Dr. Jordan’s mission is to learn the truth about Grace’s role in the Kinnear and Montgomery murders by helping Grace to recover her memories of the day the murders took place. By reading the novel, the reader becomes party to this truth-seeking project, attempting, along with Dr. Jordan, to determine which of the three accounts Grace has given of the murders is the true one. However, Atwood consistently challenges the idea that there could be a single true narrative of the murders—or indeed that objective truth, as a concept, really exists. Instead, she highlights the way that characters’ sense of emotional truth often outweighs their commitment to an accurate representation of events or facts.
For example, after Grace’s friend Mary Whitney dies of a botched abortion, their employer questions Grace about the identity of Mary’s lover and Grace responds that Mary had asked her not to reveal it. “Mary had not said this,” Grace clarifies, “but I had my own suspicions.” Here, Grace is clearly comfortable telling what is factually a lie in order to preserve Mary’s propriety. Perhaps more significantly, this lie also helps protect Grace; by maintaining that her silence is in service to a friend, Grace expiates herself from having to reveal her suspicions about Mary’s lover to her employer. Moments later, however, Grace becomes agitated when the housekeeper makes up an alternate explanation for Mary’s death—a fever, rather than an abortion gone awry. “And all the time,” Grace says, “Mary was there on the bed, listening to us, and hearing about our plans to tell these lies about her; and I thought, She will not be easy in her mind about it.” Clearly this lie is also one that will protect Mary’s propriety—yet Grace feels conflicted about it because she imagines that it would have greatly offended Mary, perhaps since Mary’s bold personality and her confidence in her own body might have led her to own up to her pregnancy and abortion, had she survived. Thus, while Grace’s earlier lie that Mary asked her not to reveal the father’s identity is emotionally true to the friendship between Mary and Grace, the lie that Mary died of a fever is, at least to Grace’s mind, not emotionally true to the fiery person that Mary was. Through these and other examples, Atwood suggests that what characters believe to be true often has more to do with what “feels” true to them, than what “actually” occurred. Atwood does not pronounce judgment on this phenomenon, instead depicting it as an inevitable human tendency.
Further undermining the notion of objective truth, Atwood insists on the inherently malleable nature of memory. This is clear in Grace’s contemplation of the role of a keepsake book, in which women of the Victorian era collected mementos. “What should a Keepsake Album be?” she wonders. “Should it be only the good things in your life, or should it be all of the things?” These rhetorical questions suggest that there isn’t a correct answer; rather, memories—and thus what we think of as “the truth”—are another kind of story that characters tell themselves.
Finally, Atwood attacks the sexist Victorian notion of associating madness with women, showing that institutions manipulate the definition of sanity in order to disempower and discredit women. Grace does faint and hear voices—characteristics stereotypically associated with “mad” women—but Atwood complicates the question of madness by showing that it exists in plenty of other iterations, many of which are ignored by patriarchal society. For example, in describing a woman she knew in the asylum, Grace says, “[she] was in there to get away from her husband, who beat her black and blue, he was the mad one but nobody would lock him up.” Atwood even depicts Simon Jordan’s incontrollable sexual fantasies and urges as a kind of madness, wryly writing, “He is both sane and normal, and he has developed the rational faculties of his mind to a high degree; and yet he cannot always control such pictures.” Atwood further undercuts the association between madness and womanhood by showing how Dr. Jordan unravels as he learns more about Grace’s story, ultimately losing all memory of Grace after he is injured in the Civil War. These kinds of male madness are not societally coded as such because the idea of (in)sanity is, Atwood shows, less a measure of an individual’s relation to reality than it is a societal construct that is used to empower some people (mostly men) and disempower others. Thus, Atwood’s critique of the Victorian concept of female madness is part of her larger argument about the nonexistence of objective truth.
Truth, Memory, and Madness ThemeTracker
Truth, Memory, and Madness Quotes in Alias Grace
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then I put on a clean apron, and stirred up the fire in the summer kitchen stove, which still had some embers left in it, and burnt my own clothes; I didn’t like the thought of wearing them ever again, as they would remind me of things I wished to forget. It may have been my fancy, but a smell went up from them like scorching meat; and it was like my own dirtied and cast-off skin that was burning.
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.
“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!”
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.
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.