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The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin

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The Blind Assassin, published in 2000, is a novel by acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood. It is set in Canada in 1998 and 1999. The novel is structured in the form of a manuscript written by an elderly woman, Iris Chase Griffen, whose life reflects the span of the 20th Century, although the book mostly focuses on the 1930s and 1940s. It is a work of historical fiction, with some postmodern elements, such as a framed narrative structure.

The Blind Assassin, Content Warning, StudySmarter

Margaret Atwood: The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian writer, poet, and literary critic who was born on November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, Canada. She is one of the most celebrated and influential authors of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Atwood has written many critically acclaimed novels, short stories, and poetry collections, exploring themes of feminism, environmentalism, and social justice. Her literary works range from science fiction to historical and postmodern fiction.

Atwood's novel The Blind Assassin was published in 2000, and it won the prestigious Booker Prize in the same year. In the lead-up to writing the novel, Atwood grew up in a period of great social and cultural change in Canada, with the country becoming increasingly urbanized and industrialized in the 20th century. At the same time, Canada was undergoing a cultural renaissance, with writers and artists exploring the country's unique history and culture.

The novel's narrative structure is also significant in the context of contemporary literature. Atwood is known for experimenting with literary form and blurring the boundaries between different genres, such as science fiction and historical fiction, as she does in The Blind Assassin. The novel is considered a landmark novel that demonstrates Atwood's mastery of forms and blended narratives.

Historical fiction is a genre of fiction that is set in the past, often using real events, people, or places as a backdrop for a fictional story. In historical fiction, authors blend facts and imagination to create a story that is historically accurate in terms of its setting and background, but that also includes invented characters, plots, and events.

The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Margaret Atwood is a celebrated Canadian writer, known for The Handmaid's Tale and The Blind Assassin.

The Blind Assassin: characters

The Blind Assassin charactersDescription of the characters
Iris Chase GriffenThe protagonist and narrator of the story, a wealthy elderly woman reflecting on her life and past events. It is revealed that she is the real author of The Blind Assassin novel-within-a-novel, rather than her younger sister Laura.
Laura ChaseIris's younger sister, who died at a young age and is remembered primarily for the posthumous publication of her novel, also called The Blind Assassin. She is portrayed as headstrong and idealistic.
Alex ThomasA former family friend and lover of both Iris and Laura. He is a drifter and pulp fiction author, with radical left-wing political views.
Richard GriffenIris's husband, a wealthy businessman who is materialistically driven. He is also cruel and abusive towards Iris.
Winifred GriffenRichard's sister, who disapproves of Iris and often clashes with her. She too only cares about money and keeping up appearances.
ReenieThe Chase family's long-time housekeeper. She is a nurturing, motherly, and fiercely protective figure to the two sisters.
Aimee GriffenIris's and Alex's illegitimate daughter, who is estranged from her mother and plays a minor role in the story. She eventually uses alcohol and drugs to help her deal with the pain.
Sabrina GriffenIris's granddaughter, who becomes closer to her grandmother and helps her towards the end of the novel.
The Blind AssassinA character in Laura's novel, which is a science fiction story-within-a-story, and a metaphor for the themes and events of the larger novel.

The Blind Assassin: summary

In summary, The Blind Assassin's narrator, Iris, reflects on the story of her life, her family, and their trials and tribulations in the fictional Ontario town of Port Ticonderoga and in Toronto, Canada. The novel explores the complex relationships between two sisters, Iris and Laura, and the political and cultural changes of their time. The novel is structured as a nested narrative, with the main story of the sisters' lives framed by a science fiction story about a blind assassin that Laura wrote before her death.

The novel also switches between her recollections of youth and childhood and her experiences as an octogenarian, which makes the novel a framed narrative. The book takes the form of Iris’ reminiscences, written as a memoir for her granddaughter Sabrina.

Overview: The Blind Assassin

Author of The Blind AssassinMargaret Atwood
GenreHistorical Fiction
Literary PeriodPostmodernism
First published2000
Brief Summary of The Blind Assassin
  • The novel is primarily set in the 1930s and 1940s in Canada and follows the life of Iris Chase Griffen, an elderly woman who reflects on her past and the lives of her family members, particularly her sister, Laura.
List of main charactersIris Chase Griffen, Laura Chase, Alex Thomas, Richard Griffen, Sabrina Griffen, Aimee Griffen, Reenie.
ThemesGender and power, the complexities of family relationships, memory, truth, and political upheaval.
SettingThe early twentieth century in the fictional Canadian city of Port Ticonderoga.
  • The novel incorporates a range of genres, including historical fiction, science fiction, and romance to question the role of storytelling and the power of narrative to shape our understanding of the past and the present.

