Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Iris Chase Griffen, more than eighty years old and suffering from heart problems, begins writing the story of her life for her granddaughter Sabrina, whom she has not seen in years. She tells the story through flashbacks, with scenes from her present life mixed in. The story is not in chronological order.
Iris and her sister, Laura, grow up as the daughters of a wealthy button-factory owner in Port Ticonderoga, Canada. The family home, Avilion, is in decline from its grandest days. Iris’s mother dies in childbirth when Iris is nine years old and Laura is six years old. Reenie Hincks, a family servant, cares for the two girls. Their father’s business has increasing financial problems, which worsen with the Great Depression.
Iris and Laura are now teenagers, and their father’s girlfriend introduces them to Alex Thomas, a young union organizer and socialist activist. Soon after they meet, the factory workers riot, and the factory burns. Alex is suspected of instigating the trouble, and Iris and Laura hide him in their attic from the authorities.
Soon, Iris’s father explains to her that he expects Richard Griffen to propose to her and that he has already given his consent. Griffen, a wealthy industrialist from Toronto, is much older than Iris. Iris’s father says the marriage is the only way to save the family business and ensure that Laura will be provided for. After the wedding, Richard and Iris spend several months in...
(The entire section is 983 words.)
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Part 1, Chapters 1-3 Summary
Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (2000) earned several awards, including the prestigious Man Booker Prize. It is Atwood’s tenth novel and quickly became a bestseller, although it received mixed reviews. One possible reason for this is reflected in John Marshall’s article in Seattle’s Post-Intelligencer, which describes The Blind Assassin as a novel that raises “demands on readers”; he contends “that serious attention be paid, or else.” The reason behind these comments might be due to the complexity of the structure of The Blind Assassin, which is built on the narration of Iris Chase Griffen, the novel of her sister, and a story being told within that novel.
In the opening lines of The Blind Assassin, the narrator, Iris, announces that her sister, Laura died at twenty-five-years of age. It has been assumed that Laura died as a result of a car accident, but Iris suggests it might have been suicide. Iris is now in her sixties. To shed more light on Laura’s death, Iris recalls the history of her Canadian family. In the process of exposing details of both women’s lives, Iris includes excerpts from a novel written by her sister. After Laura’s death, Iris discovered her sister’s manuscript and sent it to a publisher. The novel concerns a somewhat explicit extramarital affair between an unnamed man and a married woman. The man, in turn, tells another story to his lover.
The man’s tale is set in an undetermined time that appears to be in the future though he claims the characters in his story and their plight have ancient historical references. The title of this man’s story is also The Blind Assassin, which refers to some of his characters. In his story, young child slaves are forced to make handcrafted carpets. These children are forced to work so diligently that they lose their eyesight at an early age. Blinded, they are of no more use except as prostitutes and pickpockets. Some of these unfortunate children come under the influence of murderers who teach them how to kill; they become blind assassins.
Iris’s narration is interspersed throughout the novel. Through Iris, readers learn that Laura’s ashes were strewn upon the family cemetery plot, which Iris often visits. Bouquets of flowers are occasionally laid on the plot; when they are wilted, Iris picks them up and throws them away. She says that fans of her sister’s novel...
(The entire section is 639 words.)
Part 2, Chapters 1-4 Summary
The unnamed man continues telling his story to his lover. He asks for her input as to the setting of the story. She chooses outer space. He comes up with a distant planet that he calls Zycron. He tells her that there is an arid plain on this planet, and in the middle of the plain is a pile of stones. Buried underneath the stones are a king and all the inhabitants of a once-flourishing city. Everyone from this city was murdered. Now every herdsman and merchant who passes by the rubble adds another stone. They do this in memory of those who perished at the site as well as to honor their own ancestors. However, the storyteller claims, there is another version of what happened to this city. The king was able to put a spell on all his subjects and whisk them away, safe from destruction. To save them, he had to shrink them. He shrunk the city also, which still exists in a small cave under the pile of stones. The people live on, small as ants, unaware that they are so tiny.
At this, the woman is roused. She says she is cold and must leave. She cannot be late. He asks her to stay longer, but she insists she does not have the time.
Then there is a brief interlude in the story in the form of a new bulletin. The date jumps to 1947. The announcement is of Richard E. Griffen’s death. Readers later discover that this is the protagonist’s husband. Griffen was forty-seven. His body was found in his sailboat, still tied at the dock. He died of an apparent heart attack. In the article, he is referred to as an industrialist, the head of a commercial empire that included the manufacture of textiles. He is survived by his sister, Winifred Prior; his wife, Iris; and his ten-year-old daughter, Aimee.
Once again, the story from Laura’s novel continues. The man and the woman are together again. The woman asks why the faraway planet in the man’s story is inhabited by people. She would expect another planet to have different types of species. He explains that in his story, the planet Earth was colonized by the Zycronites. That is why the species are similar. He then goes on to elaborate.
The name of the city is Sakiel-Norn, or The Pearl of Destiny. The city was, at one time, considered a world wonder because of its natural beauty. The aristocrats of this city were called Snilfards, while the workers and slaves were called The Ygnirods. The Ygnirods were, by law, uneducated, and they often revolted against the...
(The entire section is 652 words.)
