Justice is complicated, even in literature….
ALIAS GRACE, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog, is the story of a woman condemned to life in prison due to her — participation? cooperation? active instigation? — of the murder of her employer and his pregnant housekeeper/mistress. Seeing Grace as the victim of sensationalistic journalism, false rumours, distorted perceptions of women, and erroneous testimony, the psychiatrist Dr. Simon Jordan begins his quest to determine what, exactly, Grace’s involvement in the murder was. Why? Because Grace herself could not remember, or said she couldn’t. The question was, could she really not remember, or was she dissembling in order to avoid hanging.
In this almost pastoral novel, set as it is in rural Canada in the mid-1800s, the pace moves slowly, keeping us intensely aware of Grace’s long days and years in Kingston prison, time moving like molasses. Dr. Jordan’s progress also lags. He can’t seem to get below the surface Grace presents him, can’t unlock her psyche, so that his own study of the woman drags on and on with few results. One has to wonder if the the very weight of this ponderous lack of progress comes to overwhelm the characters. The good doctor falls prey to the scheming of his poverty-stricken landlady; all of the sexual sensibility he feels in a case like Grace’s, based on a love triangle and ribald passions, erupts in this unlikely affair. Far from alleviating the needs of his sexual energy, however, this passion seems to pull him down, down, down to the moment when he himself faces the decision of whether to murder his lover’s spouse.
Efforts to prove Grace’s innocence (or guilt) continue, but with little evidence to save her. Then an old friend of Grace’s, Jeremiah, arrives impersonating a European specialist in a new method of hypnotism which he believes will enable the group to move past whatever locks Grace’s subconscious. With the group’s consent and presence, Jeremiah hypnotizes the woman. This process, however, is hampered by the fact that they have placed themselves where seances are often enacted, and despite efforts to prevent the arrival of spirits into the room, they do, or at least one of them does.
When questioned, it is not Grace herself who responds; it is someone else — Grace’s old friend Mary? Or one of the persons Grace may have helped to murder: Nancy? Suddenly the plot veers off that of scientific enquiry into the spirit world. The pastor present thinks Grace needs to exorcise a demon. The spiritualist thinks she is inhabited by her old friend’s spirit and cannot be held accountable whether or not she took part in the murders. Neverthless, they have not gained any evidence that might persuade the legal authorities to release Grace.
At this point, Dr. Jordan, almost mad himself, and thoroughly frightened, flees Kingston, leaving Grace and his mistress no explanation and bereft.
We have lived in a scientific age, until recently. When scientific enquiry suddenly encounters its own limits and the possibilities of realities far beyond its scope, scientists usually deny the reality of those other possibilities. This impasse that Dr. Jordan reached reminded me of a conversation between the two psychiatrist, Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung. The two men were arguing about the possibilities of the spiritual realm, Freud against and Jung for. As they were arguing, Jung warned Freud that something unexpected was about to happen, and a big noise erupted. I don’t remember the whole story, but it may have been that something floated, a chair perhaps. At any rate, Freud was deeply offended and frightened, and the two men became alienated.
Today’s crime novels are all about methods and scientific proofs of ‘who done it.’ Perhaps it is not surprising that so many fantasy and similar novels are emerging to fill in the void of what cannot be discovered in linear terms.
At the end we do not know whether Grace was guilty or not. The knowledge of the day is simply incapable of discovering the answer. Even Grace herself does not know. Justice is not something simple to discover. Ambiguity and soul-searching form much of the process. We are quick to want clear answers. Yet the answer is just not there.