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Forgive Grace Marks, Father, for She Has Sinned: How Margaret Atwood Confesses Grace's Guilt

Updated: Feb 11



It is a well-known fact that human beings are very curious creatures. Why is the sky blue? Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? How did history really happen? What is innocence, and what is guilt? While some of these questions can be (and have been) answered scientifically, others are left to our imaginations, our own ability to piece together evidence and fill in the necessary gaps to complete the narration or provide our own explanations. In the case of the novel Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood pieces the life together of Grace Marks, murderess. Atwood attempts to answer the questions of who exactly was Grace, what led up to the murders of Nancy and Mr. Kinnear, and if Grace was guilty or innocent in the crime. Yet in reality, we as readers and historians can never really know if and why Grace may have committed the murders. With that being said, how we do not know for certain if Grace was indeed a murderess, Atwood in her (re)telling of the past passes judgement over her version of Grace Marks and condemns her with a guilty verdict. Whether Atwood intentionally declares Grace guilty or not, I shall explain how her diction and the length of Grace's narration to Dr. Jordan firmly attaches the title of murderess to Grace.


Before I can explain how Atwood's stylistic choices make Grace guilty, I first need to summarize this article I stumbled upon that helped form this post. The article I am referring to is, "Mitigating Murder: The Construction of Blame in True and False Confessions" by Belen Lowrey and Sara Ray (See bottom for link to article). Lowrey and Ray linguistically studied a total of six confessions: three that were true and three that were false (5 out of 6 confessions were for murder). This study was an attempt to find patterns to help prevent and detect false confessions that might have been stimulated by interrogators, or any other reason someone might falsely confess to a crime they did not commit.


I shall summarize and list their major findings below:


For false confessions:

-the confessors do not deflect blame from themselves. In other words, they claim responsibility for their crime (even though they did not commit any crime)

-they simply state motives without explaining reasons as if they are mirroring the details they have read/heard about the nature of the crime

-no self-evaluations of actions

-no emotion/a detached narration


For true confessions:

-they demonstrate remorse and guilt for their actions

-they say that they hesitated before their crime

-they shift the blame away from themselves as if they had no choice for their actions (in other words, they justify their actions)

-these confessions are significantly longer in terms of word count compared to false confessions


Let's now take a look at Grace's confession to Dr. Jordan (for that is what her story to Dr. Jordan is-her own version of the crime) with these confessional characteristics in mind:


-I think it's safe to say her confessional story is long considering it takes up a significant portion of the novel.

-Grace 100% tries to shift the blame away from herself and unto James McDermott by saying she feared for her life, that he had a gun. That being said, McDermott also tries to shift the blame unto her as he hanged, a fact which makes me suspect that they both were indeed guilty (at least within the novel).

-Grace does delay the murders in the story (and I count delaying as a type of hesitation). For example, McDermott wants to kill Nancy right away and yet Grace makes him wait for the morning. She even makes the rather cold remark that she doesn't want him to get the carpet bloody as a reason for him to wait until she wasn't in the room.

-But does she feel guilt or remorse? This is where I stumble in this interpretation. She does not wail or lament the passing of Nancy and Mr. Kinnear. I would say she does express guilt as she does admits she did help McDermott, even if she was at gun point. But remorse? The jury is still out on that one.


For me, it's interesting to read how Grace tells her story to Dr. Jordan in order to gain his sympathy, to get his letter asking for a pardon- a letter to express her innocence. Yet at the same time as she is trying to convince him of her innocence, Atwood's narrative technique in how Grace tells this confession expresses her guilt. As I stated before, I'm not sure if Atwood had the intention of proclaiming Grace guilty through her storytelling, how Grace's confession closely resembles that of a true murder confession, but it seems hard now to ignore the possibly that Atwood did this on purpose. Atwood wants sympathy for Grace, wants there to a possibly that Grace was in fact innocent of the crime and worthy of a pardon. Yet I ultimately think that Atwood plays with the idea of Grace being a fierce, seductive murderess whose confessions (both the one at her trial and her story to Dr. Jordan) express her guilt for the crimes.


So, was Grace Marks guilty? Was she innocent? Is she telling the truth? Does it matter?


At the very end of the novel, Grace's lawyer makes a valid argument (as lawyers are known to do). He asks Dr. Jordan, "'Did Scheherazade lie? Not in her own eyes; indeed, the stories she told ought never to be subjected to the harsh categories of Truth and Falsehood. They belong in another realm altogether'" (377). This is a clear reference to The Arabian Nights where storytelling is the only way Scheherazade keeps herself alive (perhaps very similar to Grace in this novel). Below I am including a Youtube link to a compilations of the violin solos in Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. This classical adaptation of the story The Arabian Nights was composed back in 1888 and is considered by many to have the most difficult violin solos even to this date. The piece has four total movements (which are all very amazing but I doubted many would want to listen through all that unless you are a classical music fanatic such as myself): The Sea and Sinbad's Ship, The Kalandar Prince, The Young Prince and the Young Princess, and Festival at Baghdad. The brass represents the dominating power of the sultan while the woodwinds as well as the violin solos speak for Scheherazade. Just listen especially during the last solo, that pure, sweet cry of the violin. If lies create such emotions, does that mean the emotions themselves are lies? If something so beautiful is created from lies, does that diminish the beauty? If Grace repented her crime for sixteen years, would it be permissible for a lie to set her free? You can be the judge of that.


For the violin solos:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPB15Ma2o48


For those who are classical geeks, here is the whole piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQNymNaTr-Y


Link to Lowrey's and Ray's article: https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.libraries.wright.edu/stable/pdf/24815260.pdf?ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_search_solr_cloud%2Fcontrol&refreqid=fastly-default%3Ab573b756ba696b3cd3d8c67d0e078711


Atwood, Margaret. Alias Grace. First Anchor Books, 1996.

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