The Blind Assassin Analysis
- Excerpts from the novel-within-the-novel, The Blind Assassin by Laura Chase, are interspersed throughout the main narrative. The novel-within-the-novel includes elements of speculative fiction, telling the story of a blind assassin living on another planet.
- Grandmother Adelia named the family state Avilion after Sir Thomas Malory's name for the mythical island of Avalon from Arthurian legend. This name gives the estate a grand, mystical quality, which falters during the Great Depression, when the Chase family business fails.
- The central narrative of The Blind Assassin is set in the 1900s, beginning before the Great Depression and ending in the late 20th Century.
Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s challenging new novel, The Blind Assassin, opens with the death of Laura Chase, who deliberately drives off a hundred-foot bridge just after the end of World War II. This event is reported by her sister Iris Chase Griffen, presently in her eighties, who is writing a family history embellished with tart observations on life at the end of the century. Keenly aware of her age and frailty, Iris knows she has come down in the world; her front steps are rotting and money is scarce. She eats little, but she likes to visit the local doughnut shop, where Laura’s words are often quoted in the graffiti of her favorite public washroom.
Even dead, Laura is the most celebrated member of the once powerful Chase family, as the putative author of a short novel that is also titledThe Blind Assassin. At first denounced as shocking and obscene, her book traces an affair between a well-bred young woman and a nameless, rather crude science-fiction writer who entertains her with a story set on an imaginary planet. Published posthumously, Laura’s book has become a cult favorite, and its fragments appear at random within Iris’s chronicle. Consequently, Atwood’s long novel is composed of a story within a short novel within a family history. Strangely enough, in spite of this complex structure, The Blind Assassin is not difficult to follow.
The Chase family is well known in Port Ticonderoga. In the late nineteenth century Grandfather Benjamin Chase, a manufacturer, brought prosperity to the town by establishing a button factory, an economic blessing that produced cheap wooden and bone buttons in quantity. He also constructed two more factories to be administered by his sons. In 1934, the button factory was gutted by fire but has since been rebuilt as a boutique mall.
A second landmark, the Chase mansion, was decorated by Grandmother Adelia, a cultured woman who was enamored of Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the legend of King Arthur. She named their home Avilion (Sir Thomas Malory’s name for Avalon) after the isle where Arthur went to die. Like Adelia’s portrait in the library, Avilion becomes a symbol of the family’s gracious Victorian past. It serves as a summer residence during Iris’s marriage and later as an old-age home. Iris is convinced it will soon be burned down by smokers.
Of Benjamin and Adelia’s sons, only Captain Norval Chase survives World War I, but he is severely changed. He returns to his wife and daughter Iris with a limp, a black leather eye patch, and two dead brothers. Scarred emotionally as well as physically, Captain Chase is a decent man whose sensibilities have been cauterized by war. He frequently locks himself in Avilion’s turret to drink, throw things, and vent his rage.
Laura is born with difficulty three and a half years after her sister. She is an uneasy baby and a strange, literal child. (Told by Reenie, the cook, to bite her tongue, she does.) After her birth, her mother remains in fragile health and presently suffers a fatal miscarriage. Reenie becomes Laura and Iris’s housekeeper and surrogate mother. Her practical, earthy voice still haunts Iris.
In 1928, Captain Chase commissions 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 sculpted by a red-haired bohemian from Toronto named Callista Fitzsimmons, who eventually becomes Chase’s mistress.
After the Great Depression begins, Captain Chase keeps his factories open rather than fire his workers, although he...
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is losing money. When he donates factory seconds to the poor, his wealthy competitor Richard Griffen condemns his generosity as false and charges him with dumping overruns. As the Chase family’s life grows Spartan, Reenie carefully turns the sheets to economize.
On Labor Day, 1934, the annual button factory picnic is held in spite of possible layoffs. There Laura meets a swarthy young man, Alex Thomas, a friend of Callista. A former divinity student, Alex has lost his faith and leans toward communism. Concern for his soul leads the ever-serious Laura to invite him to dinner, not realizing that her father has already invited Richard and his glittering sister, Winifred Griffen Prior. The result is a disastrous meal and a confrontation between Alex and “sleek,” ultraconservative Richard.
Eventually the button factory is forced to close in spite of Chase’s 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 the strike escalates, riots break out in Port Ticonderoga. The button factory is torched and a watchman killed. Alex, although not involved in the uprising, is blamed because as a labor organizer he has agitated in the relief camps. For a time Laura hides him at Avilion.
