The Depiction of Womanhood in Margaret Atwood`s Alias Grace

Term Paper, 1998

8 Pages, Grade: A-


The Depiction of Womanhood in Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace

1. Introduction

Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace does not only deal with the question of Grace Marks’ role in the Kinnear Murder Case. Margaret Atwood also provides a well-rounded picture of womanhood in urban British North America during the 19th century in Grace’s tale, in the letters of the fictional and historical characters, and in the historical documents. However, Atwood does not merely extrapolate the sociological and economic situation of women of that time. Her account provides the background, under which Grace Marks was judged by the people of her time and under which she has to be evaluated in order to understand the significance and meaning of her role in the novel. The following analysis is written from a feminist perspective. It compares feminist literature on the status of women in the 19th century and on female criminality with the depiction of womanhood in Margaret Atwood’s book. The aim of this analysis to show, that in a gender-biased, patriarchal society, as it is presented with British North America in the 19th century in the novel, the conviction of Grace Marks as a murderess is of a significant meaning to its society and women in general.

2. Social Situation

The growing industrialization of the 19th century brought with it significant sociological changes within the Victorian society of that time, and these changes to a great deal affected the social and economic situation of women in British North America. The growing production of household goods by industrialized manufacturers turned women more and more from producers into consumers of household goods. Therefore, more time was available for women to engage in activities besides the domestic circle. For the women of the lower class, this development in the first place meant more work, as they took on paid employment in factories in order to help the economic situation of their families. For the women of the middle-class, it meant the availability of more leisure-time and the opportunity for education. Middle-class daughters were sent to school, and both groups spent more time in decorative arts like painting and embroidery or followed intellectual pursuits in reading or conversation groups.1 In the novel, the new leisure life-style of middle-class women is presented with the Governor’s wife of the Kingston Penitentiary, who regularly has her Women Question circle and her Spiritualist Circle meet at her house once a week2 and who, according to Grace Marks, “likes to know people who are writing books”(29).

Further, the growing professionalisation of public life, which was gradually defined as belonging to men, led to a growing separation of the spheres for men and women. As more and more of the political, industrial and professional life was conducted by men outside the home, “women were urged to make home and family life to their sphere, to perfect that sphere, and above all to stay in it”3. The loss of status and power, which was caused by the loss of their productive role in the household, was replaced by an idealization of woman- and motherhood in the literature of the 19th century.4

Besides working as seamstresses, milliners, retail sales clerks or textile factory workers, women working as domestic servants, as it is portrayed in the novel by Mary Whitney, Nancy Montgomery and Grace Marks, was the most common female occupation in the 19th century. As parents of poorer families became more dependent on the work of their children, the hiring out of young daughters became a common practice in British North America, especially in the rural areas. The demand for domestic servants in the 19th century was high, and it soon became the preserve mainly of rural women and Irish immigrants, as it is in the latter represented with Grace Marks in the novel.5 However, working as a female servant had not only the object to support one’s parents. Especially for young women of the middle-class, the occupation as female servant was a way to gain the knowledge of household work that prospective husbands of that time expected from their prospective wives. As Grace Marks reports from Mary Whitney in the novel:

[…] it was a job of work. She said it was the custom for young girls in this country to hire themselves out, in order to earn money for their dowries; and then they would marry, and if their husbands prospered they would soon be hiring their own servants in their turn, at the very least a maid-of -all-work; and that one day I would be the mistress of a tidy farmhouse, […]. (181-182)

Marriage was the aspired state of young women in the 19th century. It was seen as the fulfillment of their “womanly nature” and meant an increase in income and especially in status, since unmarried women were not regarded as full members of their sex at that time.6 Practical considerations domineered over emotional considerations. Material possessions and the economic skills of both partners, thus, were of more importance than that both partners loved each other. In the novel, this common practice is exemplified with Lydia, the middle- class daughter of the Governor of the Kingston Penitentiary, who, after a brief love affair with Dr. Jordan, is forced by her parents to marry Reverend Verringer, who she obviously does not love (c.f. 509).

In the English-speaking parts of North America, the husband, by law, acquired control of his wife’s earnings and property, as well as her person and the obligation, to provide for his wife. However, unwarranted and thoughtless exercise of this authority by husbands often caused great distress for the wives7. Further, having been run off by one’s husband was “disgraceful” and meant the loss of the wife’s reputation. Both cases are exemplified in the novel with Mrs. Humphrey. After her “sodden and straying”(84) husband, who did not allow her to go out, left her, she is not able to find a new servant because of her reputation and delivers herself to the mercy of Dr. Jordan (c.f. 341).

