Murderess is a strong word to have attached to you. It has a smell to it, that word—musky and oppressive, like dead flowers in a vase . . . I would rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.
Grace thinks these words in Part III, while she’s sitting at the Governor’s house, waiting for a doctor to come examine her. Friends of the Governor’s wife have gathered in an adjacent room, and Grace contemplates what it is about her that so intrigues the Governor’s wife and her social circle. She concludes that her status as a “celebrated murderess” has captured these women’s imagination. Though officially repulsed by the ghastliness of murder, that same ghastliness clearly also sparks fascination. Grace’s suspicion about the women’s combination of repulsion and fascination links to an observation she makes later in Part III, when she reflects that many women showed up for McDermott’s execution. Grace believes that many in the crowd came expecting to watch her die, and both men and women alike “wanted to breathe death in like fine perfume.” In other words, Grace feels like she’s little more than a curiosity to others, and to women in particular.
Grace partly attributes her status as a curiosity to the seductiveness of the word “murderess,” a term that she herself finds irresistible. The word conjures in Grace a sensation known as synesthesia. Synesthesia is a phenomenon where the mind involuntarily joins objects such as shapes, numbers, or words with a sensory perception such as color, flavor, or smell. The main synesthetic association Grace has with the word murderess activates a secondary perception of smell. Specifically, the word conjures for her the earthy smell of dead flowers decomposing in a vase. This association imbues murderess with a seductive quality completely lacking in the male form of the word. Grace suggests that “murderer” is “merely brutal,” whereas “murderess” is much more exotic and appealing.