The first epigraph of the novel is from William Morris’s poem, “The Defence of Guenevere.” It reads: “Whatever may have happened through these years,God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie.”
Morris’s poem, published in 1855, focuses on the trial of Guenevere (the queen of Arthurian legend). Guenevere is on trial for having cheated on her husband, King Arthur, with his knight Lancelot. Guenevere speaks most of the poem (including this line) herself, offering her own account of her relationship with Lancelot. In this line, she accuses Gawain, another of Arthur’s knights and presumably Guenevere’s prosecutor in this trial, of misrepresenting her relationship. This line becomes a refrain: Guenevere repeats it no less than three times while defending herself. Atwood’s decision to use this line as one of the novel’s epigraphs highlights the parallels between Guenevere and Grace, who is similarly offering a “true” account of her life—and possibly her guilt. This epigraph also highlights the subjective nature of truth; Guenevere doesn’t actually deny that she has had an affair, but she suggests that there is a truer version of events than the one that is being told about her. This epigraph thus also underscores the importance of women being able to narrate their own stories—to offer their own “defences.”
The second epigraph is from a letter written by Emily Dickinson. She writes, “I have no Tribunal.”
This line comes from a letter Dickinson wrote to a critic who had refused to publish her poems, calling them “uncontrolled” and “spasmodic.” Dickinson’s response highlights her refusal to be judged by men. In fact, this quotation seems to suggest that Dickinson values her own approval over those of all others who might make up her tribunal. Atwood’s decision to use this line introduces a main question of the novel about the relationship between civil (or divine) justice and a person’s individual sense of self.
The third opening epigraph of the novel is from a nonfiction work called The Soul of the White Ant, by naturalist Eugène Marais. It reads: “I cannot tell you what the light is, but I can tell you what it is not… What is the motive of the light? What is the light?”
Marais, a South African naturalist and author, published this book about termites in 1937. Much of his work in this book was later plagiarized by Belgian Nobel Laureate Maurice Maeterlinck. The historical background of this quotation complicates Atwood’s exploration of the power of the written word in Alias Grace, since the history of Marais’s book shows that even written stories can be manipulated and reappropriated. The content of this quotation echoes the mystery that surrounds Grace Marks in the novel, with characters wondering about whether she is a murderous demon or an innocent, wronged woman. This quotation shows how sometimes the only way to understand something or someone is to define it by what it is not—which does not produce a very concrete understanding. This quotation also reflects concerns that Grace herself has, particularly about the mystery and unknowability of God.