Excluded from political power and limited to the domestic sphere, women in the Victorian period were eagerly searching for authorities from the outside world to guide them through the upheavals of life and the changing conditions of the 19th century and in many cases to argue their case in front of their husbands. Among the most popular authorities chosen by women were clergymen, doctors, and to a certain degree also lawyers, who realized their delicate position as mediators of the wives’ interests against their husbands.8 The church especially was a place, where women could not only find the support of male clergymen, but also the opportunity for association, motherhood, and, most of all, leadership. During the 19th century, congregations became more and more predominantly female and a number of

benevolent societies and institutions, run by women and often aimed to help women, were founded within the realms of the church.9 In the novel, this symbolic relationship between middle-class women, clergymen and doctors is portrayed by the governor’s wife engagement with Reverend Verringer and Dr. Simon Jordan to argue for the case of Grace Marks innocence.

3. Stereotyping of Women

3.1. The Cult of True Womanhood

According to Barbara Welter, the value of a woman in the 19th century was determined by her ability to fulfill the objects of the four “cardinal virtues of True Womanhood”: piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity. These were the attributes, under which a woman of that time judged herself and which were of crucial importance for her reputation to the outside world.

Piety was regarded as the core of a woman’s virtue. Being regarded as naturally religious, piety was the source of a woman’s strength. Men were cautioned to search first for piety in a woman, cause “if that were there, all else would follow”. Part of this notion was the assumption that women were morally superior than men, for it was believed that the “purifying passionless love” of a women could bring an erring man back to Christ.10

An unmarried woman of the 19th century had to be sexually pure. Without sexual purity, a woman was regarded as “a ’fallen angel’, unworthy of the celestial company of her sex”11. Further, the concept of purity denied women sexual pleasures. Thus, women were encouraged to hide their affections, to conceal their bodies, which also included the natural bodily functions as menstruation and pregnancy, and to feign sexual pleasures with their husbands.12 Further, women were urged to maintain their virtue and always defend it in front of men, who, regarded as being more sensual by nature, would constantly try to assault it.13

Submission was regarded as the most feminine virtue in the 19th century. A man was seen as being appointed by God to be the superior of his woman. Men were regarded as “the movers, the doers, the actors”, while women, regarded as “more vulnerable, more infirm, more mortal than man”, had to play the part of the passive, submissive responder.14 Therefore, a woman, due to her passive nature, was in need of protection.

Domesticity then served the function of preserving that delicate nature of a woman, since the home “not only affords security from the world, but from delusions and errors of every kind”. Household work was seen as a morally uplifting task and the most important function of a wife was her role as comforter and nurse in the family. Further, the proper state for the exercise of these domestic virtues was, of course, marriage.15

In the novel, a number of references are concerned with the preservation of a woman’s purity. A warning against men, who think that they are entitled to anything, is spoken out by Mary Whitney to Grace Marks. She advises her to always lock the door and use the chamber pot at night and distrust men, “because men were liars by nature, and would say anything to get what they wanted of you, and then they would think better of it and be off on the next boat.”(191) Further, Grace Marks talks of the bed as a place where “many dangerous things” take place, and lists among others the sexual act, which, in her own words, some call “love, others despair, or else merely an indignity which they must suffer through.”(186)

Later on in the novel, Mary Whitney experiences herself the fate of women, who become sexually engaged with a man before marriage and are left alone in the state of pregnancy. Not only would she lose her engagement at Mrs. Alderman Parkinson, further “no decent man would marry her, and she would have to go on the streets, and become a sailor’s drab, as she would have no other way of feeding herself and the baby” (201). The two options open to Mary Whitney in the novel to prevent herself from the loss of her reputation are suicide or a secret abortion (c.f. 202), with the latter leading to death in her case as well.

The blatant discrepancy between the ideal of the sexually cold woman and the reality of female lust is most strongly exemplified by Margaret Atwood with Dr. Jordan’s landlady Mrs. Humphrey. In the course of the novel, Mrs. Humphrey in many instances assertively tries to entangle Dr. Jordan into a sexual affair with her. However, being denied an active sexual desire, she hides her pursuit under a number of psychosomatic symptoms and explains her entering of Dr. Jordan’s bedroom with suffering from sleepwalking. Dr. Jordan states that he does not believe her story for an instant, “but for a refined woman of her class he supposes it’s a way of saving face.” (437)

