Through Grace’s experiences as a prisoner, Atwood explores how societal forces manipulate and control women’s abilities to tell their own stories, often through preventing them from speaking. This implicitly points to the power of storytelling—if women were allowed to tell their own stories, then their experiences, ideas, and ambitions would define them, rather than the diminished personhood given to them by men. Grace’s experiences show not only that storytelling is a vital way to communicate truth and fight back against violence and falsehood, but also that storytelling is a fundamental mechanism by which human beings process and understand their own experiences. Through telling her story, Grace learns to understand and bear the burdens of what has happened to her, even if she can’t fully convince others of the truth as she understands it.
Everything about Grace’s life as a prisoner is controlled, including the way she uses spoken language. In the asylum, Grace says, the matrons “would provoke us, especially right before the visitors were to come” in order “to show how dangerous we were.” Tired of having her own speech turned against her and used as evidence of her mental instability, Grace stops speaking altogether, not breaking her silence even when the doctor overseeing her case, Dr. Bannerling, sexually abuses her. In the prison, Grace and the other inmates are not allowed to speak when they are taking meals, but Grace says that the women “sit chewing their bread with their mouths open and slurping their tea in order to make a noise of some sort even if not speech.” This detail shows how vital spoken language is to the human experience. Indeed, speech becomes a kind of survival tactic for Grace, who is so often left alone and in silence that she even speaks to her daydreams, asking them to talk to her. Clearly, Grace experiences deep pain as a result of having her speech manipulated and even prohibited by the institution of the prison.
Given that Grace is not allowed to fully exercise her right to spoken language, it is even more vital that she be allowed to tell her story in writing. Grace is acutely aware of the power of the written word, as public opinion about her was shaped by the facts of her case that were published in the newspaper. In her interviews with Simon Jordan, Grace often takes care to point out details that the papers have gotten wrong about her story, such as when she says, “We went to the nearest tavern, which was not a hotel at all, as was said in the broadsheet poem about me, but only a cheap inn by the wharf.” Grace’s meticulousness about details that might otherwise seem unimportant or even irrelevant shows how important it is to her to have a feeling of control over her story, which has always been narrated by others.
Details matter, Atwood argues, for once a person loses the power to decide which details are important, their story is at risk of being manipulated. An example of this is Grace’s description of the regiment in which James McDermott used to serve, “which,” she says, “had got such a bad reputation among the farmers, as I knew from Mary Whitney, having burnt a good many farmhouses during the Rebellion, and turned women and children out into the snow, and done worse to them besides, that was never printed in the papers.” The fact that this regiment was responsible for raping women and girls is a vital detail, yet it goes unstated, making the regiment seem like a band of arsonists, rather than arsonists and rapists. Atwood suggests that, in general, society—particularly men—tend to view details as trivial, even going so far as to code them as feminine. This is hinted at when Grace describes how her lawyer, Kenneth MacKenzie (who also sexually harassed her), was frustrated by the way Grace narrated her story, calling it wandering and incoherent. Dr. Jordan is also mystified by Grace’s ability to recall and recount details. As a result of this misogynistic prejudice against details in storytelling, details—and their female authors—are often ignored or rewritten by men. This accounts for Grace’s description of herself at her own trial: “I was there in the box of the dock but I might as well have been made of cloth, and stuffed, with a china head; and I was shut up inside that doll of myself, and my true voice could not get out.”
Even Dr. Jordan does not correctly interpret Grace’s story, though she is narrating it in full directly to him. Grace expresses her misgivings, saying, “I never see what he writes down; and sometimes I imagine that whatever he is writing down, it cannot possibly be anything that has come out of my mouth, as he does not understand much of what I say, although I try to put things as clearly as I can.” This suggests that the only chance women have at articulating their own stories—without their language being appropriated or distorted—is if they are able to physically write down their own stories. Even if the person transcribing a woman’s story has good intentions, there is, Atwood suggests, an inevitable loss in the transcription process. Grace gestures at this when she says, “The way I understand things, the Bible may have been thought out by God, but it was written down by men. And like everything men write down, such as the newspapers, they got the main story right but some of the details wrong.” As women are already socially disempowered and their words are more easily discounted than men’s, women are more vulnerable to such distortions.
Atwood also shows that the act of telling a story is vital, not just because of a story’s ability to communicate a person’s experience to others, but also because storytelling is fundamental to understanding and processing one’s own experience. Grace points this out when she says, “When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness […] It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else.” Atwood thus suggests that when women are barred from telling their stories—either out loud, or, even more importantly, in writing—their very ability to make sense of their lives and experiences is at stake.
Storytelling and Power ThemeTracker
Storytelling 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.
[…] 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.
In fact I have no idea of what kind of a sunrise there was. In prison they make the windows high up, so you cannot climb out of them I suppose, but also so you cannot see out of them either, or at least not onto the outside world. They do not want you looking out, they do not want you thinking the word out, they do not want you looking at the horizon and thinking you might someday drop below it yourself, like the sail of a ship departing or a horse and rider vanishing down a far hillside.
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.
It’s dark as a stone in this room, and hot as a roasting heart; if you stare into the darkness with your eyes open you are sure to see something after a time. I hope it will not be flowers. But this is the time they like to grow, the red flowers, the shining red peonies which are like satin, which are like splashes of paint. The soil for them is emptiness, it is empty space and silence. I whisper, Talk to me; because I would rather have talking than the slow gardening that takes place in silence, with the red satin petals dripping down the wall.
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.
Grace continues her stitching. She does not look up. “Nobody has cared about that before, Sir,” she says. “They told me I must be lying; they kept wanting to know more. Except for Mr. Kenneth MacKenzie the lawyer. But I am sure that even he did not believe me.”
“I will believe you,” says Simon. It is, he realizes, a fairly large undertaking.
He wanted me to tell my story in what he called a coherent way, but would often accuse me of wandering, and become annoyed with me; and at last he said that the right thing was, not to tell the story as I truly remembered it, which nobody could be expected to make any sense of; but to tell a story that would hang together, and that had some chance of being believed.
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.
Janet gave me a pair of summer gloves, almost new, I don’t know where she got them. And then she began to cry, and when I asked her why she was doing that, she said it was because I was to have a happy ending, and it was just like a book; and I wondered what books she’d been reading.
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.