Captain Chase, feeling an obligation to his employees and their families, hopes to allow his factories to reopen by selling them to Richard’s Toronto firm. Iris, now eighteen, accompanies her rapidly disintegrating father to Toronto. There Richard proposes to her, although he is twice her age. Chase warns her that the family’s future depends on this marriage and his business merger with Richard, who, replete with new money, can employ Chase’s men and support Laura. Iris thus becomes her father’s sacrifice for the sake of his workers and his family. She is quickly taken in hand by the officious Winifred, who arranges the wedding and prepares her for society.
On the night before the wedding, Laura urges Iris to run away. The wedding photographs are marred by a scowling Laura, who refuses to catch the bridal bouquet. When the couple returns after a three-month European honeymoon, Richard’s treachery is revealed: Shortly after the wedding, Captain Chase died, yet Richard withheld Laura’s frantic telegrams from his bride. Back at Avilion, Laura informs her sister that after Richard betrayed their agreement by closing the Chase factories permanently, their father locked himself in the turret and drank himself to death. The merged corporation now belongs entirely to Richard, who controls both women’s lives.
At this point the story becomes more complicated. When Laura tries to flee, Richard, her legal guardian, orders her to a private school. After Alex leaves to fight with rebels in the Spanish Civil War, Laura is placed in a clinic and treated with electroshock therapy. Meanwhile, Iris gives birth to a daughter.
In many ways, Laura’s novel mirrors their lives. As the framework of her book unfolds, it becomes 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 her introduces Atwood’s underlying themes. In his story, the great city of Sakiel-Norn is renowned for beautiful carpets made by slave children, who grow blind from the work by the age of eight or nine. At this point they are usually sent to brothels, where they are in great demand; the few who escape become skilled assassins. Such is the man of the title, a blind assassin hired to murder the king during the annual sacrifice of a tongueless virgin to the goddess of silence. Ironically, the assassin, with his delicate sense of touch, falls in love with the mute woman and determines to escape the city with her.
Betrayal is an obvious theme, as the blind assassin betrays those who have hired him to kill the king. Captain Chase has unwittingly betrayed his daughters and his employees by selling his factories to Richard, who in turn betrays nearly everyone. Callista betrays Alex, Winifred betrays Iris, and Iris betrays Laura.
Symbolically, both Iris and Laura serve as mute, passive virgins with respect to Richard. At first Iris will not argue with him, and Laura refuses to speak to him, believing he killed her father. Both women are willing to sacrifice themselves—Iris to the marriage for her father’s sake, Laura to desperate bargains with God in order to rescue others. After her mother dies, little Laura jumps into the river to exchange her life for her mother’s. She offers 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.” At one point Iris even sees her sister as a divine victim:
She appeared . . . leached of colour, but at the same time translucent—as if little spikes of light were being nailed out through her skin from the inside, as if thorns of light were shooting out from her in a prickly haze.
Yet if the Chase sisters are sacrificial victims, who or what is the blind assassin of the title? Is it Alex, who, like his sightless hero, cannot see his destiny clearly? Is it the blind god of love, the blindfolded goddess of justice? Is the assassin death itself? Author and critic John Updike suggests that the true assassin, destroyer of all, is identified in a phrase by Guy de Maupassant that is found in Laura’s French copybook:L’histoire, cette vieille dame exaltée et menteuse—History, that old woman exalted and false.
Indeed, history does not deal kindly with these characters. In the end, the respected Chase family has collapsed, save for Iris’s estranged granddaughter Sabrina, now traveling in India. The predatory Griffens are dead, as is the elusive Alex Thomas. History has cut them down, 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 peopled 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 no body—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 spiderwebs.” Iris is History, de Maupassant’s old woman, exalted but perhaps no longer false.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (June 1, 2000): 1796.
The Economist 356 (September 23, 2000): 101.
Library Journal 125 (August, 2000): 151.
Macleans, September 11, 2000, p. 54.
The New Yorker 76 (September 18, 2000): 142.
The New York Times September 8, 2000, p. B41.
The New York Times Book Review 105 (September 3, 2000): 7.
Publishers Weekly 247 (July 24, 2000): 67.
Time 56 (September 11, 2000): 118.