Part 2, Chapters 5-8 Summary
The novel again takes up the characters in Laura’s story. The unnamed man telephones the woman with whom he is having an affair. She answers but tells him he should not be calling her there. He ignores her comment and says he wants to see her. He will be waiting for her at the park. She is reluctant, but she goes. When she meets him, she tells him she cannot stay long. While they sit on a park bench, he continues his story.
Sakiel-Norn, he tells her, was once a thriving city of trade known for its handicrafts, especially those that were woven. The materials they created were very special and could not be duplicated by anyone outside the city. The dyes and treatment were secret. The rugs that were created in Sakiel-Norn were woven by children because their small fingers were capable of more intricate work than were the hands of adults. The intense work eventually blinds the young slaves. Once blinded, the children are sold to someone else.
Another news story interrupts the story. This one, dated 1998, announces the death of Winifred Prior, Iris’s sister-in-law. The woman was ninety-two years old. She is referred to as a noted philanthropist who lived in Toronto. According to the article, Winifred is survived by her great-niece, Sabrina, who is currently traveling in India. There is no mention of Iris.
The story then switches back to the next time the man and the woman meet. The man takes the woman to a spot under a bridge. The site is strewn with rubbish. She is afraid a policeman or a tramp might see them. He insists they are safe. They make love. Then the man continues his story.
The aristocrats of Sakiel-Norn deny that their wealth is based on the labor of slaves. They claim that they have done well in life because of their virtue and clever thinking—in other words, because they have made the correct sacrifices to their gods. Human sacrifice was the most beneficial. In particular, nine girls were sacrificed every year. For a long time, the girls believed this was an honor. Later they started to think otherwise.
The mention of the sacrifices upsets the woman. She tells the man she must go. Before she leaves, she tells him she is worried. She senses that their affair is temporary. She does not know what she will do with herself after the man leaves her.
At the end of this section, an article about the recently formed Laura Chase Memorial Prize is printed. The date is...
(The entire section is 454 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 1-4 Summary
In Part 3, Iris Chase Griffen takes up the narration of the novel. Iris is the older sister of Laura Chase, the author of the novel-within-the novel called The Blind Assassin—the story of the illicit affair between the unnamed man and woman. Iris has been asked to hand out the first awarding of a literary prize that has been named in Laura’s honor. One student from the local high school will be chosen for the prize based on the merit of submitted short stories.
Iris is not feeling too steady. Her head hurts, and it is very hot outside. A friend named Walter drives her to the school. At the school, Iris is met by another friend: Myra, who is the daughter of Reenie, her old nanny. Myra leads Iris to the stage. As she sits there, Iris listens passively to the speeches and realizes that she is barely noticed when the students come up to the stage to receive their diplomas. As the prize is explained, Iris thinks back to her sister. Having a prize in her sister’s name is somewhat ironic, Iris determines, because Laura’s book caused an uproar in the city. The local library had to pull the book from the shelves and the bookstore refused to sell it.
On another day, Iris confesses that she does not like going outside. She does not like the feeling that people are looking at her. However, her doctor insists that she get some exercise. As she walks through the town, she laments the changes she sees. She misses the old-fashioned foods and drinks; she prefers chicken pot pies to hamburgers.
When she makes her way to the family gravesite, Iris remembers receiving the silver box that contained Laura’s remains. Laura’s car crashed through a construction site on the bridge. Her body was completely burned when the car exploded at the bottom of the gorge. Iris spread Laura’s ashes on the land around the graves.
As Iris clears the family burial plot, she thinks of Sabrina, her grandchild, one of the last of the family line. She wonders what will happen to her. Winifred Griffen Prior, Iris’s sister-in-law and Sabrina’s legal guardian, has done her best to keep Iris out of Sabrina’s life.
On another day, Iris walks to the Button Factory, a business her grandfather built in the early 1870s. The factory thrived, especially through World War I and most of Iris’s early childhood. The buttons were not fancy, but they provided the family with a surplus of money.
(The entire section is 531 words.)
Part 3, Chapters 5-9 Summary
Walter has brought a new fan to Iris’s home, where he assembles it. Walter often brings his tools and fixes things while he is there. As Iris watches, she wishes he could also fix her. After Walter is gone, Iris returns to her writing. She is recording her thoughts concerning her family’s history.
In 1914, Iris writes, her mother married her father. When Iris was a young girl and needed information about her past, she often turned to Reenie, the woman who worked as a nanny and housekeeper for her family. Reenie provided various versions of her stories, depending on Iris’s age at the time. Over the years, Iris was able to gather many interesting details that neither her mother nor her father was willing to convey.
Iris’s father proposed to her mother at a skating party. Had Iris’s grandmother had her way, she would have chosen a debutante. Later in life, Iris surmised that her mother did not have the social status that would have suited her grandmother’s taste. Her mother was eighteen when she married. World War I began shortly afterward, and Iris’s father enlisted, along with his two younger brothers.
While her father was in France fighting, her mother visited wounded soldiers who had returned home. According to Reenie, Iris’s mother was exhausted after each visit. She was also pregnant. Iris was born in June of 1916. That same year, her father’s younger brothers were both killed in the war. Also in that year, Iris’s grandfather suffered a debilitating stroke that affected his ability to speak and his memory. For this reason, Iris’s mother took over management of the button factory.
Iris’s father was wounded three times before the war ended. By the time he returned home, both he and Iris’s mother had changed dramatically. He had terrible nightmares and was bitter. His belief in God had disappeared. He had also begun drinking. Her mother was appalled by all of this. According to Iris’s assumption, it was not that her mother and father no longer loved one another. Rather, after the war, they were unable to reach out. They no longer knew who the other was.
