At the end of each of Grace’s first two months of work, her father comes to the Parkinson house and demands her wages. Each time, Mary defends Grace and sends her belligerent father away. Grace later tries to send Mrs. Burt some money for her younger siblings—“but,” she tells Dr. Jordan, “I do not think they received it.” Initially Grace works as a scullery maid, but she is soon transferred to working in the laundry with Mary, who helps her, teaches her, and makes her laugh. Mary insists that being a servant is “just a job of work,” not a fate to which people are born. Grace tells Dr. Jordan, “Mary was an outspoken young woman, and did not mince words; and she had very democratic ideas, which it took me some getting used to.”
Mary’s protection of Grace serves as another example of Mary’s refusal to be bullied by people who feel entitled. Her insistence that being a servant is just a job, rather than an identity, is difficult for Grace to wrestle with. Though Grace accounts for this by contrasting her European upbringing with Mary’s more liberal Canadian background, it seems that Grace actually does see class status as an identity marker, despite her deep respect for Mary. This shows that, while Grace has a tendency to satirize social norms and point out the hypocrisies inherent in them, she still fundamentally ascribes to the class system in which she was raised.
Grace describes for Dr. Jordan how she and Mary did the washing. She recalls how, for fun, she and Mary used to try on Mrs. Alderman Parkinson’s corsets “and walk around with [their] chests sticking out and looking down [their] noses.” She also remembers unpacking the winter quilts at the Parkinson household. She tells Dr. Jordan, “When we’d hung a half-dozen of them up on the line, all in a row, I thought that they looked like flags, hung out by an army as it goes to war.” Grace says that “these fancies about the quilts” only occurred to her once she was in prison. “It is a place where you have a lot of time to think,” she says, “and no one to tell your thoughts to; and so you tell them to yourself.”
The fact that Mary and Grace used to try on Mrs. Alderman Parkinson’s clothing speaks to the way that trying on different clothes amounts to trying on different identities in the novel. Even more importantly, this passage reflects the way that Grace has matured in her thinking during her time in prison, a fact that reminds the reader that she has been imprisoned since she was only a teenager. Grace’s nuanced beliefs about the power of quilts represents Atwood’s authorial voice cutting through the narration, offering a feminist perspective on the power of women to form their own “armies” despite their political, social, and economic disenfranchisement.
Dr. Jordan asks Grace to pause so he can catch up in his notetaking. Watching him write, she thinks “it must be pleasant to have the knack of writing so quickly, which can only be done by practice, like playing the piano.” Dr. Jordan tells Grace that he wants to hear anything she sees fit to tell him, saying, “The small details of life often hide a great significance.” Though Grace is unsure how to interpret this comment, she continues to narrate her story.
Grace’s comment about “the knack of writing” highlights the fact that the ability to write has an inscribed class value; a servant like Grace does not have the time to practice writing when she has to accomplish all of her other duties. Another important aspect of this passage is the differing value that Grace and Dr. Jordan seem to place on details. Dr. Jordan views details as clues to piecing together Grace’s lost memory and determining her guilt (or innocence). Grace, on the other hand, seems to view details less for their practical value and more for their integral part in storytelling: their ability to paint a true picture of someone’s life.
Grace and Mary take two of the winter quilts inside to mend them. One, Grace remembers, was done in an Attic Widows pattern, and she and Mary laughed over what the name could mean: “Mary said, And the boxes and chests in the attic would be stuffed to the brim with their dear deceased husbands’ cut-off hair; and I said, And perhaps the dear deceased husbands are in the chests too.” Grace follows this up by telling Dr. Jordan, “All I can say, Sir, is that we were young girls, and young girls are often silly in that way; and it is better to laugh than to burst.”
Grace’s understated claim that “it is better to laugh than burst” evokes a deep sense of frustration. Though she does not elaborate, it seems plausible that Grace and Mary felt suffocated by the narrowness of their lives and experiences as servants, and that their joking daydreams about dead husbands were an outlet for their sense of powerlessness at the hands of a sexist society. The fact that Grace tempers this social critique by saying that she and Mary were merely “silly” young girls only makes Grace’s statement more powerful, because it shows how society is inherently dismissive of women’s thoughts.
Grace gives a summary of the autumn at the Parkinson house. She remembers watching migrating geese with Mary in September, and Mary explaining to her what menstruation is when Grace got her first period in October. Mary told Grace that now that she was a woman, she must be careful about how she interacted with men. Grace notes, “now I saw that we were in the same story as the one Aunt Pauline used to tell about my mother.” Grace also remembers a game she and Mary played on Halloween, peeling apples to determine the first initial of the men they’d marry. Grace got a letter J, but Mary was unable to successfully carve her apples and did not get a letter.
The most important aspect of this passage is Grace’s realization that, even in Canada, she was living “in the same story as the one Aunt Pauline used to tell.” This reflects the ways that women in Grace’s society (on both sides of the Atlantic) constructed and shared narratives with one another as a means of self-protection. Ultimately Mary does not follow her own advice, and her inability to heed the moral of the “story” that other women have told her leads to her death. This moment thus underscores the way that women use storytelling as a survival tool, while also showing the tremendously unfair ways that society disadvantages women by making female sexuality a forbidden topic, and even a forbidden experience.