The Blind Assassin Summary

Margaret Atwood

The Blind Assassin

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The Blind Assassin Summary

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The Blind Assassin is a 2000 novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood. Although primarily set in Canada and narrated from the present day, it covers events that span the entire 20th century and melds several narratives into one story. Focusing on a woman attempting to unravel the mysteries of her sister’s death in 1945, it pulls the reader into a complex narrative involving a novel published by the deceased character, as well as a story within the story within a story. Through protagonist Iris Chase, we are pulled into her sister’s mysterious world as the book explores themes of Canadian history, destiny and the control we may or may not have over ours, family pride and image, and possession of social prestige, possessions, or even people.

The novel begins with Iris Chase recalling her childhood with her long-deceased sister Laura, who perished in a car crash back in 1945. The two grew up in a small town in Southern Ontario. Although they were fairly well-off, their mother was dead and their father, Captain Norval Chase, was an injured World War I veteran who struggled with depression and alcoholism. Iris later married a Toronto businessman named Richard Griffen, a cold and ruthless man with political ambitions. However, she has been haunted her whole life by her sister’s mysterious death, which starts to come to light thanks to the novel within the novel written by Laura before her death and later published by Iris.

The novel within a novel takes the form of a Roman a clef, a novel about real life with an overlay of fiction. It focuses on Alex Thomas, a young political radical, fugitive, and author of pulp science fiction who intersects with both Laura and Iris in mysterious ways. This novel itself contains a story within the story that takes the form of one of Alex’s own stories – the eponymous Blind Assassin, an Arabian Nights-inspired tale of a cruel society where slavery, child abuse, and ritual sacrifice are common, and the blinded children who become killers working against the interests of the tyrants in charge.

The novel unfolds as a gradual revelation illuminating both Iris’ childhood and her life in the present day before it begins unfolding the mysteries of the sisters’ lives around the time of the Second World War and what led to Laura’s suicide. As the events of the novel-within-a-novel become more obviously inspired by the real events in the sisters’ lives, it becomes clear that the protagonist of the novel-within-a-novel, assumed to be Laura, is actually based on Iris. While Laura did have a romance with Alex Thomas, it’s revealed that The Blind Assassin was actually written by Iris based on her affair with Alex in which she sought to escape from her unhappy marriage to Richard Griffen. However, she and Alex were torn apart when Alex was killed in the war, and Laura committed suicide after finding out of this. With the two people she was closest to gone, Iris chose to publish the work in Laura’s name.

After these reveals, the book exposes the truth behind the end of Iris’ marriage. While mourning the death of Laura, Iris realizes through her late sister’s journals that her husband Richard had been raping Laura for most of his marriage to Iris. He had been coercing Laura to keep silent by threatening to turn the fugitive Alex over to the authorities. Iris decides to flee with her young daughter Aimee, keeping Richard at bay by threatening to reveal his abuse of Laura and his subsequent forcing her to get an abortion. Although Iris does escape her monstrous husband, this costs her most of her friends and creates an estrangement between her and Aimee, who even as an adult doesn’t understand why her mother pulled her away from her father. Richard later commits suicide himself, unable to handle the fact that Alex Thomas loomed so large in the hearts of both the women he viewed as his property. The book ends with Iris passing on from old age, but leaving the truth behind to be discovered in an autobiography, which she leaves to her granddaughter.

The Blind Assassin received mixed reviews upon being published, but critical acclaim quickly grew, and it soon won some of the most prestigious prizes in the literary world. This included the 2000 Man Booker Prize, and the 2001 Hammett Prize. It was named the best novel of 2000 and one of the hundred greatest English-language novels since 1923 by Time Magazine. Margaret Atwood, perhaps best known for her feminist science-fiction tale The Handmaid’s Tale, is one of Canada’s most honored writers. She has written 17 novels between 1969 and 2016, five of which have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In that time, she has also published ten short story collections, over twenty books of poetry, ten works of nonfiction, and a selection of children’s books, as well as dabbling in drawings, television scripts, and a trio of libretti for opera. A two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award, she has received honorary Doctorates from twenty-eight universities, including Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge.