The Eroticism of Class and the Enigma of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace

Sandra StanleyCalifornia State University, Northridge
Vol. 22, No. 2 (Fall 2003), 371-386

This essay discusses several ways in which Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace implicitly revises Peter Stallybrass and Allon White’s theory of the bourgeois male’s erotic fascination with hired servants cast in various postures of social debasement. Departing from Sigmund Freud’s case studies of the Rat Man and Wolf Man, Stallybrass and White point out that it is specifically the maid, not the mother, who arouses desire in the men, so that her posture and position thus produce a curious side effect of destabilizing class boundaries. In Atwood’s much-researched depiction of Grace Marks, a maid-of-all work who was accused of murdering her employer and his housekeeper/mistress in 1843, the scenario of the dirty maid becomes not just a destabilizing erotic scene but a series of contradictory, excessive performances by Grace. Her performances as prisoner, amnesia victim, madwoman, released convict, and socially accepted married woman function to withhold the eroticized knowledge sought by men obsessed with her.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]