The dramatic tension at the heart of Alias Grace is whether or not Grace is guilty of killing Nancy, which matters since her guilt determines whether her pardon was just. Alias Grace explores the question of justice in both legal and religious terms, with Grace’s devout (though not exactly conventional) Christianity playing a key role in how she interprets her life. Through Grace, Atwood explores the nature of a higher power—however, just as she never answers the question of Grace’s guilt, Atwood also refuses to provide answers about whether human or divine justice has been served to Grace. If anything, the novel seems to lean toward the nihilistic idea that the most important judgment is the one a person makes of herself, rather than the judgments made of her by others or by God.
Grace is a practicing Christian, well-versed in the Bible and a believer in heaven and hell—though she posits that the gates to these two realms “are located closer together than most people think.” Despite her belief in God, Grace also holds many superstitious beliefs, and the question of her guilt is ultimately seriously complicated by her strong sense of fatalism. She recounts for Dr. Jordan a verse she remembers from childhood—“Needles and pins, needles and pins, / When a man marries his trouble begins”—commenting, “It doesn’t say when a woman’s trouble begins. Perhaps mine began when I was born.” Grace also insists that she dreamt of the murders before they happened, suggesting her belief that the murders were fated to happen and she was fated to be involved in them.
However, Grace’s fatalism is complicated by the fact that Grace expresses extreme frustration with society’s treatment of women; this frustration, the novel implies, could have served as a motive for Grace to exert her free will and murder Nancy. When she learns of Nancy’s pregnancy by Mr. Kinnear she reflects, “It would not be fair and just that [Nancy] should end up a respectable married lady with a ring on her finger, and rich into the bargain. It would not be right at all. Mary Whitney had done the same as her, and had gone to her death. Why should the one be rewarded and the other punished, for the same sin?” This suggests that Grace might have a retributive sense of justice, and that she took justice into her own hands, killing Nancy as a way to balance Mary Whitney’s death on the cosmic scales. By imbuing Grace with conflicting views about whether her murder of Nancy was fated or motivated by anger, Atwood is able to consider huge philosophical questions about the nature of human existence without providing any clear-cut answers.
On the question of Grace’s guilt, Atwood is similarly ambiguous, though the moment when Grace is on the verge of sleep in the tavern where she will soon be arrested provides the clearest guide. Grace thinks: “It’s as if I never existed, because no trace of me remains, I have left no marks. And that way I cannot be followed. It is almost the same as being innocent.” This complex statement suggests that, to Grace’s mind, living is synonymous, on some level, with sinning. This could account for the fact that Grace does not seem to judge herself too harshly, whether she is guilty or not. Though the novel never explicitly endorses this position, it seems to suggest that Grace’s ability to live with herself may be the most important kind of judgment. In the final chapter of the novel Grace admits, “I had a rage in my heart for many years, against Mary Whitney, and especially against Nancy Montgomery; against the two of them both, for letting themselves be done to death in the way that they did, and for leaving me behind with the full weight of it.” This striking statement suggests that Grace has an extremely complicated sense of justice, one that cannot be fully accounted for by either human or divine law. Grace’s focus—and ultimately the novel’s, too—is on the hard work of surviving. Physical and emotional survival by any means necessary ultimately takes greater precedence in the novel than the serving of legal or divine justice.
Justice and Religion ThemeTracker
Justice and Religion Quotes in Alias Grace
And they do say that cleanliness is next to Godliness; and sometimes, when I have seen the pure white clouds billowing in the sky after a rain, I used to think that it was as if the angels themselves were hanging out their washing; for I reasoned that someone must do it, as everything in Heaven must be very clean and fresh.
It is morning, and time to get up; and today I must go on with the story. Or the story must go on with me, carrying me inside it, along the track it must travel, straight to the end, weeping like a train and deaf and single-eyed and locked tight shut; although I hurl myself against the walls of it and scream and cry, and beg to God himself to let me out.
I said, What do you want here, but he did not answer, he just kept on being silver, so I went out to milk the cow; because the only thing to do about God is to go on with what you were doing anyway, since you can’t ever stop him or get any reasons out of him. There is a Do this or a Do that with God, but not any Because.
I was horrified, and asked how could he do such a thing; and he said what did I mean, as I was wearing Nancy’s dress and bonnet myself. And I said it was not the same thing, and he said it was; and I said at least I had not taken the boots off a corpse.
I hope I was named after it. I would like to be found. I would like to see. Or to be seen. I wonder if, in the eye of God, it amounts to the same thing. As it says in the Bible, For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.
If it is face to face, there must be two looking.
“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!”
The room was so large it was almost frightening to me, and I pulled the sheet up over my head to make it darker; and then I felt as if my face was dissolving and turning into someone else’s face, and I recalled my poor mother in her shroud, as they were sliding her into the sea, and how I thought that she had already changed inside the sheet, and was a different woman, and now the same thing was happening to me. Of course I wasn’t dying, but it was in a way similar.
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.