Rich in incident: an unreliable narrator does a radish make

“Because he was so thoughtful as to bring me this radish, I set to work willingly to tell my story, and to make it as interesting as I can, and rich in incident, as a sort of return gift to him; for I have always believed that one good turn deserves another.” — Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace, p. 291.

What a fantastic example of the unreliable narrator! At least, I assume that’s what she is. This is my first time reading the book, so I don’t know how it will turn out.

This is not the first time that the narrator has dropped hints that she is enriching her story for the sake of Dr. Jordan, her listener. It also happens, more subtly, here:

“I say, You do not look yourself today, Sir, I trust you are not ill.
“And he smiles his one-sided smile, and says he isn’t ill, only preoccupied; but that if I would continue with my story, it would be a help to him, as it would distract him from his worries; but he does not say what these worries might be.
“And so I go on.
“Now, Sir, I say, I will come to a happier part of my story;…” (Atwood, p. 169).

How sly that is! The narrator tells us about her interlocutor’s worries, then proceeds to tell him that she is coming to a happy part in the story. Of course, that doesn’t guarantee she is making the next part up, but it certainly makes me question Grace Marks, and her motives for telling this story to Dr. Jordan. Especially when combined with the other details we know about her: she has been imprisoned since she was a teenager and is no doubt lonely for conversation partners, and people are already convinced she’s guilty, so it likely doesn’t seem to matter what she says now about her story.

She has also already admitted boldly to us that she thinks one thing and tells Dr. Jordan another: “I said this last thing to be mischievous. I did not give him a straight answer, because saying what you really want out loud brings bad luck, and then the good thing will never happen” (Atwood, p. 111). A little later in the conversation, he asks her if she dreamed last night, and she remembers, but keeps it to herself. She says, “I can’t remember, Sir. I can’t remember what I dreamt last night. It was something confusing. And he writes that down.
“I have little enough of my own, no belongings, no possessions, no privacy to speak of, and I need to keep something for myself;…” (Atwood, p. 114).

Except for the exchanges with Dr. Jordan, and little moments where the narrator inserts an aside, it is easy to forget that this is a story being told by someone. All stories are told, of course, but this story is closer to an oral telling than some other kinds of novels where we are made to believe the narrator is revealing everything for the sake of the novel. As a result, this story reminds us of the subjective nature of stories, of the details included or omitted based on reasons irrelevant to the story itself, but vital to the situation in which the story is told: the listener’s mood, the teller’s reasons for wanting to keep certain details private or embellish others, the teller herself (in this case, a woman imprisoned for her role in two murders). The list of possibly affecting factors goes on.

I am reminded suddenly of the liveliness of a story, of the way it takes on a weight and shape of its own. And yet, in the case where it is written down, this sense that it has a life of its own comes from the writer’s own control, revisions, choices. Or at least, it is brought out by that control, even if it grew wildly.

I’m only rambling now – I’m tired – but I will leave this post excited about story, about to fall asleep after a long week. Hopefully all of this will bring good dreams. (And not dreams about bodies in cellars; unfortunate, secret abortions; and fatal sea crossings. Seriously – it’s all in the book – go read it!)

If only a radish could inspire me to get so creative with my stories.

Good night.

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