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Old 11-26-2018, 02:00 AM   #76
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I fail to understand why a fictionalised motive is any better or worse, or more or less important, than a fictionalised conclusion. Once any part of the story is fictionalised then - unless the author makes very clear which parts are fiction and fact - the reader is left not knowing where the lines were drawn and may as well be reading a totally fictional story.
Because a conclusion is definite, even in fiction, but a motive is always a combination of a lot of factors, and a novel can explore them. Here, we are hearing Grace tell her story--which is her personal fictionalization of events; whether or not she's a murderer, she's telling a story, as we all do when we recount our past. What in Grace's story brought her to be involved in murder, even if only as a bystander?

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As far as I am concerned I've read a work of fiction inspired by what happened to Grace Marks. Interesting for its added realism, maybe (although for me this turned out not to be true), but otherwise little different to reading any other fictional work.
Is anyone saying it's anything but fiction? But it still should try to adhere to the known facts of the case--at least I think it should. Cases in which there's doubt are a lot more fascinating than ones that are definitively solved. People still come up with theories about Jack the Ripper, wonder about Lizzie and her ax, imagine (despite DNA) that Anastasia survived. Grace Marks may not be in their league, but with the long fight for a pardon, she must have been quite a figure of fascination in her day.

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I think this is an interesting perspective, and one I don't think Atwood explored particularly well. Perhaps in a more fictional work the freedom would have existed to express this more clearly.
I think it's obvious that Grace was trapped--she spent her whole life in a trap and had no reasonable way of escape. She never had real choices or options; she had to do what she was told. Even when she was pardoned, she was essentially forced into marriage; she had no other way to survive than to go along with someone else's decision about her life.
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Old 11-26-2018, 06:30 AM   #77
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[...] I don't know; if I were writing a story that had a lot of water in it already because of the historical basis, I think I'd probably keep using it.

As a reader, I didn't especially notice it as something important--just water, as you say.
You could be right. Your comment made me think of the Australian murder mystery I've just finished. From the number of mentions one might think flies are part of a theme when really they are just part of the setting.


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I think it's obvious that Grace was trapped--she spent her whole life in a trap and had no reasonable way of escape. She never had real choices or options; she had to do what she was told. Even when she was pardoned, she was essentially forced into marriage; she had no other way to survive than to go along with someone else's decision about her life.
Prior to her capture and subsequent incarceration, the book seems to suggest that Grace was not trapped. She had had a number of positions before going to Richmond Hill. Leaving Richmond Hill may have presented difficulties, but then the fiction presented gives her that option and has her turn away from it. I'm not suggesting she had anything like the options that men of the time had, but the book didn't convince me she was tightly trapped. (I would not be surprised to learn that - in reality - she was indeed as trapped as you say.)
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Old 11-26-2018, 11:27 AM   #78
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I agree with Bookpossum. We can't ever know all there is to know about any actual events; fictionalizing them is a way to provide a possible interpretation, and it's one reason that I often tend to prefer a fictionalized account--I want a plausible explanation and I want to understand how things might have happened. No one's ever going to know for sure if Grace was a murderer; why should there be certainty about Atwood's fictional creation? I didn't really want some last-minute confession from Grace if she was guilty, and if she was innocent, well, that's what she'd been saying all along.

I've read a few novels based on actual murders, and whether names are changed or not, the more I know about the actual case, the less tolerant I am of an author's interpretation that disregards the apparent facts--and my own existing prejudices (e.g., Little Deaths, based on the Alice Crimmins case). Of course, the most famous did-she-or-didn't-she is probably Lizzie Borden. No matter how many novels I read about her (e.g., See What I Have Done), and no matter if the author comes down on the side of guilt or innocence, who knows?
I don't think we have to keep an entirely open mind. With Lizzie Borden, for example, while she was acquitted, I think the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence says she did it. I think as readers we can apply the same standard of "reasonable doubt" that applies in a courtroom. In the end, people tend to get the justice they can afford (see O.J. Simpson, as another example), but I don't feel compelled to say either that Borden and Simpson were judged innocent therefore they were or that we can't know.

In regard to fictionalization I'm willing to go along with a speculative and/or expanded narrative so long as the known facts aren't altered. In a case like this, of course, it's wide open. But there also seems to be some reaction that Atwood went too far, e.g., Simon's entire involvement and interior monologue and also Jeremiah and Jamie as key elements in the resolution. This goes far beyond the specific whys for Grace. I have no issue with using a known case as a jumping off point, but I think this was too far along the fiction spectrum to justify using real personages.

