The Blind Assassin
Margaret Atwood, 2000
Winner, 2000 Booker Prize
Margaret Atwood takes the art of storytelling to new heights in a dazzling new novel that unfolds layer by astonishing layer and concludes in a brilliant and wonderfully satisfying twist.
For the past twenty-five years, Margaret Atwood has written works of striking originality and imagination. In The Blind Assassin, she stretches the limits of her accomplishments as never before, creating a novel that is entertaining and profoundly serious.
The novel opens with these simple, resonant words: "Ten days after the war ended, my sister drove a car off the bridge." They are spoken by Iris, whose terse account of her sister Laura's death in 1945 is followed by an inquest report proclaiming the death accidental. But just as the reader expects to settle into Laura's story, Atwood introduces a novel-within-a-novel. Entitled The Blind Assassin, it is a science fiction story told by two unnamed lovers who meet in dingy backstreet rooms. When we return to Iris, it is through a 1947 newspaper article announcing the discovery of a sailboat carrying the dead body of her husband, a distinguished industrialist.
Told in a style that magnificently captures the colloquialisms and cliches of the 1930s and 1940s, The Blind Assassin is a richly layered and uniquely rewarding experience. The novel has many threads and a series of events that follow one another at a breathtaking pace. As everything comes together, readers will discover that the story Atwood is telling is not only what it seems to be—but, in fact, much more.
The Blind Assassin proves once again that Atwood is one of the most talented, daring, and exciting writers of our time. Like The Handmaid's Tale, it is destined to become a classic. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—November 18, 1939
• Where—Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
• Education—B.A., University of Toronto; M.A. Radcliffe; Ph.D., Harvard University
• Awards—Governor General's Award; Booker Prize; Giller Award
• Currently—lives in Toronto, Canada
An absorbing new novel, of all the author's books to date, The Blind Assassin is most purely a work of entertainment—an expertly rendered Daphne du Maurieresque tale that showcases Ms. Atwood's narrative powers and her ardent love of the Gothic.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times
The Blind Assassin has enough mysteries to keep even a casual reader engaged, and with respect to solutions, it is less scrupulously committed to ambiguity than Ms. Atwood's 1997 novel, Alias Grace. As with all of Ms. Atwood's recent fiction, The Blind Assassin, despite what sounds like a romantic plot, has been scoured free of any trace of sentimentality. There is a steely quality to Ms. Atwood's writing that's a bit scary but also exhilarating; no one gets away with anything, especially not her female narrators—and they know better than to try.
Laura Miller - Wall Street Journal
You'll be hooked 'till the whole tragic story finally comes to rest in the most surprising place...How goofy to repeatedly interrupt this haunting novel with episodes about the Lizard Men of Xenor. And yet, what great fun this is —and how brilliantly it works to flesh out the dime-novel culture of the 1930's and to emphasize the precarious position of women.
Ron Charles - Christian Science Monitor
Iris Chase is a brilliant addition to Atwood's roster of fascinating fictional narrators. Not only is she her story sinuously complex, but she is entertaining company. Her comments on her story are crotchety and amusing. She is also frank about her occasional evasions: "I know it's wrong, not because of what I've set down but because of what I've omitted. What isn't there has a presence, like the absence of light." This inexorable bubbling up of the unspoken makes The Blind Assassin unforgettable.
Paul Gray - Time Magazine
Family secrets, sibling rivalry, political chicanery and social unrest, promises and betrayals, "loss and regret and memory and yearning" are the themes of Atwood's brilliant new novel, whose subtitle might read: The Fall of the House of Chase. Justly praised for her ability to suggest the complexity of individual lives against the backdrop of Canadian history, Atwood here plays out a spellbinding family saga intimately affected by WWI, the Depression and Communist witch-hunts, but the final tragedy is equally the result of human frailty, greed and passion. Octogenarian narrator Iris Chase Griffen is moribund from a heart ailment as she reflects on the events following the suicide in 1945 of her fey, unworldly 25-year-old sister, Laura, and of the posthumous publication of Laura's novel, called "The Blind Assassin." Iris's voice—acerbic, irreverent, witty and cynical—is mesmerizingly immediate. When her narration gives way to conversations between two people collaborating on a science fiction novel, we assume that we are reading the genesis of Laura's tale. The voices are those of an unidentified young woman from a wealthy family and her lover, a hack writer and socialist agitator on the run from the law; the lurid fantasy they concoct between bouts of lovemaking constitutes a novel-within-a-novel. Issues of sexual obsession, political tyranny, social justice and class disparity are addressed within the potboiler SF, which features gruesome sacrifices, mutilated body parts and corrupt, barbaric leaders. Despite subtle clues, the reader is more than halfway through Atwood's tour de force before it becomes clear that things are not what they seem. Meanwhile, flashbacks illuminate the Chase family history. In addition to being psychically burdened at age nine by her mother's deathbed adjuration to take care of her younger sibling, naive Iris at age 18 is literally sold into marriage to a ruthless 35-year-old industrialist by her father, a woolly-minded idealist who thinks more about saving the family name and protecting the workers in his button factories than his daughter's happiness. Atwood's pungent social commentary rings chords on the ways women are used by men, and how the power that wealth confers can be used as a deadly weapon. Her microscopic observation transforms details into arresting metaphors, often infused with wry, pithy humor. As she adroitly juggles three plot lines, Atwood's inventiveness achieves a tensile energy. The alternating stories never slacken the pace; on the contrary, one reads each segment breathlessly, eager to get back to the other. In sheer storytelling bravado, Atwood here surpasses even The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace.
