Point of View Case Studies

Margaret Atwood

Lesson time 07:33 min

In this chapter, Margaret discusses her use of multiple points of view in Alias Grace, and why she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale from the first person point of view.

Margaret Atwood
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"Alias Grace" is based on a double murder that took place in 1843 in which the man servant was hanged for the murder of his employer Thomas Kinnear. The housekeeper was also murdered but that murder was never tried. The Maid servant, Grace Marks, was condemned as an accessory in the first murder although we know she didn't shoot Thomas Kinnear. She was condemned because she had a window of opportunity in which she could have told on the man servant, McDermott, and she didn't do it. So that's why she got a death sentence. But then a lot of people petitioned on her behalf and her sentence was commuted to life. Right before he was hanged, McDermott said Grace Marks helped me to strangle Nancy Montgomery. He was, however, a well-known liar. But just because somebody is a well-known liar doesn't mean they're lying on every occasion. He gets hanged, she's the only person left alive, and she never told. So that's the basic story. And the novel is about the attempt to discover the truth on behalf of a pre-freudian psychiatric doctor who has been commissioned to prove her innocent by some reformists who think that she was a young girl wrongly sentenced to life. So she claims to have lost her memory. She can't remember what happened. And he's trying to find out where that part of her memory may have gone. So it's told through Grace. She's telling the story. She's telling the story to him, but she's also having some thoughts of her own. And he, in the third person, we hear his story about him trying to find out the truth. And we have Simon Jordan's mother's letters to him. And we have his conversations with other people who were involved. And we also have some newspaper accounts and poems and literary works of that time and from the supposed confession of Grace Marks. Although you don't know of course, whether it really was because, I hate to break this to you, but newspaper accounts are not always accurate. This is the beginning of "Alias Grace." So it is the first couple of pages. But the wrong thing about it is that it's in the wrong person. It's in the third person. And I in fact, wrote hundreds pages of "Alias Grace" in that third person. And then two things happened. I was doing this in France, and I was on a train to Paris. And I got a blinding headache. And in the middle of that blinding headache, I realized that I was going to have to throw out that first 100 pages and transpose them into the first person because it wasn't going to work in the third. And this is something that can often unblock a book for you, either changing the person from first to third or from third to first. And if you're really daring, to second. Or changing the tense from present to past, from past to present can often make all the difference. So if things are not working, you can try that. And each person for a second and third gives you quite a different relationship to the story. So as a first person narrator, Grace can lie. As a third ...

The art of powerful storytelling

Called the “Prophet of Dystopia,” Margaret Atwood is one of the most influential literary voices of our generation. In her first-ever online writing class, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale teaches how she crafts compelling stories, from historical to speculative fiction, that remain timeless and relevant. Explore Margaret’s creative process for developing ideas into novels with strong structures and nuanced characters.


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I loved the way she explained perspectives from her own books... I like the fact that writing is based on planning and not on impulse... I am learning a lot... Thank you Margaret Atwood

Valerie R.

I have enormous admiration for Margaret Atwood both as a writer and as a teacher. Her lessons are precious and she is so charming.

Katharina K.

"The waste paper basket id your friend. It was invented by God. For you!" Best saying ever!

Katherine R.

I really haven't thought too much about point of view. When I looked at the books I have read that I liked, most have been third person, but not always omniscient. I have also enjoyed some with multiple points of view. One that I really liked was Barbara Kingsolver's "The Lacuna." I guess it is dual narrators with one speaking through a memoir and diary entries. I haven't really played with narration and point of view as writing devices. I've always written in third person, and mostly the narrator doesn't know any more than the character. I think this may come from a journalism background where I had the attitude of a "just the facts" news reporter. It will be fun to break out of this.

Alane F.

Brilliant! She is absolutely, unquestionably a genius, but an accessible one. And I absolutely love her knowing laugh...

Farida E.

This isn't lesson specific, more for my personal closure. Does anyone else get lots of great ideas that they think about throughout their days but as soon as they 'pick up the pen' so to speak, they all disappear and you're left staring at this blank white page. I hate white pages. I feel like I have a responsibility and a privilege to fill them and despise myself when I can't. I propose an anti white page movement.

George T.

I just created a Topic on Lesson no 6 case study in the community. I used one of my great uncles' life during the WWII convoys across the Atlantic, the story of a wreck in Montreal harbour, and the legend of the Flying Dutchman. I tried to write the story from the 3rd person, and it didn't fit, 1 st person worked but only if there was no narration. I attached the story, for those who are interested, to my topic on the community page.

G. S.

This line HAS to go down in history, FOREVER: “The wastepaper basket is your friend. It was invented for YOU by God.” - Margaret Atwood I will never EVER forget it!

Tara J.

I am enjoying this course so far. Margaret's approach is refreshing, simple and clear. I admire that she sets aside the typical rules, and makes her own. I find myself walking away from each chapter with some solid points to consider. And some peace of mind knowing that the instinctual changes I make in my work are worthwhile and necessary! It was neat to read the original beginnings of Alias Grace.