Dr. Simon Jordan, therefore, in the novel is under no illusion as to the innate refinement of women being an unrealistic ideal rather than a natural state. However, having been confronted with a vast number of women deviating from this ideal, he is nevertheless positive about its promotion: “[…] but all the more reason to safeguard the purity of those still pure. In such a cause, hypocrisy is surely justified: one must present what ought to be true as if it really is.”(100)

Therefore, being presented with an ideal, that was promoted by 19th century literature and magazine culture, but that was not in correlation with reality, many women of the time felt that they could not live up to this ideal. Instead, in order to integrate socially acceptable behavior with their own contradictory feelings and in order to shield their contemporaries from their own disturbing inner emotions, role playing became the general way of life for women of the Victorian period.16 In the novel, this role playing is most clearly exemplified by Mary Whitney. As Grace Marks reports:

Mary Whitney was a fun-loving girl, and very mischevious and bold in her speech when we were alone. But towards her elders and betters her manner was respectful and demure; and because of that, and the brisk way she did her work, she was a general favorite. But behind her backs she made jokes about them, and imitated their faces and walks and ways. (173)

Her rejection of the philosophical concept of Pandora’s box and the period as being Eve’s curse and her use of coarse language in front of her peers in many ways shows her deviations from the ideal of True Womanhood (c.f. 173, 190). However at the same time, she is aware of the role she has to play in society and, as it is mostly strongly shown with her premature sexual engagement before marriage, goes by its rules.

3.2. Women and Crime

The stereotyping of womanhood in the Victorian period also had consequences in the way female criminals were looked upon by society and judged in court. In general, female criminality was seen, and to a certain extent still is seen, as a deviance from what was believed to be the natural role of women. As Frances Heidensohn points out in Gender, Crime and Justice: “They [female criminals] are seen as twice, or doubly deviant - as rare, abnormal female offenders for breaking social rules and as ‘unfeminine and unnatural’ women who have broken out of their conventional roles.”17 Further, the existence of a criminal intention is in general denied for women. As Hilary Allen reports, the intentional deed “is rewritten as a mere event in nature, a natural disaster in whose devastation the offender has been swept away, without either volition or responsibility.”18 It presents women as “not intending the deed, as not knowing or understanding that they are committing it”, “experiencing nothing in relation to it”19 and in many cases committing the crime under the influence of a male criminal. Taken back to the Victorian period, women then could either be seen as weak, simple-minded, terrorized victims or as emotionally carried away hysterics, who, once they got going, became inherently more evil than men.20 In the novel, these two possible interpretation of Grace Marks’ role in the murder of Mr. Kinnear are summerized by Reverend Verringer, who personally believes in Grace Marks’ innocence: “It may be that much of what we are accustomed to describe as evil, and evil freely chosen, is instead an illness due to some lesion of the nervous system, and that the Devil himself is simply a malformation of the cerebrum.” (91)

Due to this biased perception of female criminality, it was possible in principle for women of the Victorian period to literally get away with murder. It mostly depended on the question of whether the accused women could take on the image of the blameless and pure maiden in front of the judges, who themselves were prone to the influence of popular female stereotypes of their times, and victimize themselves as irresponsible young ladies.21 This is also reflected in the novel by the way lawyer MacKenzie tries to defend Grace Marks at court. Though personally convinced of Grace Marks’ guilt, he advises Grace to present herself as an uneducated, immature young maiden in order to plead for her innocence (c.f. 434), and his case among others fails, because Grace Marks’ appearance at court undermines this picture (c.f. 450).

In general, women of the Victorian period showed a great interest in the murder cases, especially when they involved women. In the novel, this interest in murder is represented by the scrap-book of the governor’s wife of the Kingston Penitentiary, which is a collection of articles and accounts of all the popular criminals of their period, and which is appreciated both by herself and her daughter (c.f. 27). Concerning the execution of MacDermott and Grace Marks, Dr. Jordan notes that more women have attended then men.

Mary S. Hartman argues in Victorian Murderesses, that this female absorption in the murder cases was an integral part of the fantasy experience of women of that time. In these trials, the concerns and discontents of the whole sex in general became voiced through the mouths of the accused women. Their exposed lives provided clues and information about private frustrations and terrors of the accused, which most women could relate to, since they have experienced them themselves, but which for most of the women had to remain hidden behind their own bedroom doors. In general, the “female element” showed a supportive identification with the accused murderess and adulterers and found in these trials “an opportunity for release of frustrations and for vicarious fulfillment and unrealized desires.”22 In the novel, this identification and sympathizing with Grace Marks is the chief reason, why the Governor’s wife engages in the committee for the rehabilitation of Grace Marks.

