The Blind Assassin

by Margaret Atwood
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 782

The structure of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin accomplishes two goals: It makes the story a suspenseful read, and it builds the question of what constitutes truth into the novel’s framework. By writing the story of her life for her granddaughter, Iris Chase Griffen disputes the versions of events that the novel’s other characters believe are true. While the flashbacks that Iris uses to create the main thread of the story are primarily in chronological order, she saves the most surprising details for the end. In structuring the story in this way, she leads readers to the same false conclusions the characters reached, and later in the novel reveals that these conclusions are incorrect. Only in the last chapters does she explain that Laura was pregnant with Richard’s baby and that she, not Laura, wrote the novel within the novel.

Iris’s inclusion of newspaper clippings in her story creates the impression that she is conveying facts with them. Even in those clippings, however, the information turns out to be false or at least misleading. For example, the news story reporting Richard’s death says that the boat in which his body was found was tied to the jetty. Iris reveals later that the boat was in the boathouse and that Winifred lied to the press because the truth sounded worse than her story. Even when the information in the clippings is accurate, it does not tell enough of the story to be meaningful. For example, a news clipping near the novel’s beginning states that Laura’s death was ruled accidental. While details of the news story may be accurate, the reader cannot understand why Laura committed suicide without reading the entire novel.

Besides the news clippings, the novel contains the book also called The Blind Assassin. At the beginning of the novel, the reader learns that Iris sent the book to a publisher shortly after Laura’s death, leading to Laura becoming a revered and tragic literary figure. Only at the end of the novel does Iris reveal that she wrote the book itself. Describing her affair with Alex Thomas, it tells more about Iris’s feelings and activities during the same time period than does the novel that contains it.

Even the novel attributed to Laura has stories within it. When the lovers in that novel meet, the man tells the woman installments of a story. A version of the story is published.

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.

There is a power hierarchy among women, however. Winifred, who also relies on Richard for money, manages his household for him, and Iris is not even consulted about furniture.

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 done to her. By publishing the novel under Laura’s name, she ruins Richard’s political career, and his suicide soon follows.

Writing can also have a redemptive effect, however. While Iris’s first book destroys the family, she writes the second one to free her granddaughter from the pain that misinformation can cause. She wants Sabrina to understand that Richard was not her grandfather, and she was not related to Winifred.

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