Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, is a brilliant example for intertextuality since it is a blend of fact and fiction. Atwood has reconstructed the nineteenth century historical fiction based on a felonious twin murder and this research paper delves into the historical and literary intertextuality focusing on the historical facts along with the fictional elements surrounding the enigmatic murderess Mark Grace. The paper further examines the link between Victorian and the postmodern literature with a special emphasis on Susanna Moodie’s Life in the Clearings and Atwood’s Alias Grace.
Alias Grace, a mixture of authorial invention and historical facts and fiction, is a rich source of intertextuality. Margaret Atwood has reconstructed the nineteenth century historical fiction based on an iniquitous twin murder trial and this very evident when Grace while adeptly sewing “Tree of Paradise” quilt remarks that she has changed the quilt’s “pattern a little to suit (her) own ideas” (459) where the “quilt with a adapted pattern” symbolizes intertextuality. This research paper delves into the historical and literary intertextuality focusing on the historical facts along with the fictional elements surrounding the enigmatic murderess Mark Grace. The paper further examines the link between Victorian and the postmodern literature with a special emphasis on Susanna Moodie’s Life in the Clearings and Atwood’s Alias Grace. The paper also focuses on the literary intertextual concepts that Atwood shares with other twentieth century writers.
Margaret Atwood for the second time explores the life and trial of the infamous murderess Grace Marks in her ninth novel Alias Grace. Atwood in this historical narrative fiction takes the reader back to nineteenth century by probing into the life and mind of a so called notorious and one of the most inscrutable criminals of those times. Grace Marks is an enigmatic murderess of the Victorian age when women were epitomized both as a symbol of morality as well as evil manipulators and seducers. According to Cristie March “Alias Grace is an authorial mosaic which includes the point of view of several characters along with the journal entries, poems, diaries, newspaper reports and letters related to Grace’s trial.” (1) The novel unfolds as Grace Marks, serving her time in the penitentiary recounts her life story to a young Dr Simon Jordan. It is an open ended fiction with an interesting twist which doesn’t identify Grace as guilty or innocent but leaves the readers to make up their own mind.
Reading today has become a journey from one text to another. The meaning of a text lies between the text and the various texts referred and related to this text. This results in the network of textual relations and the birth of intertextuality. Alias Grace addresses several themes such as gender, class, history, duplicity, psychoanalysis, intertextuality and ethnicity. Intertextuality was introduced by Julia Kristeva in 1960s and she referred to texts in two different axes: horizontal axes which connect the author and the reader of the text, and vertical axes which connect the text to other texts. These two axes are connected by means of shared codes. But in the recent times intertextuality refers much more than the influences of the writers on each other. Hantiu in his literature states that Alias Grace employs the post- modern narrative technique in order to explore the instable personal identity and historical knowledge. This fiction is an intertextual novel with multiple voices and is known to employ many sources, inserting authentic letters which are exchanged among a few characters and other types of texts in the narrative. Atwood herself quotes a number of writers who provide their views over Kinnear murders and each of their points of view is different from the other writers. Further the character of Grace in the novel is a portrait painted after taking into account the descriptions of different people in various angles.
Rosario Arias Doblas states that “In the past three decades many women writers are interested in writing fictions set in the Victorian Age and hence there is a proliferation of historic fiction set in the Victorian period.” (86) The fictions of several women writers such as A.S. Byatt, Sarah Waters and Margaret Atwood reflect their desire to rewrite history by exploring into the past, in particular the Victorian Age. They further narrow down to investigate the point of view of female characters whose voices were hardly heard in the past.
Alias Grace is an amalgamation of scientific, social and psychological issues of the nineteenth century. Further the novel relates to several critical subjects such as slavery, bondage, abortion, the illegitimate relationship between the maid and the master and the like. Alice Grace illustrates strong intertextual relationship where the novel primarily holds reference to two other texts which depicts a different version of Grace Mark’s life story – Susanna Moodie’s Life in the Clearings (1853) and Atwood’s The Servant Girl (1974), a television drama written primarily based on Moodie’s version. This fiction is a reconstruction of the past. Atwood herself in her ‘Author’s Afterword,’ gives an account of all those texts used by her to construct Alias Grace. All these materials firmly support her to establish a dialogue between the past and the present. In fact the historical event has been interpreted in various forms for more than a century and the above two texts along with Atwood’s Alias Grace provides an excellent road map for an intertextual analysis. Alias Grace opens in 1851 and ends in 1872.
