The narration in "Alias Grace". Ambiguity of Grace Marks

Essay, 2019

9 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The ambiguous narration in Alias Grace

3. Silent narration – Quilting in Alias Grace

4. Summary


1. Introduction

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, […] that I am cunning and devious, […] and I wonder, how can I be all these different things at once? (Alias Grace 2017, ep. 1)

With this rather powerful voice-over begins the telling of Grace Marks, by that time a 33-year-old maid that was convicted of murdering her former employer Thomas Kinnear and his house keeper Nancy Montgomery together with the stable boy James McDermott. While he gets hanged, Grace is sentenced to life imprisonment. Now, 15 years after her conviction, psychologist Dr. Simon Jordan is hired to talk to Grace to find out if she really was guilty of the murders or not. These are true events that took once place in 1843 and then were adopted for a novel written by Margaret Atwood: Alias Grace. Based on this novel the Canadian US-American Drama-mini-series Alias Grace, written by Margaret Atwood and Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron, was released in 2017 (IMDb n.d.) It is the story of Grace Marks, the question of her innocence and guilt, that is constantly being asked by Dr. Jordan as well as the audience.

The ambiguity of Grace herself that is reflected in the quote above as well as in her narration of the events are especially interesting about this series. Therefore, my attempt is to first analyze the narrative style, especially concerning the different timelines as well as Grace’s unreliability and ambiguity as a character and narrator. Furthermore, I will connect this way of narrating to Grace’s quilting which is omnipresent in the series and can be read as another form of communication and narration especially for women at a time where they usually had to stay silent.

2. The ambiguous narration in Alias Grace

I may have changed some details of my stories to suit what I thought you wanted to hear. (Alias Grace 2017, ep. 6)

This quote in the last episode of the series is one of a few signals with which Grace marks her own narration as not trustworthy. By doing so, the narration opens up to multiple different interpretations, depending on the individual viewer. These multiple options for interpretation can usually be found in categories as the mind-bender-films but a very essential characteristic of those is the final plot twist which is not given in Alias Grace. In Alias Grace the narration is not directed at an ending that would turn around the whole story but instead plays right from the beginning with the ambiguity of how the events might have taken place. Saying this, the ambiguity of the series is located at the level of the histoire, not at the level of the discours. An example of this is when Grace is directly questioning multiple sequences in the fifth episode by asking “Did he say?”, “Did I push him away?” and “Was I crying?” (ep. 5, 0:12:29). Right after these questions we see the different stories she is questioning, so especially when it comes to the murders Grace always marks the ambiguity in her narration with her voice-overs telling the audience that it could have happened like that but that there is also this other version. The motif of unreliability in movies or series are often caused by the unmarked shift between inner and outer world of the protagonist (Ganssauge, Schäfer, Van de Water 2017, 9), whereby in Alias Grace the ambiguity and therefore unreliability is a conscious choice that Grace makes in her way of telling the story. This unreliability in the series is only working because of the homodiegetic voice-over narrator which has the power to hold back information and to share only what she willingly wants to share (Duckwitz, Ueberfeldt, Herrmann 2017, 22).

Through the ambiguous and fragmented style of narrating many scenes at first seem like flashbacks but sometimes they are just showing what James McDermott or Grace herself confessed during the trial (ep. 4, 0:02:15). Therefore, it is not a real flashback but instead one possible way of how things could have been. Besides this there are also other scenes which are not directly marked with a voice-over so that it is uncertain to what extend they belong to Grace’s imagination, the true happening of the events or maybe just to another version of the story already told by someone else (for example ep. 3, 0:20:38 and ep. 6, 0:20:35). Other than these few scenes it is always Grace’s voice guiding the narration into the past and by that controlling the narrative. This is also made clear by her voice commenting the past that is shown onscreen, making the audience always aware that they see directly what she is telling Dr. Jordan.

Besides the voice-over we hear when Grace is telling her story to Dr. Jordan, we also have another voice-over which addresses Dr. Jordan directly. Only at the very end of the series it gets revealed that this voice-over comes from a letter that Grace wrote eleven years later to Dr. Jordan after she was finally pardoned and in which she comments their relationship and their sessions, even admitting that she sometimes lied to him as shown in the quote at the beginning of this chapter. By not sharing everything with him Grace remains her right of her own thoughts and with that the power-relation shifts here. Dr. Jordan’s uncertainty about who Grace really is in the end consumes him to an unhealthy degree, makes him restless and even brings him sleepless nights. He represents patriarchy and is keen to define Grace and put her in a category. As Fiona Tolan puts it very accurately: “Grace uses multiplicity as a defence against a world that seeks to define and limit her, and the competing texts of the novel reflect the unstable composition of Grace’s character.” (Tolan 2007, 230). So by “comfortably sitting in all these different projections of herself” (Dibdin 2017) she makes the viewer unsettled and unsure of who she really is just like she does with Dr. Jordan.

