One of the epigraphs that begins this section of the book is the first stanza of a poem by Emily Dickinson, reading: “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind— / As if my Brain had split— / I tried to match it—Seam by Seam— / But could not make it fit.”
This quotation foreshadows the reveal that Grace has, essentially, a split personality—a result of Mary Whitney’s ghost intermittently possessing Grace’s body.
Simon waits in Mrs. Quennell’s library, along with the Governor’s wife, the Reverend Verringer, and Miss Lydia. It is the day of Grace’s hypnosis, and Simon is secretly as “eager as a schoolboy at a carnival,” hoping to be “astonished.” Dr. DuPont enters the room, leading Grace. Simon notes that Grace’s eyes are “fixed upon DuPont with the timorousness, tremulousness, the pale and silent appeal, which Simon—he now realizes—has been hoping for in vain.”
Again we see how other characters tend to treat Grace as a spectacle. The fact that she is so attuned to this tendency in others makes it all the more curious that Grace has not been critical of Simon in this regard. Another noteworthy aspect of this passage is the fact that Simon expresses a wish that Grace were vulnerable, dependent, and, perhaps most importantly, silent. This not only affirms the fact that Simon takes a narcissistic, if not sadistic pleasure in being superior to women, but it also casts doubt on Simon’s claim that he finds Mrs. Humphrey’s “weakness” off-putting. It seems more and more likely that Simon is actually attracted to this quality in Rachel Humphrey, and by extension, that he might also be attracted to the fact that she resists him.
DuPont explains the procedure to the observers and to Grace. He then places Grace into “a neuro-hypnotic sleep,” a phenomenon similar to one that can be “observed in fish.” He tells Grace that when she wakes she “will remember nothing of what is done here.” DuPont then drapes a shroud-like veil over Grace’s head, to help her concentration. As DuPont begins to ask Grace a question, there is a loud knock in the room. Mrs. Quennell insists that there is a spirit in the room; annoyed, DuPont demands that Mrs. Quennell use her Spiritualist training to send the spirit away, which she does.
The knock in the room foreshadows the appearance of Mary Whitney’s spirit. Also note Dr. DuPont’s comment, which likens Grace—in her hypnotic state, at least—to a fish. Even DuPont, like Simon, can be dismissive of the female mind, while also being intrigued by it.
Simon persuades DuPont to ask Grace whether she had relations with McDermott; it is “the one thing he most wants to know,” he realizes. Grace laughs, but Simon notes that “it doesn’t sound like Grace.” Grace says that she used to meet McDermott at night. She says, “I’d let him kiss me, and touch me as well, all over, Doctor, the same places you’d like to touch me, because I can always tell, I know what you’re thinking when you sit in that stuffy little sewing room with me.” Simon, shocked but intrigued, continues feeding DuPont questions about the murder to ask Grace. Grace admits to strangling Nancy, but then gleefully says, “You’ve deceived yourselves! I am not Grace! Grace knew nothing about it!” When the voice hints that it was her handkerchief that strangled Nancy, Simon realizes the voice he is hearing belongs to Mary Whitney. Mary’s voice admits that she inhabited Grace’s “clothing” (i.e. her body) when Grace forgot to open the window the night Mary died.
On a plot level, the novel never makes clear whether Grace is actually being possessed by Mary Whitney’s spirit, or if Grace is feigning the entire hypnosis scene, perhaps in collaboration with Dr. DuPont (aka Jeremiah). Thematically this scene is important because it affirms that Simon has been interviewing Grace more out of salacious self-interest than out of medical curiosity, and Grace is at least subconsciously aware of this. One reason that the reader might interpret the spiritual possession storyline to be inaccurate is because Mary-as-Grace calls Simon out—it seems quite possible that this might actually be Grace herself speaking, finally confronting Simon under the guise of speaking in another woman’s voice. This passage also underscores the centrality of clothing symbolism in the novel; Mary referring to Grace’s body as clothing strengthens the idea that putting on someone else’s clothes amounts to trying on that person’s very identity.
Mary begs Simon not to tell Grace that she is being possessed. When Simon asks why, Mary replies, “Do you want to see her back in the Asylum? I liked it there at first, I could talk out loud there. I could laugh. I could tell what happened. But no one listened to me.” Soon, Mary’s spirit leaves the room and Dr. DuPont brings Grace out of her “sleep.” When Grace awakens, she says she had been dreaming of her mother. DuPont asks Mrs. Quennell to take Grace somewhere she can lie down. As Grace leaves, Simon notices that “she walks lightly enough now, and seems almost happy.”
Mary-as-Grace insists that she “was not heard” at the asylum; this strongly underscores the importance of allowing women like Grace to tell their own stories and to have them believed and validated by society. Though not directly, Atwood seems to be suggesting that the fact that society has stifled Grace’s storytelling ability has somehow cause her to have this “split personality”—or, perhaps more accurately, has made her feel that feigning a split personality is necessary in order for her to finally be heard.