The Blind Assassin is a multi-layered novel with a non-linear structure that weaves together multiple narratives. The first opening of The Blind Assassin sees the elderly Iris Chase Griffen in the 'present day' is reflecting on her life and the events that have led her to this point.

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.

Iris receives a newspaper clipping in the mail announcing the imminent demolition of a plant in her hometown, which brings back memories of her childhood and her family's business, the Chase Button Factory. She then recalls the death of her sister, Laura, who died in a car accident at the age of 25. The quote is the first line that opens the novel, immediately establishing the theme of storytelling.

It’s unclear at first whether Laura’s death is an accident - the newspapers believe that it is, while Iris believes that it was a suicide.

The Blind Assassin's nested narratives

The novel follows Iris and Laura from the 1920s to the 1940s. Despite being born to a wealthy manufacturing family, the sister's mother dies young and they have a distant relationship with their father, Norval. The 1930s sees the Great Depression pressuring the Chase business's finances, and Norval fears the rise of communism and workers' dissent. Norval then forges a partnership with Richard Griffen to save the business on the condition that Iris marries Richard, while Laura befriends the politically left Alex Thomas.

Thomas is accused of instigating a riot that breaks out in Chase Town. Laura helps to hide him, which begins their romantic relationship. The newlywed Griffens return to discover the death of Norval Chase, who had drunk himself to death because Richard went back on the deal and the factory was closed.

Iris soon discovers that her sister has been institutionalized by Richard and his sister Winifred for believing in delusions and that she was pregnant. Iris soon loses touch with Laura when she is released in 1937, and when Iris gives birth to her daughter Aimee.

Interspersed in the novel is a novel within a novel, supposedly written by Laura before her death. It tells the story of a love affair between a wealthy woman and a poor writer, who tells her the story of the blind assassin. The novel is science fiction and tells of a man who can time travel and falls in love with a woman from a different world. The story ends with the blind assassin sacrificing himself to save the woman he loves.

The sisters are reunited after World War Two. Laura reveals that she was indeed pregnant and that Richard and his sister Winifred forced her to have an abortion. Iris assumes that Alex was the father, and in a fit of jealousy reveals that she, Iris, and Alex were lovers. There is a strong implication that Alex is Aimee's father. Iris also reveals that Alex died in the war.

On hearing the news of the affair and Alex's death, Laura steals Iris's car keys and drives herself off a bridge.

After Laura's death, Iris then finds out through Laura's notebooks that Richard had forced Laura into having sex with him by threatening Alex. Iris takes Aimee to Port Ticonderoga and publishes the book The Blind Assassin under Laura's name. The novel later reveals that she was always the original author of the novel within a novel, and the narrative of the Blind Assassin was Iris's memories of her affair with Alex.

The publication of the novel draws interest in Laura's life. Thinking his past behaviour with Laura would be revealed, Richard commits suicide to escape the scandal that ensued and ruined his political career. Winifred takes Aimee, effectively ruining her relationship with her mother Iris for the rest of their lives.

The ending of The Blind Assassin

The novel ends with Iris visiting the site where Laura died and reflecting on her own life. Throughout the novel, Iris has been grappling with guilt and regret over her relationship with her sister, Laura, and the circumstances surrounding Laura's death. She dies in 1999, leaving a manuscript for her grandaughter Sabrina in the hopes that she can tell the true tale of Laura and Iris.

The Blind Assassin: analysis

The plot is a framed narrative - a novel within a novel, supposedly written by Iris’s sister Laura, and also called The Blind Assassin. Chapters of this novel alternate with Iris’ narration. It describes a secretive, furtive romance between a man and a woman, both unnamed. The couple meets in a series of shady, grotty rented rooms and cheap hotels, and, as a seductive technique, the man tells the woman a strange, sensational science fiction story (also called The Blind Assassin!).

The novel Atwood wrote is like reading a Russian doll - narratives concealed within other narratives. The Blind Assassin also includes articles from a local newspaper, which provide a glimpse into the political and social climate of the time.

Through the use of storytelling and weaving together of multiple narratives, Atwood explores the ways in which fiction can help us understand our own experiences and perspectives, as well as the perspectives of others.

Themes in The Blind Assassin

The novel also explores complex and interrelated themes, including memory, truth, storytelling, family relationships, gender roles, and political upheaval. Gender roles and complex family dynamics are recurring themes in all of Atwood's works.

  1. Truth: The novel raises questions about the nature of truth and how it can be shaped by individual and societal influences. Iris grapples with the truth about her own life and the legacy of her family's business. The novel suggests that the truth is not always clear-cut, and can be elusive and subjective.

