Alias Grace | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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Alias Grace | Themes


Guilt and Innocence

Central to Margaret Atwood's exploration of Grace Marks's guilt or innocence is the question of consciousness and memory, as much of the mystery surrounding Grace relates to her amnesia. Reverend Verringer hires Dr. Simon Jordan because he believes that if the current version of Grace is not conscious of having committed a crime, then this version of Grace is not guilty of it. If Dr. Jordan or another expert could provide "a diagnosis of latent insanity at the time of the murders" it would be helpful to Verringer's campaign to free Grace. With this, Atwood seems to suggest the possibility that a person's guilt or innocence is not a clear-cut objective truth but rather an emotional truth that varies based on context. This is exemplified in Verringer and Dr. Jordan's discussion of the complexities of the mind versus the constancy of the soul. Verringer cannot accept the idea that a person could be made up of a "patchwork" of memories because he believes this to be mutually exclusive from having an eternal soul answerable to a just God.

In Section 9, after hearing Grace's version of the day of the murders, Dr. Jordan lists out all the possibilities. Grace may be a "true amnesiac" or she may be pretending in order to hide her guilt. She may also be deviously insane, or a religious fanatic. He realizes his methods may never reveal the truth, and so he agrees to the hypnotism, which creates even more possibilities that the men discuss in Section 13. Mary Whitney's spirit may have possessed Grace, either literally or figuratively. If it is a literal possession, then perhaps Mary only appears in times of crisis to help Grace, and it was Mary who committed the murders. Reverend Verringer admits an exorcism might have been called for in the 17th century. Dr. Jordan suggests a neurological condition, and Jeremiah, posing as Dr. Jerome DuPont, proposes she has a form of double consciousness (multiple personality disorder). Such a disorder would exonerate Grace because it would mean her dominant personality did not know what the "Mary" personality was up to. However, Dr. Jordan cannot rule out the possibility that Grace is "play-acting" in order to use the insanity defense. Again, by giving Grace the opportunity to frame her own story, Atwood highlights Grace's emotional truth rather than going for a strict black and white examination of guilt and innocence. Grace claims guilt is not a product of one's actions but results "from the things that others have done to you." It is not clear, however, if this is meant as a justification for the murders and thereby an implication of guilt or simply a further support for emotional truths trumping objective ones.

Atwood brings yet another layer into the discussion with Mrs. Humphrey's attempt to lure Dr. Jordan into murdering her abusive husband. This mirrors the versions of the Kinnear/Montgomery murder that cast Grace as a seductress who promises sex in exchange for James McDermott's taking the lead in the actual killing. Dr. Jordan muses that he would have to kill both Major Humphrey and the servant Dora, but he has no intention of doing so. Does Dr. Jordan's refusal to assist Mrs. Humphrey in her plot make Mrs. Humphrey any less guilty of intending to kill? Earlier in the novel, Grace says to Dr. Jordan, "if we were on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged." This could be seen as Grace viewing herself as innocent because she had not really intended to kill Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear. Whether or not she performed the act or not is immaterial because she had not really wanted to, even if she might have thought about Nancy being dead and out of her way. Dr. Jordan seems to accept this and continues to hold a high opinion of Grace, even going so far as to declare her the only woman he has ever wanted to marry. In contrast, he judges Mrs. Humphrey to be a "moral degenerate," and by doing so, he assigns guilt to her intentions rather than her actions. By making no firm declaration of Grace's ultimate guilt or innocence, Atwood leaves it up to the reader to decide whether or not her emotional truth is enough to redeem her.

Unfair Standards for Women

Margaret Atwood amply illustrates the warped Victorian view of women as either saintly virgins or unredeemable whores. Psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) identified this dichotomy as the Madonna-Whore Complex, wherein respectability and sexual desire in women are seen as mutually exclusive. This kind of thinking sets unfair standards for women and leads directly to the death of Mary Whitney and indirectly to the death of Nancy Montgomery. Atwood takes this duality and uses Grace Marks to show both can exist within the same person, but because of society's restraints, one must be sublimated, or redirected to a more acceptable form.

