Alias Grace And Canadian History
Due Thursday, November 30
The Mission: To use and assess Margaret Atwood's novel Alias Grace as an historical source.
4-5 pages double-spaced
(19% of Final Grade)
Introduction: Alias Grace is Margaret Atwood's 1996 novel based upon a real-life 1843 murder case. Two Irish immigrants, James McDermott and the sixteen-year-old Grace Marks, were convicted of the gruesome murder of their employer and his mistress. Grace's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and she would spend the next three decades in the Kingston Penitentiary and the Toronto Lunatic Asylum. Atwood sets much of her story in 1859, after Marks has already been incarcerated for several years, and centres much of the plot around the developing relationship between Marks and a young doctor, Simon Jordan.
Atwood, a descendant of United Empire Loyalists, has long been a student of history. "I myself would have been much more interested in Canadian history," she writes of her youth, "if I had known that our dull prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, had believed that the spirit of his mother was inhabiting his dog, which he always consulted on public policy." Atwood learned of the 1843 trial through her research on frontierswoman Susanna Moodie, the subject of a 1970 series of award-winning poems, The Journals of Susanna Moodie. Moodie had visited Grace in both the penitentiary and the asylum, and had provided an account of these encounters in her second book, Life in the Clearings (1853).
The Options: Pick one of the three research options for your essay.
1) The Alias Grace Option: Write your paper based upon a close reading of Margaret Atwood's novel.
2) The Hybrid Option: Choose this option if you are writing on a topic which combines an Alias Grace reading with some supplementary internet of published source material. Demonstrate in your essay that you have read Atwood's novel.
3) The Substitute Option: Write an essay that substitutes extensive readings in the primary source material written by Susanna Moodie and/or her sister Catharine Parr Traill (egs. Roughing It in the Bush, Life in the Clearings, etc).
Some Possible Topics: Listed below are some possible topics for your paper. These are only a few suggestions and you are encouraged to design your own theme.
Alias Grace As Social History
Asylums And Penitentiaries In Nineteenth-Century Canada
Birth And Death As Portrayed In Alias Grace
Grace Marks In History And Novel
The Historical Novel And The Study Of History: Alias Grace As A Case Study
Learning From The Historical Documents Included In Alias Grace
Nineteenth-Century Medicine As Portrayed In Alias Grace
Nineteenth-Century Religion As Portrayed In Alias Grace
Roughing It In The Bush
O Susanna: Margaret Atwood And Susanna Moodie
Servant And Master In Nineteenth-Century Canada
Social Reform And Nineteenth-Century Canada As Portrayed In Alias Grace
Sisters In The Wilderness: Susanna Moodie And Catharine Parr Traill
Toronto As Portrayed In Alias Grace
Victorian Society As Portrayed By Margaret Atwood
The Victorian Woman As Portrayed In Alias Grace
Some Possible Extra Sources: Listed below are a few potentially-relevant supplementary sources:
Alias Grace: A short entry from the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Margaret Atwood, "In Search of Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction," American Historical Review, 103 (December 1998): An interesting talk by Atwood.
"Voluntary Confession Of Grace Marks": A short primary resource from 1843.
Grace Marks -- Answers To Liberation Questionnaire: Short responses by Marks from the Kingston Penitentiary Inspector's Minute Book.
Alias Grace Reading Guide: A very short introduction from Random House.
The Salon Interview: Margaret Atwood: Laura Miller talks to Atwood about Alias Grace in 1997.
Margaret Atwood, Writing Susanna: Autobiographical reminiscing by Atwood.
Roughing It In The Backwoods -- Student Handout: A primer from the Library and Archives site.
Susanna Moodie, Roughing It In the Bush, or Life In Canada (1852): A page-by-page PDF copy of the nineteenth-century bestseller.
Susanna Moodie, Life In the Clearings Versus the Bush (1853): A page-by-page PDF copy of an Early Canadian On-line microfiche.
Susanna Moodie: A short entry from the Canadian Encyclopedia.
R.B. Bilan, "Margaret Atwood's 'The Journals of Susanna Moodie.'"
How effective is Alias Grace as history and how good an historian is Margaret Atwood? How would you compare and contrast it to a more traditional secondary historical source? What is the historical novel? What are its possibilities and what are its limits?
How would you characterize Victorian gender relations as portrayed in Alias Grace? How does Grace herself become a focus for a conflicted assessment of the nature of women on the part of the Victorians? What did you learn about the lives of 19th century women from this novel?
How does Atwood portray class relations in the Canada of the 1840s and 1850s? How do servants see their employers and how, in turn, do the employers view their servants?
To what extent are the stories and testimonies of Grace Marks and Simon Jordan paired together? How does Atwood use narrative devices here to explore the meaning of the past?
How would you compare and contrast Grace Marks and Angelique?
Margaret Atwood: "What does the past tell us? In an of itself, it tells us nothing. We have to be listening first, before it will say a word, and, even so, listening means telling, then re-telling. It's we ourselves who must do such telling, about the past, if anything is to be said about it; and our audience is one another." Discuss.
Margaret Atwood: "The past no longer belongs only to those who once lived in it; the past belongs to those who claim it, and are willing to explore it, and to infuse it with meaning for those alive today. The past belongs to us, because we are the ones who need it."
Why do you think the book is titled Alias Grace?