Eventually, Iris’s father ended up taking over the button factory. He replaced the women who had been working there during the war with veterans. This was his way of honoring the men’s service during the war. The new workers admired Iris’s father. However, Iris learned that many of the townspeople thought...
(The entire section is 514 words.)
Part 4, Chapters 1-9 Summary
Part 4 returns to Laura’s novel. The woman in the story has just entered a café where she is to meet her lover. She is a little distracted. The café is not the type she would typically visit. When she sees the man, she feels disappointed in how he greets her. He criticizes the way she is dressed—or overdressed, in his opinion. He tells her she stands out as much as if she were wearing a mink coat. She counters by telling him that if she dressed as shabbily as some of the patrons of the café, those at her home would be very suspicious about where she was going. The man then tells her that her hair is too blonde. She concludes that the man is in a bad mood.
As their conversation continues, she asks if it is safe there. He says he is watching the door and will be able to run. She asks if he did it. Readers are not told to what she is referring. He says he might as well have done it. He was there. He senses that someone is after him; he believes someone is out to get him whether he did it or not. She tells him she is worried and that he has to get away.
The story breaks here with another news story, dated 1933. The article is about Norval, Iris’s father. Norval has donated three boxcars of buttons to the war relief effort. This action has been criticized by Richard Griffen, Norval’s business rival (and Iris’s future husband). Griffen has accused Norval of dumping these buttons on the market, thus depriving other people of work. However, the newspaper supports Norval; it states that he is a man of his word, unlike other business owners who hire strikebreakers and lock out their union employees, which has led to riots, brutal violence, and “Communist-inspired blood-shed.”
Then there is a news article from 1934, this one about strikers and violence at Norval’s button factory. A crowd of strikers rioted in the town, breaking shop windows and looting the stores. Many shop owners were hurt. A policeman is in the hospital after being hit on the head with a brick. A fire was set in the button factory. Arson is suspected.
The story returns to Laura’s novel, and readers find the man and the woman in an apartment of one of the man’s friends. When the woman notices the man staring at her, she asks why. He says he is memorizing her so he can have her with him when he is gone.
After a while, the man continues the story he has been telling her. In it, there are troops set to attack...
(The entire section is 644 words.)
Part 5, Chapters 1-3 Summary
Iris continues her memoir, focusing on the first couple of years after her mother’s death. During this time, her connection with Laura became so strong that Reenie suggested that it was not good for either of them to spend so much time together. Laura slowed Iris’s maturity, Reenie said, and Iris’s influence made Laura grow up too fast. However, no one did anything to separate the two girls. They were not allowed to attend school because that was meant only for the workers’ children. They were above that, their father believed. Instead, private tutors educated them.
Also during this time, Iris’s father became involved with another woman. Mr. Chase was inspired to have a memorial built for the soldiers who had fought in the war. He did not want the citizens of his town to forget the soldiers’ sacrifices. There was to be a statue created that would be called the Weary Soldier. The statue would be of a soldier worn down by war as opposed to looking victorious, as many of the townspeople had suggested. For this endeavor, Mr. Chase chose a female artist who had applied. His choice caused another controversy. Others involved in the project believed a male artist would have been more appropriate.
The artist’s name was Callista Fitzsimmons. She was a redhead who often wore slacks instead of skirts. She frequently met with Mr. Chase at his home. Eventually their meetings were extended, and Callista spent many nights at the Chase home. Her stays became extended over time. Supposedly this was due to her work and her need to confer with Iris’s father. However, Callista’s visits began to include picnics and even trips to other cities, which many times required that Mr. Chase and Callista spend several nights away.
Reenie did not approve of Callista’s behavior. She thought Callista was interested in Mr. Chase because of his money. Reenie also did not like the way Callista dressed or Callista’s friends, who were invited to stay at the house from time to time. When Callista took to swimming nude in the pond on the estate, Reenie was furious.
As Callista explained, she was making Mr. Chase feel better. She was lifting his spirits, taking his mind off his sorrows—she was good for him. Iris and Laura enjoyed Callista. For one thing, they found her very frank. They could ask her anything, and she would provide them with satisfactory answers. This contrasted strongly with their father, who rarely...
(The entire section is 611 words.)
Part 5, Chapters 4-6 Summary
To better educate his young daughters, Mr. Chase, hired private tutors for them. Iris and Laura did not like their tutors. One female teacher was too timid and allowed the girls to do whatever they wanted. The girls felt bored by the woman’s lack of effort and often slipped away from her and snuck downtown. Another tutor, a Mr. Erskine, was very strict and often punished the girls by slapping their hands with a ruler. When the girls complained to Reenie, she was furious but did nothing. Reenie knew it would do no good to complain to Mr. Chase, who tended not to believe his own daughters’ stories. However, when Laura told Reenie that Mr. Erskine had tried to slip his hands into her underpants, Reenie went to Mr. Chase with pornography that she claimed she had found in the room where Mr. Erskine taught. Mr. Chase immediately got rid of the man.
This occurred during the Great Depression. Mr. Chase’s button factory was losing money, which meant that things at home were not quite as extravagant as they had once been. Laura’s and Iris’s clothes were beginning to look shabby, and they could no longer afford to buy new dresses. Reenie taught the girls how to darn their own socks instead of purchase new ones. In addition, the meals at home were not as sumptuous as they had been. Beans and rabbits became the primary source of protein.