(Audio version.) Once again, Atwood has written a compelling novel with many different layers of interpretation. At first glance, these tales are a collection of disjointed short stories; yet upon further examination, they are the reminiscences of an old woman named Iris, with death appearing to be the unifying thread connecting them. At the same time, these stories comprise the Chase family history, and Iris uses them to describe her life, beginning with her parents' marriage and ending with the deaths of various relatives. Margot Dionne renders an acceptable reading, but it is far from outstanding. The story-within-a-story format permits the listener to stop and start without losing his or her train of thought. The sound volume is consistent. This program will be in demand by Atwood fans; recommended for public libraries. —Laurie Selwyn, San Antonio P.L.
Atwood's skillfully woven tenth novel is her most ambitious and challenging work to date, and a worthy successor to her recent triumph, Alias Grace. It tells two absorbing stories that cast an initially enigmatic, ultimately pitilessly revealing light on each other. The central one is octogenarian Iris Griffen's bitter reminiscence of her life as the privileged daughter of a prosperous Ontario family, the Chases, and later as wife to Richard Griffen, the businessman who effectively inherits and firmly directs the Chase fortunes. The counterpart story, The Blind Assassin, is a strange futuristic tale that dramatizes in unusual (faux-Oriental) fashion a nameless woman's obsession with a science-fiction writer whose imaginings blithely mirror and exploit his "power" over her. This latter tale is published as the work of Iris's younger sister Laura, whose death in a 1945 automobile accident is judged by all who knew the sisters "as close to suicide as damn is to swearing." Newspaper items reporting notable events in the lives of the Chases and Griffens over a period of more than sixty years further enrich a many-leveled, smartly paced narrative that gradually discloses the nature and root causes of Laura's unconventionality and "madness," the full extent of Richard's compulsive aggrandizement and isolationism, and the price exacted from Iris for the "convenience" of her marriage. Intermittent echoes of Forster's Howards End sound throughout this bleak saga of political, social, and gender conflict. And Atwood keeps our attention riveted by rendering her increasingly dramatic story in a fluent style distinguished by precise sensory description ("the thin, abstemious rain of early April") and thought-provoking metaphor ("Laura was flint in a nest of thistledown"). Furthermore, a bombshell of a climactic surprise (which we probably should have seen coming) lurks in the stunning final pages. Boldly imagined and brilliantly executed.
1. Laura and Iris spend their childhood in Avilion, "a merchant's palace," and, like princesses in a fairy tale, are virtually untouched by the outside world. What other elements reinforce the fairy-tale-like quality of their lives? What role does Alex Thomas play within this context? Does Iris's depiction of her life as an old woman also draw on the conventions of fairy tales?
2. How accurate is Iris's declaration, "Long ago I made a choice between classicism and romanticism. I prefer to be upright and contained—an urn in daylight" [p43]? How was this "choice" affected by the distinctions Iris and Laura's parents made between the two girls when they were children? What incidents show that Iris has ambiguous feelings about the roles she and Laura assume as children? What signs are there that Iris has a romantic side she keeps hidden from the adults? What cost does this exact?
3. Throughout her life, Laura is considered a special, unusual person, more sensitive than most. How does Laura exploit the impression she makes on other people? Are her motives and intentions always as innocent as people assume? Iris says, "[Laura's] cruelties were accidental—by-products of whatever lofty notions may have been going through her head" [p301]. How does the language Iris uses shed light on the complicated emotions Laura stirs up in her?
4. Regarding her father's role in arranging her marriage, Iris writes, "He was only doing what would have been considered--was considered, then—the responsible thing. He was doing the best he knew how" [p227]. In light of Norval's character and his previous treatment of Iris, is this explanation too facile? Was he motivated by reasons Iris doesn't allow herself to acknowledge?
5. Is Iris purely a pawn in a plan conceived by the men, or does she have reasons of her own for agreeing to marry Richard? In what ways does the marriage fulfill Iris's conception of herself and her approach to life?
6. Iris comes under the influence of three very different women in the course of the novel: Reenie, Callie Fitzsimmons, and Winifred Griffen Prior. How does each of these women affect Iris's view of herself—and of womanhood in general? How do their lives and attitudes represent the social environment and class structure of the times?
7. Several childhood experiences foreshadow Laura's ultimate fate, including her plunge into the river [p150] and her accusation that Mr. Erskine sexually molested her [p165]. What do these incidents indicate about Laura's personality? To what extent is she shaped by circumstances beyond her control?
8. Is Iris responsible for Laura's death? At what points could she have changed the course of events?
9. How do the newspaper articles advance the unfolding of the plot? Do they serve as an objective record of the events in the characters' lives?
10. How does the science fiction story constructed by the unnamed lovers mirror the story of the lovers themselves and the circumstances surrounding their affair? In what ways does it parallel events in Iris's life, both as a child and as an adult?
11. Atwood has said that the form of The Blind Assassin was influenced by early twentieth-century collages, in which newspaper excerpts were glued onto canvas and then painted around and over—thus framing two ways of representing reality, each of which contradicted the other but also complemented it. How many "kinds" of writing are in The Blind Assassin, washroom graffiti included? What purpose does each form of writing serve?
12. The era of the Great Depression was also an age of extreme fashion-consciousness among the wealthy. What role do clothes play in The Blind Assassin, in both the historical and the contemporary sections of the book? What do they reveal about the characters, and what do they conceal?
13. What are the various meanings of the title The Blind Assassin? Which characters act as blind assassins by uncomprehendingly causing the demise of other characters?
14. How do the multiple levels of The Blind Assassin interact with one another? Do they unfold in concert, shedding light on one another, or is the relationship among them only apparent at the end of the book? What does the use of this narrative technique reveal about Atwood's methods of storytelling?
15. If you have read other books by Atwood (particularly The Handmaid's Tale and Cat's Eye), how does The Blind Assassin echo and extend themes she has previously explored? What new themes are developed?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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