The Poems In 'Alias Grace' Give Meaning To The Show's Dark Themes
The first things audiences see while watching Alias Grace, aside from the recognizable Netflix logo, is a quote from Emily Dickinson. Even before audiences get to see the world of Alias Grace, they're introduced to text from an author that has little to do with the plot of the series. The poems in the Alias Grace episodes may not be directly related to the events of the show, but they do serve as hints to the true nature of what is happening in Alias Grace.
There's nothing like a good epigraph to help cement the thematic core of a story. Though some things were lost from Alias Grace in the transition from novel to television series, care was taken to keep some of the chapter-opening epigraphs and introduce them to the series. Each episode opens from a quote from a classic author, and these quotes help reveal that there is much more going on in Alias Grace than meets the eye. The series appears to be a simple murder mystery at first glance, but reveals itself to be about dissociation, trauma, and how women are unfairly expected to carry themselves in accordance with others' standards. These quotes may have little to do with the mystery at the center of Alias Grace, but they have everything to do with Grace herself.
Episode 1: "One Need Not Be A Chamber To Be Haunted" By Emily Dickinson
One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted —
One need not be a House —
The Brain has Corridors — surpassing
Material Place —
Ourself behind ourself, concealed —
Should startle most —
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror's least.
The idea of hauntings plays a large role in Alias Grace. The women that Grace works for believe in spirits, and Grace herself is haunted by a traumatic past. Emily Dickinson's "One Need Not Be A Chamber To Be Haunted" suggests that there is the scariest of haunted houses is one's own mind — which seems to be especially true for Grace. The characters of Alias Grace are all trying to help her reclaim her memory, but Grace seems to recognize that trying to get into her own head is a terrifying experience.
Episode 2: "The Courtship of Miles Standish" By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
...for it is the fate of a woman
Long to be patient and silent, to wait like a ghost that is speechless,
Till some questioning voice dissolves the spell of its silence.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's narrative poem came out in 1858 — a year during which Grace Marks was imprisoned. She likely didn't get a chance to read it, but if she did she would likely be able to relate to the epigraph that introduces Episode 2. No one learns of Grace's trauma, or even her life, until someone else asks. This quote held true for Grace in the 1850s, and it likely holds true for many Alias Grace viewers in 2017.
Episode 3: "Maud (Part II)" By Alfred, Lord Tennyson
A shadow flits before me,
Not thou, but like to thee:
Ah Christ, that it were possible
For one short hour to see
The souls we loved, that they might tell us
What and where they be!
Grace Marks is constantly haunted by the shadows of those she loved, lost, and even those she may have killed. Grace's story is pulled from her own memory, making them merely shadows of the truth that everyone else is searching. While everyone else is trying to solve a murder mystery, Grace is simply pondering where the people who she's lost have gone.
Episode 4: Rappaccini's Daughter By Nathaniel Hawthorne
Blessed are all simple emotions, be they dark or bright! It is the lurid intermixture of the two that produces the illuminating blaze of the infernal regions.
This quote from English class staple Rappaccini's Daughter celebrates the duality of human emotion, but the entire plot of this Nathaniel Hawthorne short story is relevant to Alias Grace. The story is all about a woman who was raised among poisonous plants, and therefore has become literally poisonous. In the end, an attempt to cure her poison ends up killing her — perhaps because she and the poison are inseparable? Similarly, Grace Marks may be inseparable from the trauma she grew up carrying, or the "madness" that sent her to a mental hospital.
Episode 5: The Philosophy of Composition By Edgar Allen Poe
...the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.
Possibly the only ironic epigraph in Alias Grace, this quote from Poe's 1846 essay is a gross simplification of the tragedy that surrounds actual death. Poe's fetishization of the deaths of attractive women may not be as agreeable in 2017, but it does provide insight into how culture both in the 1850s and in the 21st century view morbid stories involving women. There is little poetry in the death of Nancy Montgomery — she was simply an imperfect woman who fell in love with an imperfect man who were killed by two imperfect servants.
Episode 6: "I Felt a Cleaving In My Mind" By Emily Dickinson
I felt a Cleaving in my Mind —
As if my Brain had split —
I tried to match it — Seam by Seam —
But could not make them fit.
Emily Dickinson kicks off Alias Grace, and she brings it home with the epigraph to the final episode. Spoilers for the Alias Grace finale follow. During a hypnotherapy session in the final episode, a crowd of supportive onlookers discover that Grace Marks seemingly has something akin to dissociative identity disorder and has been housing a split personality inspired by her childhood friend Mary Whitney. After Mary's death, it seems that all of Grace's negative emotions manifested in a split personality that took Mary's name and her speech with a dash of murderous intent.
Alias Grace doesn't offer any easy answers to its mysteries. While most shows would use dissociative identity disorder as a thrilling plot device, Alias Grace uses it as a tragic metaphor for how women are expected to behave in the face of a world that abuses and discards them. Alias Grace is a complicated series, but the poetry that accompanies it makes these difficult truths a little easier to understand.
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