  2. Storytelling: The novel is concerned with the power of storytelling and the role of narrative in shaping our understanding of the past and the present. Iris's novel, The Blind Assassin, is a key example of this, as it tells a story within a story and allows the characters to explore their own experiences through the lens of fiction.

  3. Family Relationships: The novel explores the complex dynamics of family relationships, particularly between siblings. Iris and Laura's relationship is fraught with tension and misunderstanding, and the novel reveals the ways in which their experiences have shaped their attitudes towards each other.

  4. Gender Roles: The novel also explores the roles and expectations placed on women during the time period in which it is set. Laura is a politically active woman who challenges gender norms, while Iris struggles to conform to the expectations of her gender and the social norms of her time.

  5. Political Upheaval: The novel is set against the backdrop of political and social change in Canada, including the rise of communism and the impact of World War II. The characters are affected by these larger forces, and the novel explores the ways in which political upheaval can shape individual lives.

Memory in The Blind Assassin

At the heart of the novel are the questions of truth and the unreliable nature of memory. Iris grapples with the way she has remembered her past and the ways in which she has suppressed or ignored certain facts. For example, she has difficulty recalling the details of her sister's death and is forced to confront the truth later in the novel.

The novel suggests that memory is not a fixed, objective reality, but rather a malleable construct that can be shaped by individual and societal influences. The unreliability of memory often features prominently in postmodern historical fiction to question whether historical accounts can be relied on.

The Blind Assassin: key quotes from the plot

The following quotes explore the main themes of storytelling and memory.

All stories are about wolves. All worth repeating, that is. Anything else is sentimental drivel.

This quote reflects the idea that the most compelling and enduring stories are those that explore the darker, more primal aspects of human nature. Atwood suggests that stories about wolves, which are often used as symbols of wildness and danger, capture this quality. She argues that sentimental or saccharine stories that avoid or gloss over the complexities of life are not worth telling.

If you knew what was going to happen, if you knew everything that was going to happen next—if you knew in advance the consequences of your own actions—you'd be doomed. You'd be ruined as God. You'd be a stone. You'd never eat or drink or laugh or get out of bed in the morning. You'd never love anyone, ever again. You'd never dare to.

This quote reflects the idea that uncertainty and the potential for surprise are essential to a fulfilling life. Atwood suggests that the knowledge of the future would rob us of agency, free will, and the ability to experience joy, love, and adventure.

When you're young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You're your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too—leave them behind. You don't yet know about the habit they have, of coming back. Time in dreams is frozen. You can never get away from where you've been.

This quote speaks to the fleeting nature of youth and the way in which we often take our experiences for granted. Atwood suggests that when we are young, we don't fully appreciate the value of our memories and experiences, and we tend to treat them as disposable.

There's nothing like a shovel full of dirt to encourage literacy.

This quote is a bit tongue-in-cheek and reflects the idea that hard work and practical tasks can be valuable for developing skills and knowledge. Atwood implies that there is no substitute for the kind of hands-on experience and effort that comes from physical labour.

The Blind Assassin - Key takeaways

  • The novel The Blind Assassin was published in 2000 and written by Margaret Atwood.
  • It won the Booker Prize in 2000.
  • The main characters include Iris Griffen, Laura Chase, Alex Thomas, Richard Griffen, and Sabrina Griffen.
  • The main themes of storytelling and unreliable memory in the novel suggest that our recollections of the past can be influenced by our emotional state, our current beliefs, and the stories we tell ourselves.
  • The novel is concerned with the role of women in twentieth century society, and how gender roles and expectations can limit or empower them. Atwood's female characters challenge traditional gender roles and expectations.


  1. Fig. 1 - Margaret Atwood (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Margaret_Atwood_(52161820214).jpg) by Collinson Conf (https://www.flickr.com/people/126482574@N02) is licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)

Frequently Asked Questions about The Blind Assassin

Atwood’s novel The Blind Assassin is about storytelling, family dynamics, and the role of women during the 20th century. There are also strong themes of regret and guilt.

The title can be interpreted in various ways relating to the various narratives. On a literal level, it refers to the blinded child assassins in the pulp science fiction tale. 

On a more metaphorical level, it could refer to love, which informs the decisions of the characters and affects their lives in ways that they are blind to. 

The number of pages varies depending on the edition but is usually around 400-500 pages long.

The Blind Assassin's ending is somewhat open to interpretation, but it can be inferred that the novel's protagonist, Iris Chase Griffen, finds some degree of closure and resolution as she confronts her past and the truth about her sister's death. 

The Blind Assassin is a historical fiction novel.


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