Essay: Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Blind Assassin

Author, Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Blind Assassin, starts with the death of Laura Chase, who drives her car off a hundred-foot bridge after the end of World War II. Her death is reported by her sister Iris Chase Griffen, who presently, is in her eighties. She is writing a family history embellished with harsh observations on life at the end of the century. Very aware of her age, Iris knows she is going down in the world; her front porch is rotting out and her money is running low. She eats next to nothing, but she likes to visit the local bakery, where Laura’s words are always painted in the graffiti of her favorite public bathroom.

Laura, even dead, is the most celebrated member of the Chase family. She is also the author of a short novel that is also called The Blind Assassin. At first rejected as shocking and obscene, her book follows an affair between a well-bred young woman and a nameless, rather unrefined science-fiction writer who amuses her with a story set on an imaginary planet. Laura’s book, published posthumously, became a cult favorite, and parts of it appear at random within Iris’s story. Atwood’s long novel is a story within a short novel within a family history. Despite this complex structure, The Blind Assassin is not difficult to follow at all

The Chase family is very well known in Port Ticonderoga. In the late nineteenth century, Grandfather Benjamin Chase who is a manufacturer brought profitability to the town by opening a button factory. This was an economic blessing that created cheap wooden and bone buttons. He also opened two more factories to be run by his sons. In 1934, the button factory was destroyed by a fire and has since been rebuilt as a boutique mall.

The Chase mansion was decorated by Grandmother Adelia. She was a cultured woman who was infatuated with Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the legend of King Arthur. She named the home Avilion (Sir Thomas Malory’s name for Avalon) after the island where Arthur went to die. Adelia’s portrait in the library, like Avilion, becomes a symbol of the family’s Victorian past. It was used as a summer house during Iris’s marriage and later as a retirement home. Iris is convinced it will be burned down by the smokers.

Only Captain Norval Chase, of Benjamin and Adelia’s three sons, survive World War I, but he is completely changed. He came home to his wife and daughter Iris with a black leather eye patch, a limp, and two dead brothers. Emotionally and physically scarred, Captain Chase is a decent man whose sensibilities have been destroyed by war. He frequently locks himself in Avilion’s tower to drink and let out his rage.

Laura is born with three and a half years after her sister. “She is an uneasy baby and a strange, literal child.” (Told by Reenie, the cook.) After her birth, her mother has fragile health and suffers a fatal miscarriage. Reenie then becomes Laura and Iris’s housekeeper and replacement mother. Her earthy voice still haunts Iris.

Captain Chase, in 1928, is given a bronze statue to memorialize his dead comrades of World War I—a disenchanted weary soldier who remains “forever young, forever exhausted, . . . pigeon droppings running down his face like tears.” It is created by a red-haired woman from Toronto, Callista Fitzsimmons, who becomes Chase’s mistress.

As the Great Depression begins, Captain Chase keeps his factories open. Rather than fire his workers, he keeps them working even though he is losing money. When he donates factory leftovers to the poor, his rich competitor Richard Griffen chastises his generosity as false and charges him with dumping overruns. As the Chase family’s life grows frugal, Reenie carefully trying to economize.

On Labor Day of 1934, the annual button factory picnic is held despite possible layoffs. Laura meets a dark young man, Alex Thomas, who is a friend of Callista. Alex, a former divinity student, has lost his faith and leaned toward communism. Concern for his soul leads Laura to invite him to dinner. She did not realize that her father has already invited Richard and his sister, Winifred Griffen Prior. The result is disastrous with a confrontation between Alex and overly conservative Richard breaks out over the meal.

Eventually, Chase is forced to close the button factory despite his efforts to keep it solvent, but union organizers call his action a lockout and respond with a general strike. Callista, supporting the factory workers, leaves him as well. As the strike continues to escalate, riots break out in town. The button factory is torched to the ground and a security guard is killed. Alex, although not involved in the riots and strike, is blamed because as a labor organizer he has agitated in the relief camps. Laura decides to hide him at Avilion for a small amount of time.

Captain Chase felt an obligation to his employees and their families. He hoped to allow his factories to reopen by selling them to Richard’s firm in Toronto. Iris, who is now eighteen, accompanies her rapidly deteriorating father to Toronto. There, Richard proposes to her, even though he is twice her age. Chase tells her that the family’s future depends on this marriage and his business merge with Richard, who can re-employ Chase’s men and support Laura. Iris gives in and becomes her father’s sacrifice for the sake of his workers and family. She is quickly taken in by the overbearing Winifred, who arranges the wedding and prepares her for society.

The night before the wedding comes and Laura begs Iris to run away. The wedding photographs are full of a scowling Laura, who even refused to catch the bride’s bouquet. When the couple returns home after a three-month honeymoon, Richard’s betrayal is revealed. Right after the wedding, Captain Chase died. Richard withheld frantic telegrams from Laura, from his bride. Back at Avilion, Laura tells her sister that after Richard betrayed the agreement by closing their factories permanently, their father locked himself in the tower and drank himself to his death. The entire corporation now belongs only to Richard, who now controls both women’s lives.

At this point of the story, it gets more complicated. When Laura tries to run away, Richard, her now legal guardian, sends her to a private school. After Alex leaves to fight in the Spanish Civil War, Laura is placed in a psych ward and treated with electroshock therapy. Meanwhile, Iris gives birth to a daughter with Richard.