O/T Can't resist commenting on Alice Crimmins; was her pushing for a second trial a sign of innocence or hubris?

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I agree Catlady - it’s the why that is really interesting. So if Grace wasn’t a scheming murderess, why didn’t she escape with Jeremiah, why didn’t she seek help and protection from neighbours or the butcher, why not get away from McDermott on the boat or in the place they went to on the other side of the lake.

In asking those questions, it makes me think of the way people say of a woman in an abusive relationship “Why didn’t she just leave?” And of course it’s never as simple as that. So it is plausible that Grace stayed with McDermott because of fear, rather than because of shared guilt.
Passivity and/or dearth of alternatives can also be compelling reasons, both in this case or any abusive relationship.
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Old 11-26-2018, 11:47 AM   #79
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More and more, I'm thinking that the use of Grace Marks, a real person, was a snare for both the reader and Atwood. It constrained Atwood in a way that a purely fictional retelling wouldn't have and the reader gets caught up in the "real" events at the expense of the story.

It's been so long since I've read The Woman in White, but I wonder to what extent Alias Grace can be considered a sort of homage, but the flip side: a lower class woman struggling against the repressions of the times. Grace had far fewer alternatives than Laura! And to what extent are Mary and Anne doppelgangers?

Once I started thinking along those lines, I thought Atwood would have been far better served by an entirely fictional account, one that would have let her say exactly what she wanted, instead of having to force her narrative to fit the known facts.

In any case, I think our particular line of discussion while entertaining illuminating, has gotten us very far from consideration of Alias Grace as just a story and as a representation of the Victorian novel. We've been led astray. But another unanswerable issue is to what extent Atwood may have intended it?
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Old 11-26-2018, 02:08 PM   #80
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Prior to her capture and subsequent incarceration, the book seems to suggest that Grace was not trapped. She had had a number of positions before going to Richmond Hill. Leaving Richmond Hill may have presented difficulties, but then the fiction presented gives her that option and has her turn away from it. I'm not suggesting she had anything like the options that men of the time had, but the book didn't convince me she was tightly trapped. (I would not be surprised to learn that - in reality - she was indeed as trapped as you say.)
I think she was always trapped. What were her choices? Servitude or prostitution, basically.

Did she have any option to report a possible murder plan? As she says, who would have believed her? Wouldn't she just have been dismissed as a troublemaker and fantasist? Was she supposed to run off without any way to live? She'd seen what happened to Mary and Nancy, both used by men, both subject to a man's whim.

Here's where Dr. Jordan provides a counterpoint--when his landlady suggested murder, he didn't report it to anyone either, but he DID have the option of extricating himself from the situation, and did so by running away. His departure didn't require any hardship--he did it easily and without retribution, unless you want to see his later wartime injury as divine karma.
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Old 11-26-2018, 02:38 PM   #81
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I don't think we have to keep an entirely open mind. With Lizzie Borden, for example, while she was acquitted, I think the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence says she did it. I think as readers we can apply the same standard of "reasonable doubt" that applies in a courtroom. In the end, people tend to get the justice they can afford (see O.J. Simpson, as another example), but I don't feel compelled to say either that Borden and Simpson were judged innocent therefore they were or that we can't know.
I didn't mean to suggest we need to keep an open mind to the extent of denying a mountain of evidence, as the jurors in the O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony trials did. But when we look back a hundred years or so, and think about the vastly different circumstances, prejudices, ingrained beliefs, etc., it's easy to see how people who were not rich, white, privileged males may have been victimized in a system predisposed against them. Especially in an era before DNA and fingerprinting.

(My view: Simpson did it, Anthony did it, Borden probably did it.)

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In regard to fictionalization I'm willing to go along with a speculative and/or expanded narrative so long as the known facts aren't altered. In a case like this, of course, it's wide open. But there also seems to be some reaction that Atwood went too far, e.g., Simon's entire involvement and interior monologue and also Jeremiah and Jamie as key elements in the resolution. This goes far beyond the specific whys for Grace. I have no issue with using a known case as a jumping off point, but I think this was too far along the fiction spectrum to justify using real personages.
I don't understand this objection. Would it have changed the book significantly if Atwood had called her characters by different names? I think Atwood would still have declined to pronounce a judgment on her protagonist's guilt or innocence, because that wasn't the story she wanted to tell.

