Even before she was imprisoned, Grace owned very little. The most important object in her possession, her mother’s teapot, was sold off by her father to cover his debts. At Mrs. Alderman Parkinson’s home, Grace and Mary are only allowed one candle a week; Mary steals candle-ends from the dining room because one candle a week “was less light than [she] wanted to have.” This powerful moment shows that not allowing women to own things is a way for the upper class (and particularly men of that class) to keep women in a subordinate position—to keep them in the darkness, rather than the light, one might say. Grace’s increasing efforts to exert ownership throughout the novel show the power that comes with ownership—thus, ownership is Grace’s resistance against oppression.
One way that Grace exerts ownership is by using her time deliberately. At the Kinnear house, Grace says, she “liked being early to rise; that way I could pretend for a little while that the house was my own.” In prison, where her time is even more rigidly controlled than it was when she was a servant, Grace works hard to maintain ownership of her mind, including her memories and her dreams. Once, when Dr. Jordan pushes her to elaborate on her use of the phrase “and so forth,” Grace insists: “And so forth, I say firmly, because And so forth is all he is entitled to. Just because he pesters me to know everything is no reason for me to tell him.” Thus, Grace maintains possession over her memories. Grace also takes care to safeguard her dreams—“I have little enough of my own,” she says, “no belongings, no possessions, no privacy to speak of, and I need to keep something for myself; and in any case, what use would he have for my dreams, after all?”
At the same time that she shows Grace’s efforts to maintain ownership, Atwood carefully depicts the (mostly male) societal forces that are attempting to strip her possessions from her. Through Dr. Jordan, Atwood shows how society has taught men to feel entitled to ownership of women’s bodies, both on a personal and a professional level. Of his landlady, Rachel Humphrey, with whom he is having an affair, Dr. Jordan insists, “She wishes to be seduced, overwhelmed, taken against her will.” Dr. Jordan feels this claim of ownership in his professional life as a physician, as well. He reflects on his women patients, saying, “To be rendered unconscious; to lie exposed, without shame, at the mercy of others; to be touched, incised, plundered, remade—this is what they are thinking of when they look at him.” By showing that societal forces attempt to wrest control from women of their own bodies, Atwood underscores the radical nature of Grace’s attempts at ownership—of dreams, memories, even the prison nightgown she takes with her when she is freed—depicting them as emancipatory and subversive acts.
Gender, Ownership, and Power ThemeTracker
Gender, Ownership, and Power Quotes in Alias Grace
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.
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.
So there I was, pretending not to watch, and there he was, pretending not to be watched; and you may see the very same thing, Sir, at any polite gathering of society ladies and gentlemen. There is a good deal that can be seen slantwise, especially by the ladies, who do not wish to be caught staring. They can also see through veils, and window curtains, and over the tops of fans; and it is a good thing they can see in this way, or they would never see much of anything. But those of us who do not have to be bothered with all the veils and fans manage to see a good deal more.
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.
Underneath her stiff dress there must be breasts, not starched and corset-shaped, but made of soft flesh, with nipples; he finds himself idly guessing what colour these nipples would be, in sunlight or else in lamplight, and how large. Nipples pink and small like the snouts of animals, of rabbits or mice perhaps; or the almost-red of ripening currants; or the scaly brown of acorn caps. His imagination runs, he notes, to wildwood details, and to things hard or alert.
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.
Then there are his own requirements. There is passion in Grace somewhere, he’s certain of it, although it would take some hunting for. And she’d be grateful to him, albeit reluctantly. Gratitude by itself does not enthral [sic] him, but he likes the idea of reluctance.
He’ll begin to tiptoe up the stairs, intending to avoid her. Then he’ll turn around, make his way to her room, shake her roughly awake. Tonight he’ll hit her, as she’s begged him to; he’s never done that before, it’s something new. He wants to punish her for his own addiction to her. He wants to make her cry; though not too loudly, or Dora will hear them, and trumpet scandal.
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.