Atwood's depiction of Grace, or at least the version of Grace that Grace allows Dr. Simon Jordan and the reader to see, is the embodiment of the Madonna. Grace presents herself as chaste and innocent. But, as Grace's hypnotism reveals, the whore is lurking within. Grace takes the alias of Mary Whitney because Mary essentially died as the embodiment of the whore. Grace becomes possessed by Mary's rebellious spirit, either literally or figuratively depending on the interpretation, in order to speak freely in a manner that respectable women were not allowed. But this manner of speaking is not limited to her hypnotism; whenever Grace speaks on a coarse topic to Dr. Jordan, she tends to attribute her words to Mary.

Respectable women in the Victorian age were "delicate" and "refined" and, according to the Toronto Mirror article published in 1843, would never attend the "horrid spectacle" of James McDermott's public hanging. Above all, respectable women have to be careful of appearing sexually improper. For example, Grace always locks her door, praying that will keep her employers out. She knows that "once you are found with a man in your room, you are the guilty one, no matter how they get in." In contrast, Nancy has a low social standing at church and is shunned for being Kinnear's mistress. Dr. Jordan's mother writes to Mrs. Humphrey that gossip about a woman may not always be true, "but as regards a woman's reputation, it amounts to the same thing." Essentially, she is affirming that due to the unfair standards for women, a woman must zealously guard her reputation or be labeled a whore.

The Power of Storytelling

Margaret Atwood explores how the person who tells the story controls it. In the Victorian Age, women's stories were mostly secondary and considered unimportant. Grace Marks has lived the experience of having others define her, to speak for her and about her, creating conflicting images of her that may have no basis in reality. Grace seizes the opportunity to tell Dr. Simon Jordan her version of her story, taking back her power over her identity from those who stole it from her. Like squares on a quilt, Grace pieces together her story into a whole. Dr. Jordan and the reader must puzzle out its meaning, but the impression Grace designs her "quilt story" to give is that she is chaste and innocent, at least on the outside. This may or not be the objective truth, but it is Grace's emotional truth.

Atwood believes all narrators to be unreliable by nature, both in fiction and in real life. "Who tells the absolute truth all the time?" she has said. "Truth" may be only what one believes to be right about oneself. As Grace says when she has a receptive listener in Dr. Jordan, "But now I feel everything I say is right." All that matters is that she be convincing enough to Dr. Jordan, and this is something she feels she is capable of. Upon hearing Grace's version of the murders, Dr. Jordan "wants to be convinced" and "he wants her to be vindicated." However, readers don't know if Dr. Jordan ultimately believes her story. As Grace's lawyer, Mr. MacKenzie, tells Dr. Jordan, "Stories ... ought never to be subjected to the harsh categories of Truth and Falsehood." Dr. Jordan has to understand that he will never get the objective truth from Grace. He is hoping for her innocence, and she knows this and has told him "only what she's chosen to tell." She is crafting her story to put herself in the best light for him because he may be able to appeal for her pardon.

At the same time, Grace has to come to terms with her own shifting identity, therefore, an additional aim of her storytelling is to convince herself of her own decency. In Section 12 Grace tries to decide what she would put in a keepsake album if she were to have one. Should her album contain "only the good things in [her] life" or "all the things"? At this point she is still wondering if she can "be truthful to [her] own life." Ultimately, Grace accepts herself for who she is, faults and all. This is symbolized by the way in which she crafts her Tree of Paradise quilt. She includes a snake border because she finally understands that "without a snake or two, the main part of the story would be missing." By including a yellowish swatch from her prison nightdress, a triangle of Mary's white petticoat, and Nancy Montgomery's pink and white floral that Grace wore on the run, Grace can end her story by owning up to her life.

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