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O/T Can't resist commenting on Alice Crimmins; was her pushing for a second trial a sign of innocence or hubris?
I can't see Alice Crimmins as anything but guilty, but that's a visceral reaction, based on being a child when the murders occurred. I can still see in my mind's eye a newspaper photograph of those two little children. As much as I can understand now that Crimmins may well have been hounded and victimized because of her lifestyle, that childhood belief won't go away.
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Old 11-27-2018, 12:42 AM   #82
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I think she was always trapped. What were her choices? Servitude or prostitution, basically.

Did she have any option to report a possible murder plan? As she says, who would have believed her? Wouldn't she just have been dismissed as a troublemaker and fantasist? Was she supposed to run off without any way to live? She'd seen what happened to Mary and Nancy, both used by men, both subject to a man's whim.

Here's where Dr. Jordan provides a counterpoint--when his landlady suggested murder, he didn't report it to anyone either, but he DID have the option of extricating himself from the situation, and did so by running away. His departure didn't require any hardship--he did it easily and without retribution, unless you want to see his later wartime injury as divine karma.
It seemed to me that Atwood showed a level of freedom for domestic servants in Canada of the time. (I speaking relative to what opportunities they might have had previously, and/or elsewhere, I'm not trying to compare to current day.) There seemed an expectation that if they were good girls (by the standards of the times) they could move from house to house according to their own tastes (if I understand correctly there was an under-supply of servants at the time), and might eventually marry a farmer and become mistress of their own household with their own servants.

I was inclined to think of Rachel Humphrey (the Dr Jordan's landlady) as the more interesting counterpoint. Rachel seemed more trapped than Grace had been. As a respectable married woman she had nowhere to turn when her drunkard husband walked out. And when he seems about to show up again, is it any wonder that she should strive to find a way to avoid starving next time her husband does the same thing?
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Old 11-27-2018, 01:29 AM   #83
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[...] In any case, I think our particular line of discussion while entertaining illuminating, has gotten us very far from consideration of Alias Grace as just a story and as a representation of the Victorian novel. We've been led astray. But another unanswerable issue is to what extent Atwood may have intended it?
As a story I found it uninspired, uninspiring and unsatisfying. As a presentation of facts I thought it was ineffective. I've not studied literature formally so the concept of a "Victorian novel" is a bit loose with me. In my mind these tend to be large in scope with many characters, and so mostly unlike this narrowly focused book with its small cast. It would not have occurred to me to think of this as a Victorian novel.

Margaret Atwood is not exactly a newcomer to the art, and her work seems very deliberate. So while specific reactions are perhaps too variable for an author to reliably intend with any precision, I would say that our mixed reaction would have been expected, and I doubt if she would be surprised by anything much we've expressed on this thread.
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Old 11-27-2018, 12:21 PM   #84
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It seemed to me that Atwood showed a level of freedom for domestic servants in Canada of the time. (I speaking relative to what opportunities they might have had previously, and/or elsewhere, I'm not trying to compare to current day.) There seemed an expectation that if they were good girls (by the standards of the times) they could move from house to house according to their own tastes (if I understand correctly there was an under-supply of servants at the time), and might eventually marry a farmer and become mistress of their own household with their own servants.
Wow, what a life to look forward to. Be a servant in this house, or be a servant in that house. I mentioned Mary and Nancy earlier. Mary was a servant in a good house, was seduced and used by the son of the house, got pregnant, and ended up dead. Nancy was a servant who had a cozy little relationship, except she had no security whatsoever, got pregnant, and worried that she could be discarded for the next pretty maid.

Those two women were Grace's influences, along with her mother, of course, who was at the mercy of her abusive husband, a man she married because she was pregnant; she had, I believe, 13 pregnancies before she died. And he was bitter about all the mouths to feed, as though he had no part in their creation.

Which of those futures looks most appealing and is not a trap?

