Quilts are an explicit symbol of female sexuality. Quilts are made by women and, as Grace points out, they are usually displayed on beds, making “the bed the most noticeable thing in a room.” Grace reasons that by marking out the bed as worthy of notice, quilts function as warning flags. “You may think a bed a peaceful thing, Sir,” she says to Dr. Jordan, “and to you it may mean rest and comfort and a good night’s sleep. But it isn’t so for everyone; and there are many dangerous things that take place in a bed.” Though she doesn’t say so explicitly, Grace is arguing that beds are dangerous places for women. She alludes to the fact that women often experience sex as violence—she calls intercourse “an indignity we must suffer through”—and she is openly arguing that sex is frequently a death sentence for women, since it leads to childbirth. By claiming that women place quilts on beds “for a warning,” Grace is arguing that quilts act as a kind of signal, and the fact that she has to explain this function of quilts to Dr. Jordan suggests that quilts allow for communication specifically between women. In much the same way that Mary Whitney has to teach Grace about menstruation, quilts act as a way for women to discreetly share knowledge about their sexual lives with one another. In this way, quilts symbolize solidarity between women. This amounts to a radical statement, since women are subjugated in Grace’s society, and their sex lives are marginalized.
A powerful example of quilts as a symbol of female solidarity occurs at the end of the novel, when Grace makes her first quilt that she will own. In it, she includes clothes of her own, of Mary Whitney’s, and of Nancy Montgomery’s, so that the three women can “all be together.” Grace’s inclusion of Nancy’s clothes is particularly significant, since Nancy is a woman with whom Grace often disagreed and in whose murder Grace may have directly taken part. The fact that Grace still desires a feeling of closeness with Nancy suggests that the experience of womanhood is enough to bond two very different people. Mary and Nancy are also the two most unconventional women in the novel in terms of their sex lives; Grace, by contrast, is virtually a sexless character. Though other characters desire her, she expresses no sexual desire of her own. By linking herself to Mary and Nancy in her quilt, Grace seems to be participating in their liberated sexuality, which was ultimately deadly to them in their real lives.
Finally, the names of quilt patterns function as the titles of each of the fifteen sections of Alias Grace. Sometimes the patterns/titles are related to the content of the section; for example, Grace meets Dr. Jordan while she is confined in a small, solitary prison cell in the section entitled “Puss in the Corner.” However, there is not always a discernible relationship between the section name and the content of that section. Rather, Atwood’s choice to use quilt patterns as a structural tool in the novel gestures to the larger question of how characters such as Grace and Dr. Jordan search for structure and meaning in their experiences. These characters are deeply enmeshed in the fraught process of storytelling, searching for patterns and symbols like those one might find in a quilt.
Quilts Quotes in Alias Grace
And since that time I have thought, why is it that women have chosen to sew such flags, and then to lay them on the tops of beds? For they make the bed the most noticeable thing in a room. And then I have thought, it’s for a warning. Because you may think a bed is a peaceful thing, Sir, and to you it may mean rest and comfort and a good night’s sleep. But it isn’t so for everyone; and there are many dangerous things that may take place in a bed. It is where we are born, and that is our first peril in life; and it is where the women give birth, which is often their last. And it is where the act takes place between men and women […] and some call it love, and others despair, or else merely an indignity which they must suffer through.
But three of the triangles in my Tree will be different. One will be white, from the petticoat I still have that was Mary Whitney’s; one will be faded yellowish, from the prison nightdress I begged as a keepsake when I left there. And the third will be a pale cotton, a pink and white floral, cut from the dress of Nancy’s that she had on the first day I was at Mr. Kinnear’s, and that I wore on the ferry to Lewiston, when I was running away.
I will embroider around each one of them with red feather-stitching, to blend them in as a part of the pattern.
And so we will all be together.