Developing Interpretations SAC Guide: Interpreting Alias Grace

June 19, 2023

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This blog is part of a series of blogs breaking down the 2023-2027 VCE Literature Study design. For in-depth takes on the study design and the new AoS (Developing Interpretations) check out The Ultimate Guide to VCE Literature and A Guide to Developing Interpretations

Here, we’ll take a deep look into the SAC for Unit 3.2: Developing Interpretations. We’ll be using Margaret Atwood’s 1996 Alias Grace to demonstrate parts A and B of the SAC criteria so you can see the thinking process behind developing interpretations. 

The SAC has two parts: 

Part A: An initial interpretation of the text’s views and values within its historical, social and cultural context.

Part B: A written response that compares/interweaves and analyses an initial interpretation with a subsequent interpretation, using a key moment from the text.

Your teacher may decide to do them in two separate SACs, Part A after considering the text, and Part B after considering the supplementary reading. Or they may do them together, having you analyse a passage and answer a question just based on your own understanding of the text, and then continuing that analysis by adding the supplementary reading. 

Understanding Context

Part A of the Developing Interpretations SAC task involves the text’s 'historical, social and cultural context’, so it is imperative we have an understanding of firstly, the author and their world, and the text and its world. 

Alias Grace was published in 1996, close enough to our modern times that we can consider it contemporary literature. On the surface, there is not much to link it directly to the big global events of the 1990s - like the Gulf Wars, the Monica Lewinsky scandal or the uncertainty of the new millennium. Margaret Atwood is Canadian, and the events of Alias Grace also take place in Canada; any criticism of government or cultural issues in the text can then be considered criticisms of Canadian culture, but may also be of Western or Anglo societies at large. It’s also worth keeping in mind Atwood’s track record as a feminist activist who became famous for the feminist intentions in texts like The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Cat’s Eye (1988).

The world of Alias Grace is about 150 years prior to the text’s publication. The murder that put Grace in prison occurred in 1843, and Grace died sometime around 1873. Feminism as a socio-political movement did not exist at this time, so any ‘feminist bent’ that Grace or Mary Whitney display is the result of independent dissatisfaction, not the influence of wider cultural forces. The role of psychology is strong in Alias Grace and in the afterword, Atwood notes the increasing academic interest in the mind and subconscious. Whilst we could venture into the specific who’s who of 1850s new world psychological history, it is most important to recognise that there were disparate ideas of how memory is formed and recalled, and that defiant or mentally ill women were often stigmatised and categorised as 'insane', when we would now acknowledge the range of mental health diagnoses and traumatic backgrounds that would better explain certain behaviours. Note also that mental health institutions were tools of a patriarchal system that viewed the internment of women as a means of control over women, regardless of mental illness, leading to the regular and indiscriminate use of procedures like lobotomy or Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT) to keep women 'in check'. 

Part A of the SAC: An Initial Interpretation

When forming an interpretation of the text, it is necessary to first decide two things. Firstly, you need to recognise the author’s intention and what you think are the primary views and values. Then, you need to find aspects of the text that support your understanding of the text’s primary meaning.

Of all the concepts and ideas in Alias Grace, two are particularly pertinent and stick out to me as a reader. One is memory, the other is sexuality. There are of course other ideas, but these two were the big ones I noted reading the text. Thinking about what you find interesting or core to the text will help you to form an initial interpretation. Once you have the initial ideas, try to expand them into full sentences. To use memory as our example:

Atwood explores the fallibility and role of memory in our understandings of ourselves and our actions, in particular, noting how people subconsciously decide which memories to keep or forget.

See how meaty this sentence is? Even if I can’t quite touch on all of these ideas in a full essay, I have so much I can talk about that it basically makes it impossible to fall short. Now, I want some aspects of the text that help provide through-lines. By this, I mean that I want a smaller part of the text that helps to exemplify my interpretation and that, preferably, would be evident in a passage analysis. I’m someone who finds structure really interesting in texts, so I look at things like form, genre and plot very closely. Alias Grace is really interesting for its use of ‘primary source’ quotes at the start of sections, as well as the fact it has basically no quotation marks to delineate dialogue. Moreover, the fact that Grace’s narration is first-person and that Jordan’s narration is third-person provides ripe territory for analysis. I need to link this to memory, and put it in a sentence:

Atwood’s use of Grace’s first-person narration without quoted dialogue, thus structuring the plot around her speech and remembering, provides a long-form case study in how the psychological process of remembering helps provide understandings of the self. 

So, just based on my understanding of the context (1850s psychology and its impact on women) and the world of the text, I am able to determine my initial interpretation: that Alias Grace is about memory and forgetting in the face of trauma and an indeterminate sense of self. This idea is displayed in the structure of the text which relies heavily on displaying thought processes. 

Part B of the SAC: The Supplementary Reading

The supplementary reading can be a number of pieces of writing given to you by your teacher. This could be something written by your teacher, an explainer of a literary theory (like Marxism or feminism), or as I’ll be using here, an academic article. Check out our blog on Developing Interpretations which goes into how to read academic articles. 