That Grace may be lying in some parts to Dr. Jordan also directly becomes clear when they meet for the first time and Dr. Jordan asks her what an apple reminds her of. We as the audience then see a flashback, Grace’s memory, but her answer to Dr. Jordan is completely different from what we have seen before (ep. 1, 0:06:30). Linked to this she even reveals later on that she exactly knew what he wanted to hear and that “any child could guess it” (ep. 1, 0:09:30).

By using these – often very short – flashbacks as well as different timelines for the two main voice-over-narrations the narrative in Alias Grace certainly seems fragmented. In this way it reminds of a quilt which is one of the main motifs in this series. In the following chapter I will evaluate how Grace is expressing herself through quilting during her sessions with Dr. Jordan as well as her first own quilt at the end of the final episode.

3. Silent narration – Quilting in Alias Grace

And so we will all be together. (Alias Grace 2017, ep. 6)

During the 19th century women were not allowed to speak directly what was on their mind. So instead of doing so, many women used handcrafting – or in this special case – quilting to express themselves in a less obvious way to society, especially less obvious to men. As Marcia Inzer Bost argues in her Capstone project about quilts these handcrafted works can be read as visual texts and therefore can also be interpreted like them. Also, she claims that quilts are always self-portraits and therefore can tell something about the producer (Bost 2010, 106). This becomes even more visual when imagining that the woman hand-sewing the quilt often bled at least one time during the process and then rubbed it out of the quilt with their own saliva. By doing so the quilt becomes some kind of embodiment of the producer itself (Bost 2010, 97). Since the quilt-making is an important part in Alias Grace as well I will analyze her quilt-making during her sessions with Dr. Jordan as well as her final quilt “Tree of Paradise”.

When Grace and Dr. Jordan meet for the first time in the sewing room of the governor’s house Grace is immediately starting to work on the quilt for the governor’s daughter when she begins talking about her past (ep. 1, 0:14:50). This continues during the whole series. Every time we see Grace talking to Dr. Jordan she is sewing and quilting, emphasizing the strong link between narration and quilting in this series. In these sessions it is always the quilt for the governor’s daughter we see in progress, a log cabin quilt as she explains to Dr. Jordan: “It’s a log cabin quilt […] It means the home and at the center there’s always a red square, which means the hearth fire.” (ep. 1, 0:15:25) Remarkable about this quilt is the choice of color surrounding the red square: black and white. As Bost describes it this design pattern is also called notan, a Japanese word for dark and light which goes back to the ancient Chinese symbol of Yin and Yang (Bost 2010, 45), representing the good and the evil. With this choice of colors Grace directly refers to her own story, the constantly asked question of her own person as being guilty or innocent, good or evil by all the people within the series, most importantly Dr. Jordan, as well as by the viewer. Other connotations with the colors as death and grief with black or marriage and purity with white reflect the most important topics in the series as well, for marriage being essential for women at that time, especially in cases of illegitimate pregnancy as with Mary and Nancy. Furthermore, we never see the result of this quilt. This could mean on a deeper level that quilt-making is more about the process itself than about the result, equally as in Grace’s case it is more about her telling her story than getting the final answer of being guilty or not. So even though Grace is not giving away the truth through her quilting we can still see relations to her own story reflected in the quilt.

Despite the quilting during her sessions with Dr. Jordan another quilt becomes the most important one for the story of Grace Marks: her first own quilt with the pattern of the tree of paradise. As Grace explains in the letter to Dr. Jordan she is changing it a little to suit her own ideas (ep. 6, 0:41:55). In doing so she is expressing herself more individually in a visual, but silent way which is the only way for women at that time. As Bost explains: Quilts “can be an index indicating the existence of a rhetor who may otherwise be mute” (Bost 2010, 19). When following the parallel between quilting and narrating we could conclude from this statement that Grace reached some level of autonomy within her quilting and by that also in telling her own story the way she wants it to. That little degree of freedom we can also see when she is admitting having lied to Dr. Jordan or to her husband Jamie.


Excerpt out of 9 pages


The narration in "Alias Grace". Ambiguity of Grace Marks
Gender in Film and the Visual Arts
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
Gender, Gender Studies, Alias Grace, Quilt, Quilting, narration, Margaret Atwood, Grace Marks
Quote paper
Nadine Henke (Author), 2019, The narration in "Alias Grace". Ambiguity of Grace Marks, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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