By the time Iris turned sixteen, she had reached the highest level of education she would receive. As she was approaching a marriageable age, Reenie thought Iris should have a debutante ball. Because he economy was not doing well, Reenie realized this would not happen. This did not stop Mr. Chase, however, from arranging a dinner party at which he invited his business rival, the young Richard Griffen, a possible suitor for his daughter. The two men had met at a picnic sponsored by the Chase Button Factory. Iris, Laura, Reenie, and Callista (Callie) were all at the event. Mr. Chase gave his usual annual speech at the picnic, which Iris noted was not in his usual upbeat tone. Her father’s appearance was also somewhat unusual, as if he had stopped caring about how he looked. Iris thought he looked shabby. After his speech, Mr. Chase spent most of his time talking with Richard Griffen. However, Laura and Iris took little notice of this because their attention was focused on a new friend Callie had brought to the picnic.
Alex Thomas (upon whom most people assumed the male character in...
(The entire section is 581 words.)
Part 5, Chapters 7-9 Summary
Unemployed men had formed a camp near the railroad in Iris’s hometown. Alex Thomas was often seen at the camp. Laura was also seen there on occasion with Alex. A local newspaper reporter came to the Chase house and told Reenie that he had noticed Laura hanging out with Alex, who was known as a union sympathizer. The reporter had also witnessed Laura smoking with the young man.
Iris, who was now following her father to work at the Button Factory in order to learn the business, was too busy to keep track of Laura. Even if she had had the time, she knew her sister no longer listened to her advice. However, she did talk to Laura about Alex, and she asked what her intentions were. Laura told Iris that she was trying to save Alex’s soul. Iris had heard Laura using this excuse on one of their former tutors. She did not know whether to take Laura seriously. However, there was nothing Iris could have done to persuade her sister to end her relationship with the young man. Iris decided to keep an eye on her sister when she could.
One night there were riots in the town. The unemployed workers, it was reported, had been roused by outside agitators and inspired to create havoc. It had started innocently with a meeting at which unionization was discussed. Emotions had risen in the midst of it, and fights had broken out. Men then marched into the town and broke into shops. A fire was set at the button factory. The night watchman at the factory was found dead.
Laura’s behavior changed after this night. For instance, Iris noticed that Laura stopped eating much of her dinner. Instead, she would place her food on a tray and take it up to her bedroom, telling Reenie she would eat it later. The day after the riots, policemen came to the Chase house to interview Laura. Iris sat with her sister and listened. The police suggested that Laura might know something about a suspect for whom they were searching. They referred to Alex Thomas. Laura claimed that though she did know him, she had no idea where he was. Afterward, Laura confessed to Iris that Alex was hiding in the cellar of their house.
Later that night, Laura went to the cellar and spoke to Alex. He thought she had come to kick him out. She told him the only reason she did not do so was because she did not want to create a scandal for her father. She asked Alex if he had been involved in the fire or the killing of the guard. Alex denied this. However, he said...
(The entire section is 607 words.)
Part 5, Chapters 10-12 Summary
It was 1935, and Iris was nineteen. Her father’s business was in shambles. The factory was burnt, and the insurance company was reluctant to pay for repairs. Iris’s father stayed home more often and drank. When he was not at home, he was traveling to Toronto on business, he told her. She suspected he was meeting with Richard Griffen. On some occasions, her father took Iris with him.
The family no longer could afford a chauffeur, and Reenie had volunteered to cut her hours of employment at the home. She stated health reasons, but Iris suspected that Reenie knew they could no longer afford her. Iris and her father took the train to Toronto and stayed in a hotel for which Iris decided Richard must have been paying. On one particular trip, her father told her that Richard was going to ask her to marry him. Her father explained that he had already given his consent, but the decision was up to her. Then he told her that if she married Richard, she would be assuring a better future for herself and Laura. She also would be saving the factory. It would be a shame if the button factory never opened again after all the hard work her grandfather had put into it.
Iris barely knew Richard or what she wanted in a marriage. She had never thought about it. She merely went along with her father’s wishes, accepted Richard’s proposal, and prepared herself for her meeting with Richard’s sister.
Winifred Griffen Prior was a very well-dressed woman, but she did not have the social graces Iris thought she should have. For instance, on the day Iris went to a restaurant to meet her, she found Winifred looking into the small mirror of her compact at the table in front of all the other clients. Iris had been trained to believe one should never do this; it was considered “cheap.”
Upon meeting the woman, Iris extended her hand. When she did, Winifred admired the ring Richard had given Iris. Then Winifred told Iris that it was she who had helped her brother choose it. She added that she was the one who arranged everything for Richard. As the luncheon date progressed, Winifred went on to inspect Iris. She talked about her clothes, her manner, and her need to develop charm.
Winifred made all the decisions about the wedding. She wanted the ceremony to be festive and grand, and she assumed Iris’s father could not afford it. Therefore, Iris and Richard were married in Toronto. Iris’s wedding night was no...
(The entire section is 482 words.)
