later Grace patches together a Tree of Paradise quilt, adding her prison nightdress, a dress of Nancy's, and a petticoat of Mary's. Now they can all be together at last.

Alias Grace Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Verringer appeals to Dr. Jordan to secure Grace's pardon.

Rising Action

2 Dr. Jordan comes to interview Grace and cure her amnesia.

3 Jeremiah, acting as Dr. DuPont, suggests hypnotism.

4 Frustrated by failure, Dr. Jordan lets Grace be hypnotized.


5 Under hypnosis, Grace speaks as Mary, confessing to murder.

Falling Action

6 Dr. Jordan realizes he cannot publicly support pardon.


7 Dr. Jordan suffers a brain injury, and Grace is pardoned.

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