Alias Grace | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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Alias Grace | Symbols



As Grace Marks tells her story to Dr. Simon Jordan, she often works on a quilt or a bit of sewing. This mirrors the way both Margaret Atwood and Grace patch together their stories. Atwood uses a mix of primary historical documents, newspaper articles, poems, letters, and prose to tell Grace's story. Atwood structures the novel under a series of section titles named after quilt patterns that correspond thematically to the content within them. Thus, "Hearts and Gizzards" contains the story of the murders, and "Puss in the Corner" warns Dr. Jordan and the reader that Grace is like a cunning cat and not to be completely trusted.

On that note, Grace has a knack for understanding what Dr. Jordan wants to hear but only telling him what suits her. Grace says in Section 11 that she has been going "through the rag bag looking for something that will do" for her story. This could be seen as an admission of sorts that she is "patching" it together to design the "quilt" that proclaims her innocence. The first quilt piece she sews in his presence is for the Log Cabin design, and this is symbolic of home, significant because she begins telling Dr. Jordan of her home in Ireland while she is working on it. She also tells him that the Log Cabin pattern is something every woman should sew before she marries. What Grace gets instead is Falling Timbers, though only metaphorically and not literally. Instead of marriage and her own home, she gets prison. However, by the end, Grace has a secondhand set of clothes and a secondhand Log Cabin quilt. It may not be the home she wished for, but she can live out her life as an anonymous woman. Her final act in the novel is to sew a Tree of Paradise quilt that symbolically binds her together with Mary Whitney and Nancy Montgomery. Perhaps she has finally accepted her life—and herself—as it is, good and bad, and not how she once wished it would be.

Red and White

Margaret Atwood opens the novel with an image of red peonies "swelling and opening." They shine for a time, and "then they burst and fall to the ground." These are a foreshadowing of the blood splatter to come and represent the fragility of life. Red peonies are an interesting choice as they typically symbolize good fortune, and Grace has instead a run of bad luck. However, she does have the good fortune of eventually being released from prison, so perhaps the red peonies in the prison yard at the beginning of the novel are meant to foreshadow Grace's eventual "happy ending." Indeed, Grace is often haunted by the vision of red peonies, such as when she is in the asylum and lying in her prison bed at night. They seem to be a visual representation of her possible guilt.

Red is used throughout the novel to symbolize blood and passion and all the emotions a respectable woman must keep buried, while white symbolizes purity and propriety. Dr. Simon Jordan is aware that his mother wants him to marry an "acceptable" girl who will undergo the "act of procreation ... prudently veiled in white cotton." Grace describes the bums of ladies as "delicate and white, like wobbly soft-boiled eggs." However, white also stands for redemption. Grace is obsessed with the act of laundering stains out so that fabrics can be pure and white. In the broadsheet poem, the narrator speculates that when Grace dies, the "Redeemer" will wash her "bloodied hands" and "she'll be white as snow."


Margaret Atwood uses clothing to represent identity and how it can fluctuate. Grace Marks is rather preoccupied with clothing and the impressions that it makes. For example, Grace says, "People dressed in a certain kind of clothing are never wrong." She also mentions in Section 6 that Mrs. Honey told her she looked "trim and respectable" once she had bought a dress with her wages. This is in sharp contrast to the girl whose mother would not even take her "tattery" child to church, and as Grace says, "It is very hard ... to be decent, without proper clothes." This is also a comment on class, as it is much easier for a rich person to be respectably dressed and therefore be considered respectable, than a poor person. Grace takes Nancy Montgomery's fine dresses because they are nicer than hers, and she wears Nancy's dress to her trial in an attempt at respectability that backfires.

Of course, at this point, Grace does not have any clothing of her own because she burned it. She did not want to wear them again "as they would remind [her] of things [she] wished to forget." Basically, she is casting off any identity related to the murders. Later, she will do the same when she and Janet throw out her moth-eaten, "musty-smelling" clothing that rotted during the 29 years she was in prison. In doing so, she rids herself of her celebrated murderess identity, taking the cast-offs of fine ladies that Janet gathered in order to become an anonymous woman.

Clothing is also symbolic of how women were restricted in many ways. Grace describes the wire crinolines, which are stiff petticoats that are like prisons for women's legs. Bonnets restricted women's sight. When Dr. Simon Jordan asks Grace if she observed Mr. Thomas Kinnear, she claims she could not because of her bonnet. Dr. Jordan says of her bonnet, "I expect it is confining," and she affirms, "It is that, Sir."

Questions for Symbols

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