Part 6, Chapters 1-7 Summary
The unnamed man in Laura’s story has found a new place to hide. He is in a room waiting for the woman to arrive. While he waits, he thinks about a new idea for a story he wants to write about extraterrestrials who come to Earth to explore life on this planet. The aliens are made of crystal and expect that living creatures on Earth will look like them. They are disappointed when they get to the planet and find no one that resembles them. They are so focused on finding crystal beings that they fail to recognize humans as living. The man makes his living by writing this type of story, though he thinks his stories are no better than junk. Finally the woman arrives, bringing with her the man’s mail as well as a bottle of booze.
When the man goes out briefly, the woman looks through his personal belongings. She does not want him to know she is snooping. However, she wants to know more about him. She finds a driver’s licence, but it contains someone else’s name.
Upon returning, the man narrates more of his story of the blind assassin. The assassin makes it into the sacrificial woman’s room. He, of course, cannot see her. He asks if he can touch her face, so he can “see” her through touch. The girl agrees. Upon touching her, the man’s emotions are aroused. His touch is so gentle that the woman begins to trust him. In this way, the assassin and the girl fall in love.
The unnamed woman is surprised that the man (the narrator of the story) is incorporating a love story into his novel. She teases him because previously he had been very critical of any expressions of love in his writing. The man says he is not to be blamed for this turn of events in his writing. Those kinds of things happen in novels.
At this point, there is another break in the novel for another news story. The article is dated in 1935 and concerns Laura Chase. According to the news, Laura was missing for a week. She had been staying with her sister, Iris, and Iris’s new husband, Richard. The article claims that Laura was found at the summer cottage of a friend. Upon finding her, Richard released a statement that avowed that the incident was caused by miscommunication.
The story then resumes with the unnamed man and woman. The man continues his tale about the assassin. The blind assassin is determining whether to kill the sacrificial female or take her with him. He decides on the latter. They sneak out of the...
(The entire section is 471 words.)
Part 7, Chapters 1-4 Summary
Iris narrates this section as she recalls memories of her youth. She is rummaging through an old trunk filled with papers that she claims are Laura’s. Copies of Laura’s book, The Blind Assassin, are in the trunk, as are letters from people who have read Laura’s novel. Iris describes some of these letters as hate mail. When Iris sees the copies of the book, she remembers receiving six of them when the book was first published. She gave one copy to Richard, her husband. She at first assumes Richard probably tore the book into pieces and then burned it. However, she then remembers that Winifred discovered the book next to Richard’s body when he was found dead on his yacht—Winifred had told Iris that it was the book that killed Richard.
As Iris stares down at the contents of the trunk, she wonders what to do with all the manuscripts and letters. She thinks about donating it all to a university. Over the years, she has received letters from scholars who are interested in studying the details of Laura’s life. Iris also wonders if Sabrina, her granddaughter, might want these papers so she could know more about her family. However, Iris worries that if she sent the trunk of materials to Sabrina, she might throw it all away. Iris then comments that she is not responsible for Aimee’s death. Aimee was Iris’s daughter and Sabrina’s mother. Iris offers this statement as a possible reason as to why Sabrina will have nothing to do with her.
On a trip to Toronto, Iris and Walter go to lunch at a café with which Iris is familiar. Iris had once trailed Sabrina to this café. When Aimee died, Winifred gained custody of Sabrina and Iris was denied any contact with her granddaughter. Many years later, when Sabrina was a teenager, Iris had hung out at Sabrina’s school, hoping to gain sight of her. She often sat on a park bench near the school and watched Sabrina with her friends. One day, Iris followed Sabrina to this café. Sabrina had looked at Iris without recognizing her. Iris could tell by the look Sabrina gave her that, to her, Iris was just an unfamiliar old woman.
Iris later details her honeymoon, during which she and Richard toured Europe. It was not a happy affair. After their wedding, Richard continued to withdraw from Iris, leaving her alone while he attended to business. When they returned to Toronto, Iris received a phone call from Laura, who was crying. She and Reenie had sent several...
(The entire section is 582 words.)
Part 7, Chapters 5-7 Summary
Concerned that Richard would take everything from his daughters, Mr. Chase had left all his money to Laura. If he had left any to Iris, Richard would have taken it. However, there was not much money remaining by the time of his death, and Laura was still a minor. Therefore, Laura was forced to live with Richard and Iris.
This plan did not suit Laura. On the day she was to arrive in Toronto, only her suitcases appeared via the train. Several days later, through a police investigation that Richard made sure was kept private, Laura was found working as a waitress at a beach resort. Richard brought her home and warned her that if she ever ran away again, he would put her into a school for “wayward girls.”
When they were alone, Iris asked Laura why she had run away. Laura told her sister it was because she could not live with Richard. She still blamed Richard for their father’s death. Laura insisted that both she and Iris should get out of Richard’s house before it was too late. This forced Iris to reflect on her life and what she had done in marrying Richard. When she thought about Richard and his sister Winifred, who ruled her life, Iris saw herself as a mouse creeping around silently so as not to call any attention to herself. She had agreed to marry Richard as a way to save the button factory and the members of her family. The plan had not been successful.
Laura did not fare well in Richard’s house. She was forced to attend a private school, which she did not enjoy. Iris noticed how skinny Laura was becoming and that Laura was constantly biting her fingernails. Richard had no empathy for Laura’s sensitive nature. He merely thought she was spoiled and needed discipline. Iris spent much of her energy trying to separate Richard and Laura so they would not get on one another’s nerves.