4. Grace Marks

In an interview by David Wiley, Margaret Atwood states that her prime interest in Alias Grace lies in the process of public opinion making and the way it is formed. In specific, she was interested in the way “how people read into situations their own concerns” and how each person, including the witnesses, had their own version.23 Thus, not evaluation of facts, but the projection of one's own received opinions “about women, about criminality, about servants, about insanity, sexuality”24 becomes the prime factor in interpreting the role of Grace Marks.

This process of projection is also exemplified with the main characters in the novel, and the most clearly demonstrated with Dr. Jordan. As he visits the former house of Mr. Kinnear, the place where the murders took place, he pictures Grace Marks as his perfect wife, who would also be “the only one satisfying all of his mother’s oft-hinted requirements” (466): “There is passion in Grace somewhere, he’s certain of it, although it would take some hunting for. And she’d be grateful to him, albeit reluctantly. Gratitude by itself does not enthral him, but he likes the idea of reluctance.”(467) Concerning the numerous versions in the newspapers about her role in the Kinnear Murder Case, which see her either as “inhuman female demon” or “innocent victim” and describe her with contradicting, physical attributes (“that I have blue eyes, that I have green eyes”, 23), Grace Marks comments: “how can I be all of these different things at once?” (23)

In spite to the general perception of female criminals of the Victorian period, Margaret Atwood presents Grace Marks as an overall intelligent character. In a letter to his friend Dr. Edward Murchie, Dr. Jordan notes that Grace Marks’ voice is “more cultivated than usual in a servant” and comments that “although she converses in what seems a frank enough manner, she manages to tell me as little as possible, or as little as possible of what I want to learn”(152). Later on in the novel he wonders: “Is it a real case of amnesia, of the somnambulistic type, or is he the victim of a cunning imposture?”(386) Further, the rich account of the events surrounding the murders by Grace Marks stand in striking contrast to the amnesia Grace Marks claims to have concerning the events that took place during the murders. Also, Grace seems to be very aware of the situation she is in, and in those passages, written from Grace's internal point of view, she often hides details and part of her knowledge in front of Dr. Jordan. In fact, Grace knows that her survival as a servant is bound on her ability to conceal her own intelligence. On her first meeting with Dr. Jordan in the Kingston Penitentiary she comments “I have a good stupid look which I have practiced.” (42).

According to Elizabeth Rose, Grace Marks tells Dr. Jordan the only story, that a woman of the lower class could tell a gentleman in the Victorian period:

Here is the story required by a patriarchal world in which women are sweet and passionless, fainting at the least sign of something offensive to their innocence, and in which servants “know their place”, are diligent and silent and capable, but not overtly intelligent.25

Thus, Grace’s story becomes a story of evasion, shaped by the listener’s expectations and Grace’s own will to survive. While on one hand she tries to keep the attention of Dr. Jordan in order to distract herself from the boredom of prison life, she, at the same time, distracts Dr. Jordan from his key objective for his interviews and hides the key information he is looking for under her elaborate tale. Thus, the story she tells becomes Grace's only source of power in her otherwise disempowered situation. Further, the fact that her tale is both constrained by the needs of the teller and the receiver, explain the different versions of Grace Mark’s role and behavior and provide the necessary space, on which her listeners can project their own ideas and attitudes on her, as explained above. Thus, as Elizabeth Rose comments, her story becomes a “fabrication, an embroidery, meant to please its listener”26, obsolete and unaccountable in meaning and content concerning the facts of the case. Therefore, it is no wonder that, at the end of his interviews, Dr. Jordan notices a feeling of dissatisfaction and disappointment.

5. Conclusion

In the gender-biased society of the Victorian period, women were forced into a passive role, bereft of political power in society, and idealized as pure and morally superior beings, devout of any criminal traits. Therefore, a woman transgressing from her “womanly nature” by committing a serious crime at the same time meant an attack on the preconceived gender roles of the Victorian society. Denying women a conscious criminal intention, as it was acknowledged to men, women were usually not accounted as fully responsible for they crimes. They were either seen as being intimidated by another person, usually a male criminal, or had acted out of hysteria or madness. This way, the Victorian society kept up the myth of the harmlessness of women.27

The “Cult of True Womanhood” and the limited role spectrum forced upon women an idealized image, which was in contradiction to the real inner emotional lives of women and, thus, hard to keep up to for them. Therefore, women took on roles when faced with the outside world, on one hand enabling them to survive, but at the same time disempowering them in their ability to voice their concerns and play a significant political role in society.