The story of Mark Grace is narrated by Atwood at several levels. Grace herself ponders over her past and the recollections are narrated in the chronological order. Dr. Simon Jordan retrospectively presents the story through his thoughts and action. Further his letters and the reports of Grace develop the plot medically. The quilt-patches, blood and flowers are important metaphors which communicate a deep sense of meaning to the text. Apart from the perceptible narration of events, the plot is also built up on memory and dreams which relates to pre-Freudian psychoanalytical concepts.
The narrative technique employed by Atwood successfully holds a connection between the past and present intact which mirrors a well-known fact that past still lingers in the present and the present is interwoven with the past. Further the fiction is moved to a state of spectral novel by utilizing the literary texts as the voice of spirits and ghosts and thereby maintaining the continuity of the past and the present. Atwood within her own feminist perspective has tried to bring the story of Grace to spotlight with the help of history, science and historiography. Further Shiller states that the neo-Victorian novels are laying more emphasis reconstructing the past and on the events and people left out by history and hence “manage[s] to preserve and celebrate the Victorian past.” (541) The presence of intratextual references in the presentation of Grace’s story in terms of ballads, letters, newspaper cuttings and other historical documents reflect the myths and fantasies associated with contemporary definitions of Victorian Women. Hantiu rightly points out that “Grace’s story is just one of the many telling about the destiny of an Irish immigrant to Canada, a story constructed out of many pieces of evidence but still uncertain. But doesn’t history itself mean effacement and mingling of records, isn’t clearly marked down as a semiotic of uncertainity?” (8)
I think of all the things that have been written about me – that I am an inhuman female demon, that I am an innocent victim of a blackguard forced against my will … And I wonder, how can I be all of these different things at once? (Atwood, Alias Grace, 23)
Intertextuality is a common element found in most Canadian women writers belonging to different periods and Atwood is no exception. Faye Hamill demonstrates the “interdependent and mutually nourishing” (140) intertextual relationships by drawing various illustrations from novels, letters, magazines, diaries and speeches. Margaret Atwood’s reading of Susanna Moodie’s Life in the Clearings (1853) has brought in a rewarding experience of the writer. It initially inspired Atwood to attempt The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) by making use of actual excerpts to turn Moodie’s experience into a hypnotic mind and sense disorientation trip. On the contrary, it was Moodie’s diary which gave the impetus and input to write the much celebrated Alias Grace. According to Hantiu,
“What Atwood insists on in her novel is a kind of postmodern loss of identity… In order to replace what she had lost, to reduce the dissonance, she surrenders to the culture of the moment – This is why she assumes either Mary Whitney’s or Nancy Montgomery’s identity to such an extent that for long periods of time Grace is but an “alias”. (4)
The concept of intertextuality is meant to designate a kind of language which, because of its embodiment of otherness, is against, beyond and resistant to mVool.nIoI.(Ilsosguiec.).IIIEarlier Atwood had complet1e5trust and faith over a moSneoplotegmicber 2011 interpretation of truth and knowledge. She assumed that a non-fiction narrates only
truth. Based on this assumption, she wrote The Servant Girl (1974) based on Susanna Moodie’s Life in the Clearings which became Atwood’s primary source. But with Alias Grace Atwood has successfully deconstructed Susanna Moodie by exposing the errors and biased approach in the non-fictional account of Mark Grace’s trial. In the postscript of Alias Grace, Atwood herself writes about The Servant Girl that it “relied exclusively on the Moodie version, [it] cannot be taken as definitive.” (467) But again Alias Grace does not attempt to replace the previous play written in 1974.
The roots of Alias Grace easily convey the message that it is a historical novel which is based on a sensational twin murder case in the nineteenth century. But Atwood has crafted this fact with all the ingredients of a fiction and has rendered a perfect package to the readers. Along the fictional element of the twin murder, the fictional episodes included are: illegitimate love affair between the master and the housekeeper, protagonist Grace with a distressing Irish background and the vicious murder. Atwood not only bring to light the disturbed psyche of the murderer but also the class distinction, gender discrimination and social status. Though the novel moves centrally around Grace Marks, Atwood reflects the many hues of power relationships in the fiction. In particular the female characters in the novel are depicted with a realistic approach in every sense, bringing the nineteenth century lifestyle live before the eyes of the readers. History plays a crucial role in the narration of Grace’s life story and hence holds a story element of intertextuality in Alias Grace.