One day, Laura confessed to Iris that she had seen Alex Thomas while they were out shopping in Toronto. Although Iris did not tell Laura, she had also seen him. He had not appeared to notice either one of them. Both the girls had intended to say hello to him but had changed their minds. They did not want to draw any attention to him because they suspected he might want to remain incognito. They assumed he was still trying to run from legal authorities who wanted to question him about the fire at the button factory. Then Laura told Iris that she had seen Alex on the same street as their house. She thought Alex...
(The entire section is 545 words.)
Part 8, Chapters 1-5 Summary
The unnamed man and woman meet again. The man has moved once more. He does not stay in one place for very long because he is afraid of being discovered. When the woman arrives at his new place, she tells him she has been thinking about the story of the blind assassin. She has some suggestions for his story.
The last time they had been together, the man had told her that the blind assassin and the sacrificial female he had rescued had been caught by the barbarians who were about to seize the city, Sakiel-Norn. The barbarians were taking the assassin and the woman to see the Servant of Rejoicing, their leader, who would determine the assassin’s fate.
The unnamed woman suggests that the man have the assassin tell the Servant of Rejoicing that he has a special message for him. Once the assassin gains a private audience with the leader, he should tell him he knows the secret code that will allow entrance into the city. One sentry should enter the city in this way and then string out a long rope along the city’s canal. Once this is done, the other soldiers can pull their way along the rope, thus entering the city underwater and undetected.
The unnamed man tells the unnamed woman that her idea is very clever. However, he also says that this information alone may not save the blind assassin. So the woman says the assassin should not convey the secret code until he and the woman have been escorted to the foot of some distant mountains and given provisions for their survival. In that way, they can run into obscurity after they give the ruler the code.
Although the unnamed man goes along with some of the woman’s ideas, he thinks she is too much a romantic. She wants to get rid of challenges too easily. He insists that a good story needs some terror. After all, life also holds terror and stories must be realistic, he says.
The next time the unnamed man and woman meet, he tells her he is leaving. He has been called to some location outside the country; he does not tell her where. The woman says that when he comes back, she will be willing to leave her husband. He asks why she does not leave her husband now. The woman’s reason is that she has no money of her own, no skills with which she could get a job, and no place to live; she does not want to live as the man does, in cheap rooms. The man encourages her to leave her husband because the thought of her being with him makes him ill. However,...
(The entire section is 472 words.)
Part 9, Chapters 1-5 Summary
Iris returns to writing her memoir. She remembers events from the spring of 1936—the year, she says, everything began to fall apart. Although Laura was living with Iris and Richard, Iris rarely saw her sister. Laura did not eat breakfast with Iris, as she left early for school. Richard would not allow Laura to walk to school for fear she might run away again, so he had a servant, Mr. Murgatroyd, drive her, further limiting Laura’s freedom. Iris notes that Laura was no longer obviously rude to Richard but she did do her best to avoid him. Whenever Richard entered a room, Laura would make a point of leaving.
Iris, in the meantime, was not faring very well. Her relationship with Richard was constantly overseen and manipulated by Richard’s sister, Winifred. Iris felt that Winifred thought she was stupid. Ten years later, after the two women no longer lived together, Winifred told Iris that she had at one time thought Iris was a fool. Winifred told her it was only later that she realized Iris was evil. Winifred came to this conclusion because she felt that Iris always hated her and Richard because she blamed them for the button factory going bankrupt. Then Winifred told Iris that it was Iris’s father who burned the button factory down in order to collect insurance money. Iris disagreed. She told Winifred that if anyone burnt the factory down on purpose, it was Richard. Winifred continued her severe critique of Iris and Laura, claiming that the sisters were spoiled children to whom everything was given. They never had to work for anything in their lives. Winifred also accused Iris of killing Richard; she said the pressure Iris and Laura caused in Richard’s life led to his heart attack. Iris countered this statement by accusing Richard and Winifred of applying so much pressure on Laura, that in the end Laura had no choice but to take her own life.
However, all this happened later, Iris writes. Back in 1936, she and Winifred were still talking to one another. Iris’s relationship with Winifred worked because Iris was silent about most of the situations in her life. She did what Richard and Winifred told her to do. She never complained, even when she ended up with bruises on her body after having sex with Richard, who was not a gentle lover.
One summer, Richard announced that they would spend several weeks at Iris and Laura’s old family home. The sisters were excited about going back to their hometown and...
(The entire section is 512 words.)
Part 10, Chapters 1-6 Summary
The unnamed woman feels lost without the unnamed man now that he is gone. One day she notices a story in a magazine that sounds very much like an excerpt from the novel the man had been telling her, the one about the blind assassin. The woman reads the magazine story and recognizes some of the names and the details. The name of the city in the story is Sakiel-Norn, the same as in the man’s novel. There are also barbarians about to launch an attack on the city, just as in his story. However, there is no blind assassin. There is also no sacrificial woman for the blind assassin to rescue. In other words, there is no love story. In its place is an invasion of space aliens called the Lizard Men. Due to the threat of the aliens, the barbarians and the king of Sakiel-Norn ban together to fight the space creatures. That is how the first installment of the story ends. The woman is disappointed. Although the woman looks for sequels to the story, she never finds them. This makes her feel even more lonely and abandoned. She constantly thinks of the unnamed man and tries to imagine him thinking of her. She also tries to envision what he might be doing and where he might be.
