The Blind Assassin Summary

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood is a novel in which Iris Chase explains the circumstances leading to the death of her sister, Laura.

  • Iris marries the wealthy Richard Griffen in order to save her family's struggling button factory. However, the factory closes anyways, and Iris's father dies.
  • Iris's sister Laura is sent to live with the Griffens. Her erratic behavior gets her sent to a mental hospital. Laura commits suicide after telling Iris about Richard's abusive behavior towards her.
  • To get revenge on Richard, Iris writes a book called The Blind Assassin and publishes it under Laura's name. Richard's career is ruined, and he commits suicide.
  • At the end of her life, Iris writes a second book detailing her family history in the hopes of reconciling with her estranged granddaughter.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1318

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.

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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.

One day while Iris is pregnant, Winifred and Richard tell Iris that Laura has “snapped.” They send her to a mental institution, but Iris is not allowed to visit her. Winifred explains that Laura suffers from a delusion that she, too, is pregnant. Reenie, the Chase family servant, whom Richard has fired, works with the family lawyer to have Laura released from the institution. Iris finally sees her sister, and Laura explains that the doctors performed an abortion on her. She also says that she had made a bargain to protect Alex from Richard. Iris does not understand Laura’s story and thinks that Laura must have gotten pregnant with Alex. Iris tells Laura that Alex is dead. She also explains that she had an affair with him, explaining why she got the telegram when he died.

When Laura hears that Alex is dead, she grabs Iris’s purse and leaves the restaurant where they had been meeting. She takes Iris’s car, and the next day, she drives off a bridge and dies. After Laura’s death, Iris looks through some school notebooks Laura had left with her. Laura’s notes reveal to her that Richard got Laura pregnant.

Wanting to memorialize her sister and to get revenge against Richard and Winifred, Iris writes and then publishes a novel, The Blind Assassin, but under Laura’s name. Not until the end of the novel is it revealed that the book was written by Iris. The novel creates a renewed interest in Laura’s death, which leads to an investigation of Bella Vista, the mental facility where she had been sent. The place is closed down, and when some correspondence between Richard and the director is made public, Richard’s political aspirations are ruined. Richard soon commits suicide, and his body is found in the boat he refurbished and first sailed with Iris as a passenger.

Winifred has detectives follow Iris, and they catch her meeting a man in a motel. This enables Winifred to gain custody of Aimee. Aimee grows up, becomes a drug addict, and has a daughter named Sabrina. Aimee dies in an accident when Sabrina is still a little girl, giving Winifred custody of Sabrina as well.

Iris grows old in Port Ticonderoga, where Myra Sturgess, Reenie’s daughter, and Myra’s husband, Walter, check on her regularly and fix things around the house. Iris dies after she finishes writing her life story—her second book—for her granddaughter, Sabrina. Iris’s obituary, written by Myra, says that her granddaughter will settle her affairs.

Further Reading

Bloom, Harold, ed. Margaret Atwood. Rev. ed. New York: Chelsea House, 2008. This collection features essays written by top Atwood scholars on major themes of her novels. Includes a brief biography, a chronology of Atwood’s life, and an informative editor’s introduction.

Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. Provides a brief biography, critical overview of Atwood’s work, and a chapter devoted to The Blind Assassin. A general overview rather than a detailed analysis of particular themes.

Gorjup, Branko. Margaret Atwood: Essays on Her Works. Toronto, Ont.: Guernica, 2008. A collection of essays by literary scholars, examining major themes recurring in Atwood’s novels.

Howells, Coral Ann. The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Essays by various scholars are arranged thematically. Includes an essay that compares the theme of blindness in The Blind Assassin with this same theme in other novels by Atwood.

_______. Margaret Atwood. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. A detailed examination of The Blind Assassin. Includes both an overview of the novel and a scholarly analysis of the theme of negotiating with the dead.

McWilliams, Ellen. Margaret Atwood and the Female Bildungsroman. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2009. Focuses on the creation of women’s self-identity and coming of age, with an analysis of these themes in The Blind Assassin.

Thomas, P. L. Reading, Learning, Teaching Margaret Atwood. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. The Blind Assassin is analyzed as an example of how Atwood creates mythologies about women. Geared to high school teachers but valuable to students as well, this book presents the major themes of Atwood’s novels in an easily accessible style and format.

Wilson, Sharon Rose, ed. Margaret Atwood’s Textual Assassinations: Recent Poetry and Fiction. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003. A collection of scholarly essays that examine Atwood’s work, with a focus on her writings published since the late 1980’s. Includes discussion of The Blind Assassin.

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