Writing bodies into history : Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin / by Tamara Arthur.
Arthur, Tamara Alexis Olivia
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Historical fiction simultaneously can be used to document history while also questioning traditional history and ways of knowing. In particular, Margaret Atwood’s historical fiction questions traditional history and patriarchal voice by highlighting textuality and storytelling and challenging history’s ability to access “real” events, ideas and meanings. In this thesis I focus on two of Atwood’s later works. Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin, which participate in the contemporary rethinking of history not only by problematising traditional history but also by incorporating the body as a way of telling history. Traditional history has been critiqued by new historicists, deconstructionists, feminists, Marxists and others who argue that history has in the past denied a variety of voices from the production of history, has not properly accounted for the sociohistorical nor adequately reflected on the nature of history itself. Today, literature is very much involved with this contemporary rethinking of history. In fact, Canadian historical fiction can functions as a means of chronicling history, but also as a tool by which the documenting of history may be challenged. Historical novels that draw upon historical facts but deal explicitly with the problem of writing about these facts and integrate them in an artistic whole are instances of historical metafiction. Importantly, Atwood engages with historical metafiction or rather what Linda Hutcheon terms as historiographic metafiction. Hutcheon explains in “Canadian Historiographic Metafiction” that historiographic metafictions are more than just self-consciously fictive constructs that thematise their own discursive process. In these novels there is usually a clearly definable narrating voice that overtly addresses a reader (230). In historiographic metafictions the narrator actively speaks to the problems of writing history and detailing ‘real’ events. Atwood’s novels. Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin, are in the realm of what could be considered historical novels and also could be considered historiographic metafictions. Thus, in the introduction of this thesis I establish the connection between history and literature, then note some of the contemporary issues surrounding history and address Atwood’s involvement in writing historical fictions and historiographic metafiction. Clearly, the problems associated with traditional history cannot be addressed without acknowledging its deficiency in representation. While Atwood’s Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin offer critical perspectives on the past, they also recuperate the history and ultimately the lives of women who have been left out of absolute and totalising traditional histories. Thus, I further discuss women’s absence in history and look at the female body as a possible site of resistance and textual representations of the body as a way of retrieving women’s history. In the first section of this thesis, I examine how Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin provide a contemporary critique of historical perspectives and knowledge through the narrated life stories of Grace Marks and Iris Chase Griffin. In telling Grace’s and Iris’s stories, Atwood underlines the multiplicity of history while deconstructing assumption of objectivity, neutrality and transparency of representation. In Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin. Atwood problematises official versions of history and in doing so resists its replacement with one definitive account of events. Atwood engages in both deconstructive and reconstructive practices of history. Thus, in the second and third section of this thesis I discuss how, first. Alias Grace, and, second. The Blind Assassin, are historical novels that actively engage in the telling of the past. I offer a feminist reading of Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin, using body theory to illustrate how Atwood underscores women’s history by writing the woman’s body into history. Specifically, in this thesis I argue that in writing women’s history, Atwood uses the body as a way of recuperating the past lives of women. Textual representations of bodies while encoded by the time in which they lived are then signs to be read. In discussing this I emphasise how textual representation of female bodies can present a site for feminist identities and concerns. Atwood, who recognises that gender makes women’s lives profoundly different, both emphasises the importance of questioning traditional history from which women are not included and the need to write women into history from a female perspective. In Alias Grace and The Blind Assassin Atwood chronicles the lives of women during two distinct time periods, the midnineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, highlighting a general history of women’s lives during these times. This thesis illustrates how Atwood writes the female body into history using texual bodies as records of the past.