The story breaks for a letter from Dr. Gerald P. Witherspoon, director of an Ontario mental institution, the BellaVista Sanctuary. Richard has sent Laura to this institution. The doctor reports that Laura’s condition is not improving. As a matter of fact, her mental state has deteriorated further. Dr. Witherspoon suggests that Richard and Iris no longer come to visit Laura because he believes their visits upset Laura. He also tells Richard that with his approval he would like to begin electroshock therapy. The narrator offers no further discussion about this letter. Readers do not know why Laura has been institutionalized nor are they privy to Iris’s feelings about this situation.
After the letter from Dr. Witherspoon, the tale about the unnamed woman resumes. She is still suffering; she has to remind herself that she must eat. She says that she sometimes feels as if she has been buried alive. She is hoping that “he” will come rescue her. It is unclear who this woman is. Is she really the unnamed woman or is she Laura? Or could she be the sacrificial woman in the unnamed man's novel? There is mention of towers and turrets, which could be an allusion to all three of the women. All three women might be waiting for a man to rescue them.
(The entire section is 513 words.)
Part 11, Chapters 1-5 Summary
When Laura turned seventeen, Winifred planned a debut for the teenager. However, Winifred did so without telling Laura about it. Iris tried to warn Winifred that Laura might not go along with her idea, but Winifred ignored Iris’s warnings. Winifred was determined to find a husband for Laura with or without the official societal debut. Winifred confided to Iris that she was hoping to find a rich bachelor who was too stupid to realize that Laura had psychological problems. When Iris asked Winifred what she thought Laura’s problems were, Winifred stated that Laura was a bit odd. For example, Laura had told Winifred a few days prior that she did not think marriage was very important. Laura had added that only love was necessary. Winifred was concerned that with an attitude like that, Laura was bound to get into trouble. That was why Winifred suggested that they marry Laura off to some unknowing man and then encourage Laura to have extramarital affairs, if that was what she wanted.
In February Winifred and Richard told Iris they had committed Laura to a mental institution. They said Laura had “snapped.” Laura had been volunteering at a hospital, where she helped some of the poorest patients—a job Winifred had said she could never have done. However, one day Laura went into a rage while working. Laura also claimed she was pregnant.
After determining that Laura was at risk of hurting others as well as herself, Winifred and Richard signed papers to have Laura taken to the BellaVista Sanctuary, where she would remain until the psychiatrist determined that she was no longer a threat to herself or others. They did this without informing Iris or allowing Iris to see her sister. When Iris demanded to visit Laura, Winifred and Richard told her that this was impossible because the doctor had told them Laura needed time alone without any family interference. The doctor, apparently, had told Winifred and Richard that he believed Laura was extremely jealous of Iris. This statement insinuated that Laura was not really pregnant but had become confused about her own identity and took on Iris’s pregnancy as her own. This made Iris wonder if Laura was really pregnant and that Richard and Winifred had sent Laura away to hide the fact.
In April, Iris gave birth to her daughter, Aimee. At the birth, Winifred said the baby was very dark. Winifred had expected Iris and Richard to have created a blond baby. Iris later considered...
(The entire section is 651 words.)
Part 12, Chapters 1-6 Summary
The unnamed man and woman reappear. The woman is waiting at a train station. When the man alights from the train, she kisses him but only lightly. She is fearful of someone seeing them. Then they shake hands, as if to denote only a casual relationship. The woman feels nervous around him, as she might around a stranger. It has been a long time since they were last together.
He tells her that his journey back to her was very difficult. She responds by telling him she would have sent him money if she had known where he was. This does not matter, the man insists. He had no permanent address because he was always moving. They go to a cheap hotel to get a room. Once inside, she tells him that she read his story about the blind assassin in a magazine and that she looked everywhere for sequels but never found any. He tells her he did not write any more. He was too busy, he tells her, trying not to get shot. She tells him she worried he might have been killed. He confides that his life has been like hell. He finally got used to the terrors of the war. Now he is having trouble accustoming himself to peace. She tells him she wishes he had been wounded. If he had, maybe he would stay put for a while and she could take care of him. She senses he will soon be leaving her again to return to the war.
The woman plans how she will leave the life she now knows and move out on her own. She will leave the big house one day, having stolen money from the family a little bit at a time over a long period. To a pawnshop she will take precious jewels and other old items no one will miss, like her fur coats, old gold watches, and pieces of silverware. She will rent an inexpensive room and then write a letter telling her family she is not coming back. She will live on apples and crackers and cups of tea. She will share her room with another woman whose husband is fighting in the war. Then the narrator informs the reader that none of this will happen, “of course.”
In the next scene, the woman receives a telegram at home. She pretends to not understand why such a telegram has been sent to her. She reads it and claims not to recognize the name mentioned in the telegram. The unnamed man, the telegram reads, is dead. The woman crumples the message after reading it. She does not want to give away her feelings in front of her family. However, she suddenly feels faint and sits down as they continue to ponder why she has been sent this telegram...
(The entire section is 530 words.)
Part 13, Chapters 1-4 Summary
Iris returns to narrating her memoir. She references the beginning of World War II in 1939. At this time, she states, her marriage to Richard was already in trouble. She had suffered through two miscarriages since the birth of Aimee. Richard had affairs with several other women. Winifred later blamed Iris for Richard’s infidelities, stating that he acted thus because Iris’s health was so frail. Although he was unfaithful, Richard had no intention of divorcing Iris, however, because marriage provided him an image of stability in the business and political realm. This gave Iris what she refers to as a certain amount of power. She could pretend she did not know about his mistresses and thus retain the safety that his home and money provided her and her daughter.