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I was inclined to think of Rachel Humphrey (the Dr Jordan's landlady) as the more interesting counterpoint. Rachel seemed more trapped than Grace had been. As a respectable married woman she had nowhere to turn when her drunkard husband walked out. And when he seems about to show up again, is it any wonder that she should strive to find a way to avoid starving next time her husband does the same thing?
She's just another example of a woman being trapped, even when she thinks she's making a good marriage, her life is always precarious and dependent on a man's favor.
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Old 11-27-2018, 01:04 PM   #85
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Would it have changed the book significantly if Atwood had called her characters by different names? I think Atwood would still have declined to pronounce a judgment on her protagonist's guilt or innocence, because that wasn't the story she wanted to tell.
I think the major difference if Atwood had called her characters by different names is that the total fabrications wouldn't have been as jarring. Simon and Jamie in a fictional work would have been acceptable constructs. Simon is problematic as the conduit both for Grace's memories and for Atwood's interpretation of the facts as known, given that this is supposedly a true story except when it isn't. Similarly, Jamie and Jeremiah as dei ex machinis occasion an eyeroll if this is factual, and if it isn't, why give that gloss to the story?

I dunno. Historical faction is popular and harmless and look at the Tudor industry! I suppose it boils down to both how recent the events were and how much is known about it and Grace Marks is in a nebulous territory in that regard for me.

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As a story I found it uninspired, uninspiring and unsatisfying. As a presentation of facts I thought it was ineffective. I've not studied literature formally so the concept of a "Victorian novel" is a bit loose with me. In my mind these tend to be large in scope with many characters, and so mostly unlike this narrowly focused book with its small cast. It would not have occurred to me to think of this as a Victorian novel.
Well, there are Victorian novels and Victorian novels. Obviously this isn't Dickensian with a huge and rollicking cast of characters, but I find it quite Brontëan. It has the limited scope of a Jane Eye or Villette and focus on particularly women's emotions and their economic and social standing mid-century and it has something of the narrative structure of a Wuthering Heights, with its narration within a narration and similar issues of distance and reliability. And certainly the prison locale is quite Dickensian at that.

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Wow, what a life to look forward to. Be a servant in this house, or be a servant in that house. I mentioned Mary and Nancy earlier. Mary was a servant in a good house, was seduced and used by the son of the house, got pregnant, and ended up dead. Nancy was a servant who had a cozy little relationship, except she had no security whatsoever, got pregnant, and worried that she could be discarded for the next pretty maid.
This is what I mean by saying we've focused on the facts to the exclusion of the story. What is Atwood saying with the characters of Mary and Nancy? Assuming we both believe Grace and that Mary was real, Mary was someone who knew better and yet "fell" anyway. Why? Lust, coercion, physical force, stupidity?

And Nancy'd already had an illegitimate child; she seemed someone to me who managed outside the mores. The nineteenth century is replete with notorious women who thrived despite flagrant immorality, which is not to say that most weren't crushed when they erred. I could see Nancy as always landing on her feet somehow. I think this is one reason why Grace resented her; in Grace's mind she was no better than Mary, probably worse, but Mary had ended up dead and Nancy so far was thriving. In addition to Grace's own issues with Nancy, did she see herself as a force of vengeance? Because Grace seemed entirely in step with Victorian morality.
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Old 11-27-2018, 05:51 PM   #86
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I don’t know. I didn’t worry about Dr Jordan being a construct. I was just irritated at the amount of attention he was getting when I was more interested in Grace. She was an enigma, and therefore intrigued me.

I think I read the book as a story and didn’t bother so much about the boundaries between fact and fiction. I was prepared to accept that the story about Mary was true, that she existed in Grace’s world I mean, as opposed to being part of Atwood’s fiction. Her fate was sadly such a common one back then, that it was all too possible.

Grace was clearly personable, intelligent and had many useful skills in order to become a trusted servant in the Governor’s home. So I was prepared to believe her to be innocent of the murders but afraid of McDermott and so an accessory after the fact. She managed to use her wits to keep him from raping her.

In some odd way she reminded me of Elizabeth Tudor managing to survive by her wits in a similarly perilous situation when one mistake would have given Queen Mary the excuse to execute her. Quite different circumstances of course, but each a woman surviving despite the odds.
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Old 11-27-2018, 05:54 PM   #87
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I think the major difference if Atwood had called her characters by different names is that the total fabrications wouldn't have been as jarring. Simon and Jamie in a fictional work would have been acceptable constructs. Simon is problematic as the conduit both for Grace's memories and for Atwood's interpretation of the facts as known, given that this is supposedly a true story except when it isn't. Similarly, Jamie and Jeremiah as dei ex machinis occasion an eyeroll if this is factual, and if it isn't, why give that gloss to the story?