The article I’ve chosen is Margaret Rogerson’s ‘Reading the Patchworks in Alias Grace’ (1998). At the core of Rogerson’s argument is that the recurring motif of sewing and patchwork is a significant indicator of Grace’s identity and her self-expression and that Atwood uses the symbolism of various quilting patterns to reflect the ambiguity of Grace’s character and our understanding of her (since quilting symbols are heavily subjective). Just based on this brief summary of Rogerson’s interpretation, we can start to see how it is somewhat at odds with my initial interpretation (from Part A) - Rogerson isn’t as concerned with memory and psychology, nor am I concerned with symbolism because I focus on structures and narrative. 

Rogerson’s article doesn’t necessarily disagree with my interpretation, in fact, both exist alongside each other quite nicely. I would phrase Rogerson’s interpretation as 'running parallel' to my own because they don’t always touch on the same ideas. Recognising where the supplementary reading sits in relation to your own interpretation is important because it helps to break down how to respond to its position and enhance your own interpretation. Try to place it on a scale of ‘total disagreement’ to ‘total agreement’. It will probably be somewhere in the middle. 

Self-Reflection and Reinterpretation

Now that I’ve read my supplementary reading and placed it in relation to my initial interpretation, I need to ask myself a few questions, and be honest with myself:

  • What new information have I learnt from the reading?
  • What ideas/themes/motifs did I initially ignore?
  • How do these new ideas and pieces of information challenge my interpretation?
  • How do these new ideas and pieces of information support my interpretation?
  • Can I find links between the seemingly challenging aspects of the reading and link them to my initial interpretation? 
  • Can I link specific aspects of my initial interpretation to the theories and ideas presented in the supplementary reading?

Rogerson’s article contained a lot of ideas and information that I had previously glossed over. Significantly, I learnt that 'quilt patterns [...] appear with their names as section headings throughout the text' (p. 8), a theme I hadn’t noticed. Moreover, Rogerson explains the literary and political significance of quilting and patchwork symbolism, drawing attention to the role it played in women’s lives and the inaccessibility of this symbolism to men. 

Do these new ideas challenge my interpretation? Not really. Do they fully support my interpretation? Not really, BUT, they do provide a new way of thinking about my initial interpretation. I can link the quilting symbolism to the idea of Grace’s narrative style because Rogerson emphasises that when Grace discusses quilting, she is discussing her own life. In addition, Rogerson notes that 'sections of the novel [are] separate patterns that are to be fitted into a whole quilt' (p. 8) so that 'the reader becomes a quilt maker in the process of interpreting the text' (p.9). The concept of the physical book being a ‘quilt’ supports and extends on my understanding of structure, thus allowing me to further investigate how that structure functions. 

The notion of the reader as a ‘quilt maker’ interpreting the text also allows me to consider something else I have ignored in my initial interpretation: self-presentation. I initially took for granted Grace’s investigation into her own mind, and that her novel-length yarn reflects the burgeoning field of psychology. Rogerson emphasises through the quilting work, however, that Grace’s motivations are entirely ambiguous to Jordan, the reader and others, so we have to try to decide if she is actually remembering events, or simply telling a story. At the end of the text, Grace makes her own quilt using cloth given to her or taken from the women of her past, Rogerson posing the question 'does the quilt represent memory, amnesia, or madness?' (p. 21). The result, therefore, is that my initial interpretation does make sense, but with some important new additions to be made. 

Atwood’s Alias Grace investigates how individuals relate to their memories through the use of Grace Marks’ speech and interactions with medical psychology, which intend to force her to remember (1). This process of remembering, however, is simultaneously hindered and deepened by Grace’s presentation of self, which wonders into utter performativity, amnesia, and potentially disingenuous motivations for her continued speech (2). Rogerson emphasises Grace’s relationship with the language of patchwork and how this relationship influences her narrative style and remembering, and thus the reader’s ability to fit separate patterns 'into a whole quilt' (p. 8) (3).

This interpretation is significantly more chunky, but that’s because I’m trying to make the nuance of the argument incredibly clear. The first sentence (1) is a reworded version of my initial interpretation with slightly less detail. The second sentence (2) is an elaboration of my previous interpretation that includes ideas gleaned from Rogerson’s article. The final sentence (3) is a brief summary of Rogerson’s method that introduces her work as well as some extra details about Grace’s story-telling and the analysis of readers’ responses. 

The key to developing interpretations is self-reflection. Constantly question why you think the things you do, and it will force you to reconsider your interpretation. The supplementary reading is to provide you with a way to self-reflect and another interpretation to respond to. I strongly encourage those looking to do exceptionally in developing interpretations to read widely and around the text you’ve been set. Some of those texts for Alias Grace are in the resources section below.

Further Resources

Rogerson, Margaret. ‘Reading the Patchworks in Alias Grace’ The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 33 (1998): 5-22. 

The Ultimate Guide to VCE Literature

VCE Literature Study Design (2023-2027): A Guide to Developing Interpretations

For Alias Grace 

Margaret Atwood’s other texts including: Cat’s Eye, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Oryx and Crake.

Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. 1916. Available here.
A play cited in Rogerson’s article, featuring an accused murderess and a quilt. Sound familiar?

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. 1899. Available Via Gutenburg
A very dense text on the psychoanalysis of dreams. Useful for its discussions of symbolism as a signifier of psychology

Atwood cites a number of texts in her acknowledgements (p. 543), the most interesting appear as follows:

Moodie, Susanna. Life in the Clearings. 1853

Crabtree, Adam. From Mesmer to Freud: Magnetic Sleep and the Roots of Psychological Healing. 1993. 

Brandon, Ruth. The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. 1983. 

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