A dominant question of Victorian times was whether women were, by nature, good or evil. Atwood takes up this question in the novel, arguing that this binary is not a sufficient way to understand women, just as it would be an insufficient way to understand men. Atwood takes this argument a step further by showing how society’s repression of female sexuality—and its willingness to allow, and even condone, sexual violence against women—cements this binary understanding of womanhood and negatively affects women’s self-expression by tying their worth to their sexuality.
Toward the beginning of the novel, Grace reflects on the many different characterizations of her that have appeared in print. She has been described as “an inhuman female demon,” “an innocent victim of a blackguard,” “a good girl with a pliable nature,” and “little better than an idiot,” among other things. “And I wonder,” Grace says, “how can I be all of these different things at once?” This introduces the argument Atwood will develop over the course of the novel: that to understand women categorically—as either a demon or a victim, a good girl or a bad one—robs them of their dignity and their right to have complicated identities. Atwood suggests that Grace’s confusion about how she can be “all of these different things at once” stems largely from the fact that society insists on defining her as one thing or another, rather than allowing her to be a complex individual.
Atwood expands on this theme by showing how many different characters liken women to physical objects. Mr. Kinnear tells Grace not to sit in the back of the wagon “like a piece of luggage” and the guards who regularly harass Grace when they escort her from the prison to the Governor’s house taunt her with demeaning insults such as, “you’re ripe enough to be picked, why stay on the tree untasted, you’ll just fall of and rot at the foot of it in any case.” Even women reduce other women to objects, such as when a housekeeper says of the dead Mary Whitney, “There is no sense in crying over spilt milk,” as if Mary herself, covered in blood on the bed, is the milk. Repeated images of women as objects or foodstuffs underscores Atwood’s argument that society’s insistence on defining women according to a binary ultimately leads to women being treated as less than human.
Another key component of Atwood’s argument in favor of female complexity is her description of a society that is intolerant of a woman expressing sexual desire. When Grace is explaining to Dr. Jordan why she is in the habit of always locking her bedroom door, she says, “Once you are found with a man in your room you are the guilty one, no matter how they get in.” This takes a huge toll on women, socially disempowering them and depriving them of their right to explore their sexuality, which is an important part of a person’s identity. Atwood also includes many examples of the rampant sexual violence of the Victorian era. Grace is sexually assaulted not only by prison guards, but also by medical doctors in the asylum, and she fights off McDermott when he attempts to rape her. In this, Atwood shows that violence against women as a social epidemic, fed by the concept of women as objects rather than people with their own sexual desires and boundaries.
Perhaps worst of all, Grace seems in some ways to internalize society’s attitude towards women and female sexuality, reducing herself to an object when she describes her opinion of whorehouses. She says, “I was indeed curious to see the women who made a living by selling their bodies, because I thought if worst came to worst and if starving, I would still have something to sell.” This moment exemplifies how the stifling of women’s sexuality furthers the narrative of women (and their bodies) as commodities. Atwood thus presents a powerful argument against defining women according to a binary while simultaneously depriving them the right to their own sexuality. This toxic combination can have deadly consequences, as Atwood clearly underscores in her depiction of Mary Whitney’s death due to a botched abortion.
Female Sexuality and the Nature of Women ThemeTracker
Female Sexuality and the Nature of Women Quotes in Alias Grace
They are like birdcages; but what is being caged in? Legs, the legs of ladies; legs penned in so they cannot get out and go rubbing up against the gentlemen’s trousers. The Governor’s wife never says legs, although the newspapers said legs when they were talking about Nancy, with her dead legs sticking out from under the washtub.
All the same, Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word—musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase. Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.
Murderer is merely brutal. It’s like a hammer, or a lump of metal. I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.
When I was quite young, six or seven, I put my hand on my mother’s belly, which was all round and tight, and I said What is in there, another mouth to feed, and my mother smiled sadly and said Yes I fear so, and I had a picture of an enormous mouth, on a head like the flying angel heads on the gravestones, but with teeth and all, eating away at my mother from the inside, and I began to cry because I thought it would kill her.
It would be helpful to me, if she were indeed mad, or at least a little madder than she appears to be; but thus far she has manifested a composure that a duchess might envy. I have never known any woman to be so thoroughly self-contained.
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.
There were red smears afterwards, on his shirt, from where she’d started to undo his buttons; but it was the first time he’d ever kissed a woman, and he’d been embarrassed, and then alarmed, and hadn’t known what to do next. Probably she’d laughed at him.
[…] and one day they did see a bear, and Nancy ran away screaming, and climbed a tree. Sally said the bear was more frightened than Nancy was, and Nancy said it was probably a gentleman bear and it was running away from something dangerous that it had never seen before, but might have caught a glimpse of as she climbed the tree; and they laughed very much.
But is it red where it most counts, says the other, a fire in a treetop is no use at all, it must be in a fireplace to cast enough heat, in a little cookstove, you know why God made women with skirts, it’s so they can be pulled up over their heads and tied at the top, that way you don’t get so much noise out of them, I hate a screeching slut, women should be born without mouths on them, the only thing of use in them is below the waist.
But he’ll pry it out of her yet. He’s got the hook in her mouth, but can he pull her out? Up, out of the abyss, up to the light. Out of the deep blue sea.
He wonders why he’s thinking in such drastic terms. He means her well, he tells himself. He thinks of it as a rescue, surely he does.
But does she? If she has anything to hide, she may want to stay in the water, in the dark, in her element. She may be afraid she won’t be able to breathe, otherwise.
During the day, Rachel is a burden, an encumbrance, and he wishes to be rid of her; but at night she’s an altogether different person, and so is he. He too says no when he means yes. He means more, he means further, he means deeper. He would like to make an incision in her—just a small one—so he can taste her blood, which in the shadowy darkness of the bedroom seems to him like a normal wish to have.
“You killed her,” breathes Lydia. “I always thought so.” She sounds, if anything, admiring.
“The kerchief killed her. Hands held it,” says the voice. “She had to die. The wages of sin is death. And this time the gentleman died as well, for once. Share and share alike!”