A Deviant Device: Diary Dissembling in Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace

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    Taking a ‘fictional excursion’ into the ‘real Canadian past’, Margaret Atwood exposes a wealth of contradictions in the story of a nineteenth-century ‘celebrated murderess’. Alias Grace (1996) is Atwood’s pastiche of Grace Marks’s story that illustrates ‘the past is made of paper’, but the historical record is confusing and contradictory. The novel’s complex intermingling of fictional and non-fictional voices raises questions that undermine the value and veracity of documented history. Yet in a crowded narrative of discordant voices, Atwood manages to isolate Grace’s covert commentary in a diary-like space. Voice and the diverse roles of writer and critic are key preoccupations for Atwood as she debates processes that effectively effaced Grace’s legibility. It is largely Grace’s diary voice that exemplifies doubt as the heart of Atwood’s novel by reinforcing uncertainty with its deviancies and elisions or outright confession that what Grace narrates ‘is not quite true’. Atwood claims that Grace’s story ‘is a real study in how the perception of reality is shaped’, but this article examines how diary form shapes readers’ perceptions of Atwood’s fictional reconstruction of a historical figure. Revisiting her earlier incarnations of Grace, Atwood writes back to a nineteenth-century writer, Susannah Moodie, whose inaccuracies and flights of imagination influenced all later commentaries. Moodie’s ‘eye-witness’ accounts (reported from memory) are now deemed unreliable, and she is suspected of inflaming sensational interest in Grace. Moodie’s role as unreliable witness and historian becomes part of the fabric of Alias Grace as Atwood stitches a new story onto the old by means of fabric[ated] red peonies that serve a symbolic and intertextual function in the novel. As the leitmotif of the novel, the peonies appear in story, dream, and diary account to suggest a malevolent irruption that is always linked to Grace’s memory and sanity. Representing the intrusion of Moodie’s historiography, the flowers flourish as unwelcome weeds in Grace’s carefully tended diary narrative to demonstrate that anything new written about Grace will always be dogged or haunted by Moodie’s words. The peonies symbolise Atwood’s implicit intertext with Moodie’s ‘first-hand’ account, reminding readers that history is verbalised, misinterpreted, subjective, and in Atwood’s case, explicitly revisioned as fiction. New Historicists argue that textual production always involves sequential ‘hands’ as event is processed into historiography. Alias Grace illustrates this process by exploring how Grace is first ‘read’ and written through a lens of Moodie’s nineteenth-century ideology and now re-produced in novel form as Atwood’s postmodern vision. The novel is a self-contradictory and consequently self-explanatory metafiction that demonstrates how competing accounts and hidden agendas forestall any collective cohesiveness for Grace’s history. Diary associations go some way to authenticate Grace’s private voice to speak above the warring factions that fictionally debate her position, but Bakhtinian signals question, ironise, and contradict surface meaning in Grace’s monologue. I suggest that within a tangle of competing voices, Grace Marks is primarily an alias for Atwood to deliver authorial polemic in a diary-style voice that debates instabilities in both memory and historical record.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationThe Female Figure in Contemporary Historical Fiction
    EditorsKatherine Cooper, Emma Short
    Place of PublicationBasingstoke
    PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
    Number of pages241
    ISBN (Print)9780230302785
    Publication statusPublished - 29 Oct 2012


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