Part of Atwood’s critique of the rigid class structure of the Victorian era is her exploration of how deeply engrained notions of “proper” behavior were then and how central they were to people’s identity. While propriety is certainly influenced by gender, Atwood uses Grace’s narration to suggest that proper behavior was often even more determined by class. Atwood thus explores the way that class inexorably shapes her characters’ identities, while also providing examples of how characters like Grace subtly redefine the social norms that bind them.
Grace understands her relation to others according to their relative class statuses. For example, the tension between Grace and Nancy Montgomery arose from class differences, rather than from romantic rivalry, as the newspapers have convinced people. For the most part, Grace buys into the class hierarchy of her society. She disapproves of Nancy’s relationship with Mr. Kinnear because she feels it violates class distinctions: Nancy is at once acting above her station, by romancing a gentleman, and below it, by taking on tasks that Grace feels shouldn’t fall to her. This can be seen when Nancy insists on taking Mr. Kinnear his coffee and Grace thinks, “I was surprised, and said that at Mrs. Alderman Parkinson’s, the housekeeper would never have thought of carrying a tea tray up the stairs, as it was beneath her position and a job for the maids.” By showing that Grace has a deep sense of class consciousness and is able to articulate it—even if she is not very critical of the class system itself—Atwood shows that she is much more intelligent and savvy than the newspapers have made her out to be.
Though Grace’s understanding of class is, for the most part, conventional, Atwood also shows how Grace subverts the class hierarchy in a unique way. Though the prison guards technically hold a higher place in society than she does as a convicted murderer, Grace describes the prison guards who consistently harass and assault her as “a low class of person.” She also consistently makes snide comments about class, such as, “People dressed in a certain kind of clothing are never wrong.” This comment gestures toward the fact that people of the upper class have a much easier time imposing their opinions on others—and that they can easily deflect both criticism and punishment by virtue of their economic and social clout in society. Atwood thus depicts Grace as being aware of the limits and inequities of the class system, even as she largely buys into this system.
While Grace largely accepts class norms, Mary Whitney becomes the vessel for Atwood’s class critique, dismantling the illusion of the upper class being superior. Grace recalls Mary’s advice: “If I was ever to be a chambermaid, I would have to learn to carry a bucket of filth as if it was a bowl of roses, for the thing these people hated the most was to be reminded that they too had bodies, and their shit stank as much as anyone’s, if not worse.” In contrast to her upper class counterparts, Mary is heavily associated with bodily experience. Not only does Mary teach Grace about menstruation, but she more symbolically represents the idea of embodiment via her favorite game, in which she would hide amongst the laundry line and “press up against them so there was the outline of her face, and give out a moaning sound” in order to scare Grace. Atwood depicts Mary as a self-assured person squeezing joy out of her mundane life, but she also clearly shows how Mary’s embrace of her bodily experience represents a violation of the social code. Mary suffers the ultimate punishment for her indiscretion: she dies from a botched abortion.
Mary also subverts class norms via her understanding of the relative power of the upper and lower classes. She explains to Grace that fancy homes have two staircases not so the servants can be out of the way of their employers, but vice versa—so that “[the family] could go traipsing up and down the front stairs in their fancy clothes and trinkets, while the real work of the place went on behind their backs.” Mary also tells Grace that servants have the upper hand over their employers “because we washed their dirty linen and therefore we knew a good deal about them; but they did not wash ours, and knew nothing about us at all.” While Atwood never explicitly endorses Mary’s opinion of her own power, she emphasizes how much Grace knows about how to get along in the world—from her sewing expertise to everyday practical knowledge, such as the impossibility of making butter when there is a thunderstorm. Atwood contrasts Grace’s vast and varied practical knowledge with Dr. Jordan’s helplessness in caring for himself, such as when he goes to market in lieu of his sick landlady and is clueless about how to procure food: “This is a universe he has never explored, having had no curiosity about where his food came from, as long as it did come.” These examples, in addition to being inherently gendered, emphasize the upper class’ extreme dependence on their servants; Atwood thus imbues servants like Grace with a substantial amount of power, even if it is not quite as much as Mary Whitney imagines for herself.
Atwood makes a nuanced argument about class, emphasizing how notions of propriety—acting according to one’s class status—are deeply comforting to Grace, even as they ostensibly limit her. At the same time, Atwood also gives voice to the way that characters like Grace, and more obviously Mary Whitney, quietly critique or invert the social codes of class behavior, even as they continue to live their lives according to these codes.
Social Class and Propriety ThemeTracker
Social Class and Propriety 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.
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.
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.
What was in there for wiping was an old copy of the Godey’s Ladies’ Book; I always looked at the pictures before using them. Most were of the latest fashions, but some were of duchesses from England and high-society ladies in New York and the like. You should never let your picture be in a magazine or newspaper if you can help it, as you never know what ends your face may be made to serve, by others, once it has got out of your control.
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.
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.
Then I say, I thank you from the bottom of my heart, Sir, this radish was like the nectar of the Gods. He looks surprised to hear me use such an expression; but that’s only because he doesn’t remember that I have read the poetry of Sir Walter Scott.
Because he was so thoughtful as to bring me this radish, I set to work willingly to tell my story, and to make it as interesting as I can, and rich in incident, as a sort of return gift to him; for I have always believed that one good turn deserves another.
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.
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.