70 pages 2 hours read

Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2000

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Summary and Study Guide


Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin is actually three narratives in one. In the novel's frame narrative, we meet Iris Chase Griffen, one of the few surviving members of the once-wealthy Chase family of Port Ticonderoga, Canada. As the book opens, she is preparing to present a creative writing award endowed in memory of her deceased sister, Laura—the ostensible author of the novel-within-a-novel (also named The Blind Assassin). Now close to death herself, Iris decides to write an account of her family history, with particular focus on her sister and herself. It is this memoir, interspersed with scenes from Iris's life as an elderly woman, that forms the backbone of Atwood's novel.

The second and third narrative threads both unfold within Laura's novel, which we ultimately learn was actually penned by Iris. In it, two unnamed lovers carry on a secret affair,with occasional spats arising from the couple's very different backgrounds; the woman comes from wealth and privilege, while the man embraces socialist principles and is on the run from the police. The man also makes money writing pulp fiction, which forms the basis for the story-within-a-story-within-a-story: over the course of their affair, the man tells the woman a story about a fantastical city called Sakiel-Norn, and the love story that unfolds there between a blind assassin and a mute, sacrificial virgin.

Atwood's novel, then, cuts back and forth between all of these storylines, which intersect in both real and symbolic ways. Iris's grandfather, Benjamin Chase, makes a fortune after establishing a button factory in Port Ticonderoga, but experiences personal tragedy when two of his sons die fighting in World War I. His surviving heir, Norval Chase, returns from war traumatized, and Norval's longsuffering wife, Liliana,dies while her daughters Iris and Laura are still young girls. The Chase sisters grow up burdened by their family's glamorous legacy, which begins to crumble as the years go by; the family struggles to make ends meet during the Great Depression, and the button factory is partially destroyed in an act of arson. In an effort to keep the business afloat, Norval arranges for Iris—then eighteen years old—to marry his competitor, Richard Griffen. Griffen, however, shuts down the Chase factories, and Norval drinks himself to death shortly after the marriage.

Iris's marriage to Richard is unhappy and, she ultimately hints, abusive. Not long after the couple returns from their honeymoon, Iris begins an affair with Alex Thomas, a young socialist she and her sister had helped shield from the authorities a year or so earlier. She does not, however, tell us about the affair as it unfolds, focusing instead on Laura, who comes to live with Richard and Iris after Norval Chase's death. Laura has behavioral problems at school, and her relationship with Richard is strained, all of which, we eventually learn, results from Richard's sexual abuse of his teenage sister-in-law. Laura has a long track record of eccentricity, however, so Iris does not notice what is happening at the time. The situation comes to a head when Richard and his sister, Winifred, have Laura committed to a mental institution after she claims to be pregnant.

Several years later, Iris meets with Laura, who eventually managed to secure her release from the asylum. Laura still does not explicitly say that Richard raped her, but she does talk about a "sacrifice" she made on behalf of Alex, with whom she was also in love. When Iris reveals that Alex is dead—and that she herself had been having an affair with him—Laura steals Iris's keys and dies when she crashes her sister's car. Immediately after this, Iris finds notebooks revealing that Richard was blackmailing Laura into sleeping with him by threatening Alex's safety. She separates from her husband as a result of this knowledge, and then writes and publishes The Blind Assassin under her sister's name, leading Richard to commit suicide. Winifred, however, manages to gain custody of Iris's daughter, Aimee, who dies young after a troubled life of drug addiction.

The novel-within-a-novel, then, is actually an account not of Laura's affair with Alex Thomas, but Iris's affair. It traces their relationship through the Spanish Civil War, which Alex traveled overseas to fight in, up to his death in World War II. It also tells the story of how, in Sakiel-Norn, the blind assassin falls in love with the Temple maiden he was supposed to kill, helping her escape from the city. The couple then comes across an army marching on Sakiel-Norn, but their ultimate fate is unclear: the man telling the story favors a sad ending, whereas his lover wants a happy one. Either way, however, the city itself appears to fall to the invaders, who kill everyone living there.

Atwood's novel draws to a close shortly after the memoir, the novel-within-a-novel, and the story set in Sakiel-Norn reach their conclusions. Iris has been living in hope of one day seeing her granddaughter, Sabrina, who is traveling overseas at the time the novel opens. Iris's heart gives out before this reunion can take place, but Atwood implies that Sabrina will soon learn the truth about her family and her heritage via the documents that Iris has bequeathed to her.

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By Margaret Atwood