Grace Mark’s conviction as murderess, therefore, is looked upon in a rather paradox way: on one hand, her criminality stands out as a break from the restricted role spectrum for women of the Victorian period. It is met with sympathy and understanding by her sisters, since they are familiar with each other’s restricted positions in society, from where the crime was committed. Thus, Grace Mark's suspected act of murder becomes a realization of a fantasy, an expression of a desired wish. On the other hand, forced by the Victorian society into the role of the morally superior being and afraid to step out of it, the Victorian women had to deny themselves theses wishes and viewed female criminals as deviants from their gender. A similar process might be assumed for the psychological state of Grace Marks. Her amnesia concerning the events around the murders, which after the spiritualist session is classified with the symptom of double consciousness and d é doublement, may be her way to integrate her evil, passionate character traits into the preconceived female stereotypes of her time: projection of the evil side into a secondary split personality (c.f. 485-486). In a society, not able to realize women as they are, Grace becomes able to hide her criminal involvement under the mask of the morally superior, but socially inferior woman. By denying women a criminal attitude, the Victorian society of British North America away with murder.

Carsten Brettschneider

York University, Toronto



Primary Source

Atwood, Margaret. Alias Grace. Toronto: McClelland-Bantam, 1996.

Secondary Sources

"Alias Grace."Financial Post. V. 90 (36), September 7, 1996. 20.

"Amazing Atwood: A Brilliant New Historical Novel Confirms Her Status at the Top of her Craft."MacLean's. Toronto Edition, v. 109 (39), September 23, 1996. 42-45. Bowker, Lee H. Women, Crime, and the Criminal Justice System. Lexington, MA: DC Heath and Company, 1978.

Carlen, Pat & Worall, Anne. Eds. Gender, Crime and Justice. Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1987.

Hartman, Mary S. Victorian Murderesses: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes. New York: Schocken Books, 1977. Hogeland, Ronald W. Ed. Women and Womanhood in America. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1973.

Light, Beth & Prentice, Alison. Eds. Pioneer and Gentlewomen of British North America 1713-1867. Toronto: New Hogtown Press, 1980.

Rose, Elizabeth E. "A Wheel of Mystery."Fiddlehead 191, Spring 97. 114-119.

Internet Resource

Interview by David Wiley:


1 c.f. Beth Light & Alison Prentice, eds., Pioneer and Gentlewomen of British North America 1713-1867 (Toronto: New Hogton Press), 1980, p. 6.

2 c.f. Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace (Toronto: McClelland-Bantam), 1996, 22. All further references appear in the text..

3 c.f. Light & Prentice, p. 9. This trend is also reflected in the novel. Though women and men interact together in the public realm, married couples are not seen in Alias Grace as interfering with each other’s projects.

4 c.f. Light & Prentice, p. 134.

5 c.f. Light & Prentice, p. 38.

6 c.f. Ronald W. Hogeland, ed., Women and Womanhood in America (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1973), 71.

7 c.f. Light & Prentince, 94.

8 c.f. Mary S. Hartman, Victorian Murderesses: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes (New York: Schocken Books, 1977), pp. 258-259.

9 c.f. Light & Prentince, p. 8.

10 c.f. Hogeland, p. 104.

11 Hogeland, p. 106.

12 c.f. Hartman, p. 256.

13 c.f. Hogeland, 106.

14 c.f. Hogeland, pp. 108-109.

15 c.f. Hogeland, pp. 109-110.

16 c.f. Hartman, pp. 256-257.

17 Pat Carlen & Anne Worrall, eds., Gender, Crime and Justice (Philadelphia: Open University Press, 1987), p.

22. Though this book largely deals with the treatment of the female criminals in the justice system within the latter half of this century, many of its conclusion can still be seen in coherence with the Victorian period, since women until recently still have been subject to a similar gender bias.

18 Carlen & Worall, p. 85.

19 Carlen & Worall, p. 84.

20 As explained by Margaret Atwood in an interview by David Wiley in:

21 c.f. Hartman, p. 261.

22 c.f. Hartman, 268-269.

23 c.f. Wiley.

24 c.f. Wiley.

25 E. Elizabeth Rose, “A Wheel of Mystery”, Fiddlehead 191, 116.

26 Rose, 116.

27 c.f. Carlen & Worall, 91.

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The Depiction of Womanhood in Margaret Atwood`s Alias Grace
York University
Graduate Course "Historical Novels in Canada"
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Womanhood, Canada, Margaret Atwood, Novel, Alias Grace, Canadian Studies, Literary Sciences, Historical Novel
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Carsten Brettschneider (Author), 1998, The Depiction of Womanhood in Margaret Atwood`s Alias Grace, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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