Atwood writes “The Past belongs to us, because we are the ones who need it.”
(229) Grace is considered to be an unreliable narrator who does not recount the actual truth but what the people around her wish to hear. As a result, there are multiple perspectives surrounding the character of Grace. Though Atwood completely relied on Moodie’s accounts earlier, she identified severe contradictions later. But similar to Grace, Atwood believes that every one of us has a multiple perspective and approach. Hence “By reconstructing and renegotiating Moodie’s historical past imaginatively, Atwood pays homage to her as a literary foremother who, though dead, continues to live on” Apart from several intratextual references such as papers, poems, articles and scrap book, there are numerous references to intertextual dialogue by employing poetry and fiction of Emily Bronte, Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthrone, H.W.Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Poe, Tennyson and William Morris apart from the excerpts from Sussana Moodie’s Life in a Clearing.
The ambiguity in the conclusion of Alias Grace reminds us of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette as Atwood leaves the fate of Grace open. It is up to the mind of the reader to decide whether Grace is haunted by her guilt of the twin murders or her repressed memories of the past. Further Wilson states that
“Although Alias Grace is a historical novel, based on the nineteenth century crime, history is as much a construction in this postmodern and postcolonial novel…” (225)
Historical intertextuality is very evident in the postmodern fiction because without the historical accounts of the twin murder, Atwood would not have come out this fiction. Further the influence of Victorian past, the life style of the people, their thought process, their attitude towards various aspects of life and manner are all well captured by this neo-Victorian novelist and has added the spice of fictional element only when Atwood was not able to relate to the historical facts. Apart from the primary literary influence of Susanna Moodie, Atwood has numerous literary intertextuality references in the fiction ranging from Charlotte Brontë to Edgar Allen Poe.
To conclude, Alias Grace is a multi-dimensional historical narrative which is sometimes a tales of Scheherazade and a slice of history of the Canadian immigrants and at other times a thrilling courtroom drama and successful reconstruction of Victorian past. It is an amalgamation of narrative, history and storytelling and therefore rightly termed as a verbal quilt. Each of the fifteen sections of the novel is titled in the name of a quilt pattern, an important reflection of intertextual reference
Vanodl. IGI.rIsascueed. IoIIes her role extremely well as a16skilled seamstress stitching theSpelpotet mtober 2011
perfection with a figurative movement from the quilt to guilt.
Atwood’s use of the quilt patterns, the separate individual patterns beautifully interwoven to craft a quilt is a manifestation of intertextuality in her fiction and the open ended conclusion of the fiction is largely due to the historical and literary intertextuality. Therefore Atwood leaves it to the readers to determine whether Grace is sane or insane, a victim of circumstances or a perfidious murderer, innocent or guilty.
Atwood, Margaret. Alias Grace. New York: Nan A. Talese, 1996.
Atwood, Margaret. “In Search of Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction.” Curious Pursuits: Occasional Writing, 1970-2005. London: Virago, 2005.
Doblas, Rosario Arias. “Talking with the dead: revisiting the Victorian past and the occult in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and Sarah Waters’ Affinity.” 25 Mar. 2005.
Hamill, Faye. “Literary Culture and Female Authorship in Canada 1760-2000.” Cross-Cultures Series 63. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003.
Hantiu, Ecaterina. “Irish Immigrants and Canadian Destinies in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace.” The Round Table, Partium Journal of English Studies, 26 Mar. 2009.
March, Cristie. “Crimson Silks and New Potatoes: The Heteroglossic Power of the Object Atwood’s Alias Grace.”
Shiller, Dana. “The redemptive past in the neo-Victorian Novel.” Studies in the Novel. Vol.29, 1997.
<http://faculty.winthrop.edu/kosterj/ENGL618/readings/byatt/shillerRedempti vePastPosession.pdf>. Wilson, Sharon R. “Mythological Intertexts.” Margaret Atwood: Works and Impact. Ed. Reingard M. Nischik. New York: Camden House, 2000.