I dunno. Historical faction is popular and harmless and look at the Tudor industry! I suppose it boils down to both how recent the events were and how much is known about it and Grace Marks is in a nebulous territory in that regard for me.
But it is a fictional work; it's not being presented as a true crime account. It's all fabrication, and I don't know how it can be jarring as a departure from fact unless one is familiar with the actual case and/or has opinions about it and the players. I am not getting this objection at all.

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This is what I mean by saying we've focused on the facts to the exclusion of the story. What is Atwood saying with the characters of Mary and Nancy? Assuming we both believe Grace and that Mary was real, Mary was someone who knew better and yet "fell" anyway. Why? Lust, coercion, physical force, stupidity?
Love. Mary was in love and had been promised marriage.

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...the man had promised to marry her, and had given her a ring, and for once in a way she’d believed him, as she’d thought he was not like other men; but he’d gone back on his promise, and now would not speak with her; and she was in despair and did not know what to do.
And after she asked him for help and he pawned her off with five bucks:

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She said she had once truly loved him, but did so no longer.
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And Nancy'd already had an illegitimate child; she seemed someone to me who managed outside the mores. The nineteenth century is replete with notorious women who thrived despite flagrant immorality, which is not to say that most weren't crushed when they erred. I could see Nancy as always landing on her feet somehow. I think this is one reason why Grace resented her; in Grace's mind she was no better than Mary, probably worse, but Mary had ended up dead and Nancy so far was thriving. In addition to Grace's own issues with Nancy, did she see herself as a force of vengeance? Because Grace seemed entirely in step with Victorian morality.
Was Nancy's earlier illegitimate child mentioned in the story, or only in the author's note? I can't remember and can't find it.

I do think that if she killed Nancy, Grace could have seen herself as avenging Mary.

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What would he do when he found out, I wondered. Boot her into the ditch. Marry her. I had no idea, and could not rest easy with either of these futures. I wished Nancy no harm, and did not want her cast out, a waif on the common highway and a prey to wandering scoundrels; but all the same it would not be fair and just that she should end up a respectable married lady with a ring on her finger, and rich into the bargain. It would not be right at all. Mary Whitney had done the same as her, and had gone to her death. Why should the one be rewarded and the other punished, for the same sin?
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Old 11-27-2018, 06:15 PM   #88
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Nancy’s previous child was mentioned in the discussion between Simon and Grace’s lawyer.
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Old 11-27-2018, 06:42 PM   #89
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Nancy’s previous child was mentioned in the discussion between Simon and Grace’s lawyer.
Thanks, B_G!

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But it is a fictional work; it's not being presented as a true crime account. It's all fabrication, and I don't know how it can be jarring as a departure from fact unless one is familiar with the actual case and/or has opinions about it and the players. I am not getting this objection at all.
My objection to this kind of thing is that the author is having it both ways. The facts matter when it helps the author, whether it be creating context or outcomes or whatever, but not when it comes to huge leaps of invention. But I can't say that's not just prejudice; it matters more when it's someone current or recent; not as much when it's over a century ago.

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Love. Mary was in love and had been promised marriage.
What you call love I'd call a combination of lust, wishful thinking and stupidity. She really did know better.

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Grace was clearly personable, intelligent and had many useful skills in order to become a trusted servant in the Governor’s home. So I was prepared to believe her to be innocent of the murders but afraid of McDermott and so an accessory after the fact. She managed to use her wits to keep him from raping her.
...or bright enough either to know how to play it and/or to take her lawyer's advice. But of course that's the point of telling the story in this manner; we can argue guilt or innocence until the cows come home.
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Old 11-27-2018, 07:55 PM   #90
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Wow, what a life to look forward to. [...]
But it's not news. It's not a reason for this story. That's why I was comparing Grace's situation to what she might have expected (what her mother endured, what Mary endured, what Rachel endured) against what Atwood presents in this book. Good job, good prospects, able to stand up for herself against men like McDermott, so according to the possibilities of the times, life was pretty good for Grace at the time of the murders.

It feels to me that Atwood has highlighted this aspect of Grace's situation, deliberately making sure we understand that if Grace was involved in the murder it was not because she had been driven to it by extreme (for the times) circumstances.
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