Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace Tells A Powerful Tale

This post contains spoilers of the CBC and Netflix miniseries Alias Grace

The CBC miniseries Alias Grace is a phenomenally written period drama that immerses its audience in the story of a servant who has been convicted of killing her employer and his housekeeper. From the beginning of the first episode the audience knows of a murder, but the mystery of Alias Grace is in the backstory  of the crime itself. The series follows Margaret Atwood’s tale of convicted murderess Grace Marks, who is based on a historical figure of the same name. Grace has witnessed a lot of trauma and the audience follows her tumultuous life through discussions with a physician who has an interest in her case.

The Historical Strife Of Alias Grace
Throughout its six episodes, Alias Grace packs in struggles rooted in gender and class disparity. Grace is an Irish Victorian-era woman working as a servant living in British-controlled Canada. In the mid-19th century those traits could condemn someone into a tortured existence. Alias Grace exposes the fictionalized (but very real) hell that Grace Marks may have experienced leading up to the murders. The series unravels the story through Grace’s dialogue with her physician, Dr. Jordan. Jordan is working on behalf of a Christian group that is trying to obtain a pardon for Grace.
The most obvious theme of Alias Grace is the struggle of being an early Victorian working-class woman. Grace is seen as an object for sexual gratification by almost every male figure of importance in her life. Her father, the treating doctor at the asylum, the son of her first employer, her cohort in crime, her second employer, and even Dr. Jordan all have various levels of sexual interest in Grace.
Alias Grace also depicts the class struggles of the time. The murders of Thomas Kinnear and housekeeper Nancy Montgomery took place in 1843, just five years after the cessation of a rebellion in Canada. The ideas of class mobility were at a crossroads and the concept that servants were lesser people was being challenged by lower classes. This is powerfully depicted by how poorly Grace’s friend Mary was treated after a liaison with the son of an employer. Her status as a pregnant and unwed working-class woman had the potential to bring her undeserved shame and a status as an outcast. As Alias Grace unfolds, the tragedy of Mary is a constant reminder that the protagonist is at constant risk of a similar fate.
The Series
Sarah Gadon as Grace Marks in Alias Grace
Writer Sarah Polley did an amazing job of pacing the story across six episodes. Even though the audience is aware from the first episode that the main character of the series was a convicted murderess, the action is evenly paced so that Grace’s backstory and the murder itself unfold gradually. The masterstroke of Alias Grace is the ambiguity of the main character’s constantly changing story. The viewers watch as Grace manipulates her onscreen audience to only say what she wants them to hear. We never know exactly what Grace’s role in the murders were. Was she possessed? Does she have multiple personalities? Was she an unfortunate bystander or a willing accomplice? The ambiguity of the mystery enhances the intrigue.
Grace Marks is portrayed by Sarah Gadon. The Canadian actress not only delivers a believable Irish accent, but also provides many layers to her character as she works in houses and is imprisoned in an asylum. Her performance is particularly dynamic in the final episode of the series. During a session with her neuro-hypnotist friend Jeremiah, Gadon succeeds in creating a goosebumpy scene in which she attempts to convince her captive audience that she was inhabited by the soul of her deceased friend Mary on the day of the murders.
Margaret Atwood
Alias Grace is based on Margaret Atwood’s 1996 novel of the same name. Atwood also wrote The Servant Girl, a 1974 CBC television movie of Grace Marks’ life. The author makes a brief appearance as a churchgoer in the fourth episode of the series.


Margaret Atwood in Alias Grace
2017 has been a remarkable year for Atwood. Alias Grace is the third Atwood work to be adapted into a television series this year. The groundbreaking first installment of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale received thirteen Emmy nominations and was the first streaming series to ever garner an Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. Wondering Wenda and Widdow Wallup’s Wunderground Washery has been adapted into a children’s series on CBC and will begin airing on Nick Jr. in December.

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