(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 Europe on their honeymoon. By the time they return, Winifred Griffen Prior, Iris’s new sister-in-law, had already decorated and furnished the new home Richard bought by telegram. Iris quickly learns that Winifred controls all of Richard’s household affairs, although she does not live with the couple.

Laura telephones a few minutes after Iris arrives at her new home. She tells Iris that their father had died a week after Iris left on her honeymoon. Laura had sent telegrams, and the news was in the papers. Richard explains that he did not tell Iris about the death because they would not have been able to return to the United States in time for the funeral; he did not want to spoil the trip for her. Iris goes to Avilion the next day and learns that her father died the day after the button factory was permanently closed. Iris feels that Richard betrayed her and her father because the two men had agreed that the marriage would save the factory.

Richard decides that Laura should live with him and Iris in Toronto. Laura, however, does not arrive by train when expected, so Richard informs the police. The papers learn that Laura is missing. Following up on a tip, Richard and Iris find Laura working at a carnival. After they take her to Toronto, Laura continues to resist the plans made for her. She openly dislikes Richard and is expelled from school.

Meanwhile, Iris sees Alex on a street in Toronto. They have an affair, and Iris becomes pregnant. They have a daughter, Aimee, and Iris sees in her Alex’s features—dark hair and dark skin—confirming for Iris that Alex is Aimee’s father. Alex later dies fighting in World War II, and Iris receives the telegram announcing his death because she had been listed as his next-of-kin.


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The Blind Assassin Chapter Summaries

The Blind Assassin 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...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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...

(The entire section is 652 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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 1998, a few months after Winifred’s death. Winifred is the sponsor of this prize, having willed the money to the Colonel Henry Parkman High School.

The Blind Assassin 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 entire section is 531 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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....

(The entire section is 514 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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...

(The entire section is 644 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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...

(The entire section is 611 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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...

(The entire section is 607 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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...

(The entire section is 482 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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....

(The entire section is 471 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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...

(The entire section is 582 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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.”


(The entire section is 545 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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....

(The entire section is 651 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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...

(The entire section is 619 words.)

The Blind Assassin 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...

(The entire section is 468 words.)