In terms of business, the war provided Richard with nothing but trouble. Much of his business had been with the Germans, who suddenly became the enemy. Because of this, Richard’s business lost a lot of money. The household budget shrunk. Food was rationed and there were no more lavish house parties, voyages on luxury ocean liners, or fancy clothes.
A week after the war ended, Iris received a phone call from Laura. Iris had not heard from her sister in years. When they met for lunch, Laura told her story. She had lived at the old family home for a while, despite the fact that the house had been locked up and closed for years. After she turned twenty-one, Laura had access to the money their father had left her, and she went to Halifax. Laura had written letters to Iris but guessed that Richard and Winifred had kept them from her sister. Iris told her that she never received them. Laura then confessed that she was pregnant when Richard and Winifred sent her to the clinic. They were afraid that her pregnancy would cause a scandal. They forced Laura to have an abortion.
Iris assumed the father must have been Alex Thomas, though Laura would not confirm this. Laura did confide that she got pregnant to save Alex. She said it was the only way, though she did not fully explain what she meant by this and Iris did not ask. Laura added that Callie, the female artist who had once been a friend of Laura and Iris’s father, was Richard’s spy. It was Callie who was about to turn in Alex’s whereabouts to Richard and the police.
Laura also explained that she was living in Halifax because she was watching the ships returning from the war. Laura was...
(The entire section is 537 words.)
Part 14, Chapters 1-3 Summary
After Laura’s death, Iris began to weave together elements of things Laura had told her in order to come to her own conclusions. She assumed that Richard was the man who got Laura pregnant. With this in mind, Iris wrote a letter to Richard, stating that Laura had confessed the truth. She did not define what that truth was. Instead, she only hinted at the facts in hopes that Richard would confess. Then, in supposed retaliation for Richard’s transgressions, Iris told Richard that she no longer wanted to live with him. She would not file for divorce so he could publicly save face. In exchange for her silence, Richard was to provide her with a set amount of money with which she would find a new place to live for herself and Aimee.
After sending this letter, Iris moved out of Richard’s house and traveled on the train back to her hometown. She could not stay at the old Chase family home, though, because the house was in very poor shape. No one had been taking care of it. She took some things from the home and promised herself that she would return later for more.
Winifred eventually appeared in town and represented herself as Richard’s messenger. Winifred said Iris must be completely out of her mind with her accusations that Richard had done anything wrong. Iris responded by telling Winifred that she knew what Richard did with Laura. Winifred denied this. However, Iris pointed out that Richard always liked young girls. Richard’s affairs had been with his young secretaries. Iris knew that Winifred was well acquainted with Richard’s mistresses. Iris also told Winifred that Richard had been very clever in getting two young girls at the price of one when he married her and got Laura in the bargain.
Winifred was unused to Iris speaking her mind so forcibly, and she was totally thrown off guard. However, she was able to counter that even though Richard was not guilty of having gotten Laura pregnant, he would meet Iris’s demands for financial support with one condition—he wanted to continue to see Aimee. He had every right to continue with his relationship with his own daughter, Winifred told Iris.
Iris wanted to tell Winifred that Aimee was not Richard’s child, but she refrained. What Iris did tell Winifred was that she could no longer trust Richard. Therefore, she would not permit him to see her daughter because she was afraid Richard might also want to have sex with Aimee....
(The entire section is 619 words.)
Part 15, Chapters 1-3 Summary
The story returns to the unnamed woman in what had previously been referred to as Laura’s novel. The unnamed woman is looking at a black-and-white photograph. It is a photo of her and the unnamed man; it is the only picture she has of him. The two of them are at a picnic and are sitting under a tree. The day the picture was taken had been hot. As she holds the photograph, the woman imagines she feels the heat coming from the photograph. The man is wearing a straw hat. When the picture was taken, he had raised his hand to shield his face from the camera. The woman was looking at him. She had been smiling. She does not remember ever smiling so completely at anyone else as she did when she was with him.
The photograph has been cut. One third of it is missing; a figure had at one time been included in the picture. All that remains of the figure is a hand that appears on the lower left corner. The hand belongs to “the other one”—the one who is always in the picture even when she is not completely seen, the woman thinks. It is the same hand that will eventually write the story. This is an allusion to Iris, who had at one time been included in this photograph.
The narrator asks how she could have been so ignorant as not to know. She blames herself for being careless about recognizing the truth. However, she amends her statement by saying that without that kind of carelessness she could not have lived. If people knew everything that was going to happen next, they would be doomed. People would be unable to eat or laugh if they knew the details of their future. Then the unnamed woman concludes that the photograph is about happiness. However, the story that evolved from the photograph was not happy at all.
There is a break in the story and a news article is presented. The article is a memorial to Iris Chase Griffen, who has died at the age of eighty-three. Sabrina’s return is announced in this article. The young woman, Iris’s granddaughter, has come back to Port Ticonderoga to take care of her grandmother’s affairs.
Before the novel ends, there is one more entry as if written by Iris. She has all but finished her memoir. The final entry refers to the expected return of Sabrina. Iris writes that she has imagined seeing Sabrina again. One day, there will be a knock on her door, and Sabrina will be standing there, dressed in black. Sabrina will call her Grandmother. Iris will make some hot chocolate...
(The entire section is 468 words.)