Laura’s novel mirrors their lives, in many ways. As her book unfolds, it is clear that the nameless writer is based on Alex Thomas. Although, his young lover is more difficult to identify. However, the tale that the man tells introduces Atwood’s underlying themes. In his story, the city of Sakiel-Norn is known for beautiful carpets made by children slaves, who grow blind by the age of eight or nine because of the work. At this point in their lives, the blind children, are usually sent to brothels, where they are in huge demand. The few who escape the brothels become skilled assassins. So is the man of the title, a blind assassin hired to murder the king during the sacrifice of a tongueless virgin to the goddess of silence. The assassin, with his delicateness, falls in love with the mute woman and is determined to escape the city with her.

Betrayal is an obvious theme in these stories, as the blind assassin betrays those who have hired him to assassinate the king. Captain Chase has unknowingly betrayed his daughters and his employees by selling his factories to Richard, who in the end betrays nearly everyone. Callista betrays Alex, Winifred betrays Iris, and Iris betrays Laura.

Symbolically, both Iris and Laura serve as the mute, passive virgin enslaved to Richard. At first, Iris does not argue with him, and Laura refuses to speak to him because she believes he killed her father. Both women are willing to sacrifice, Iris’ marriage for her father’s, Lauras’ desperate bargains with God to rescue others. After their mother dies, little Laura jumps into the water to exchange her life for her mother’s. She offers up her life again in order to protect Alex as he goes off to war, telling Iris, “I had to take the pain and suffering onto myself. . . . I knew if I did that, it would save Alex.” (Atwood)

If the Chase sisters are the sacrificial victims, who or what is the blind assassin in the title? Is it Alex, like his sightless hero, who cannot see his destiny clearly? Is it the blind god of love, the blindfolded goddess of justice? History does not treat these characters kindly. In the end, the Chase family

has collapsed, except for Iris’s estranged granddaughter, Sabrina, who is now traveling in India. The Griffens are dead, as is Alex Thomas. History has cut them out, remorseless.

Atwood is a witty, often playful writer who likes to take literary chances, as she does with this fractured chronology. Ellipsis is integral to her work; the important things are most often those she does not write down. As one might expect, satire and humor are present in the usual sly asides. Here, through excerpts from the society page, she mocks the social rituals of the fashionable set. She parodies the real pulp fiction of the 1930’s people with square-jawed heroes, voluptuous peach women, and lizard men in red shorts.

Iris, whose vision is growing clouded, is at last identified as the true author of Laura’s novel. She has published it in Laura’s name to memorialize her sister, although no one knows this. As she wryly remarks of the Laura Chase scholars who plague her, “For them, I’m only an appendage: Laura’s odd, extra hand, attached to nobody—the hand that passed her on, to the world.” Yet she admits a closer bond with her sister than she has ever acknowledged: “Laura was my left hand, and I was hers. We wrote the book together.”

Iris has written her family history to reveal details that she was never able to tell her daughter or granddaughter. She views herself as Sabrina’s uninvited fairy godmother, and the gift she brings is the truth of their shared blood, for she is the only one left who can give it. Age has mellowed her, brought her perspective and wisdom. She fantasizes a meeting with her granddaughter, who will see her as she is, “an old woman . . . living alone in a fossilized cottage, with hair like burning spider webs.” Iris is History, de Maupassant’s old woman, exalted but perhaps no longer false.

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin’s structure accomplished two goals: she makes the story suspenseful and also builds the question of what the actual truth is, into the framework. By writing the story of her life, for her granddaughter, Sabrina, Iris, reveals the versions of events that the novel’s other characters believe are true. The flashbacks that Iris uses to create the main thread of the story are primarily in chronological order, she saves the most astonishing details till the end. In creating the story in this way, she leads readers to the same false conclusions the characters reached. Later in the novel, she reveals that these false conclusions are indeed incorrect. In the last chapters only, does she explain that Laura was actually pregnant with

The stories within stories in The Blind Assassin suggest that there is always another story beneath the surface of what seems like the truth. Furthermore, words are not always the best source of information. Iris learns what Richard did to Laura from seeing some pictures that Laura colorized and from some notations in Laura’s school notebooks that do not explicitly state their message.

Another major theme of the novel is the way in which social constraints limit and determine the actions that women can take. Iris is clear in her account that, as young women, she and her sister were powerless because of their gender. Iris has little choice in her marriage. Although she is led to believe that marrying Richard will allow her father to keep his business, she does not have even the power to sacrifice herself for her family. Richard closes the Chase factory soon after the wedding. In fact, Richard discounts Iris so much that he does not even notice when her baby has darker skin and hair than anyone in either of their families.

Iris attributes her decision to publish the novel under Laura’s name to the damage caused by the constraints that she faces. This novel within the novel provides a metaphor for what happens to her. In a story which a character in that novel tells, slave boys must weave rugs until they go blind. Then many of them become assassins, as their fingers are so nimble from the rug work that they can slit throats while their victims sleep. Like them, Iris becomes capable of hurting others because of the harm is done to her. By publishing the novel under Laura’s name, she ruins Richard’s political career, and his suicide soon follows.

In conclusion, writing can also have a redemption effect, however, while Iris’s first book destroys the family, she writes the second one to release her granddaughter from the pain and fear that misinformation caused in her life. Overall, she wanted Sabrina to understand that Richard was not her grandfather, and she is not related to Winifred.