The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

NOTICE -- This review contains SPOILERS

This multi-layered tale tells us the life story of Iris Chase Griffen and her sister, Laura Chase, through a combination of flashbacks, present-day events, and what we are told is Laura's posthumously published novel, entitled The Blind Assassin. The two women are born into a well-to-do family, but wealth is not all it's cracked up to be. The girls' mother dies of a miscarriage during their childhoods, the father suffered severe injuries in World War I and is never much of what we would think a father should be. The family's wealth is threatened and eventually lost, and Iris makes a marriage to her father's competitor in an attempt to save the family business and the family itself. But, not surprisingly, the marriage provides Iris no happiness or comfort, and is doomed from the start.

The story is interesting, but the characters are somewhat one-dimensional -- Iris is that all-too-familiar picture of a powerless woman in a loveless marriage, the husband and sister-in-law have no redeeming qualities, the sister Laura is described as "different" and "odd" but we aren't provided with enough information to truly understand her. The plot itself held my attention, but mainly to see if I was right about various details -- I thought I had it all figured out by no more than halfway through, and the end merely confirmed my deductions.

This is not my first Atwood book, so I was not surprised to find female empowerment (or the lack thereof) a theme of this novel as well, but I was hoping to find at least a likable, if powerless, heroine. However, Iris's lack of power just made her more irritating to me as the book went on, for the reason that she makes no attempt to help herself. It's no surprise to find characters intent on keeping a woman "in her place," but it is, if not surprising, at least very frustrating to find the woman content to let herself be kept "in her place." This is Iris in a nutshell, a woman willing to let herself drift through life with no spoken opinions, no knowledge of what was going on around her, no assertiveness of any kind. This is a type of female that I will never understand and whom I find it nearly impossible to sympathize with.

In addition to Iris's docility, she's full of negativity, seeing the downside in just about everything. I've no doubt that she'd be a full believer in Murphy's Law -- "if there's the slimmest chance that something bad will happen, it probably will." This makes her not only unsympathetic but also unlikable. Thomas Mallon wrote in his review of the novel (published in the New York Times, September 3, 2000) that Iris "comments on the difficulties of her own aging with an endless, rote sourness that seems more adolescent than geriatric." I believe that this can be attributed to Iris's emotional immaturity, that she never advances beyond childhood. Iris and Laura were both raised to be spoiled children with no responsibilities and no knowledge of how to take care of anyone, not even themselves. They had little schooling, no practical abilities, nothing that would prepare them to face the world as adults. While we can't blame a child for the failures of its parent(s), at some point you expect the child to grow up. Iris never does.

The novel within the novel tells us a story of a blind assassin hired to murder a sacrificial virgin the night before the sacrifice. There's not much doubt that we are intended to see Iris in this story, and the knee-jerk reaction is to see her as the sacrificial virgin (who, incidentally, has had her tongue cut out to keep her from protesting at an inopportune moment), and I'm sure this is how Iris would see herself. But I see her equally as the assassin. Though hers is a willful blindness, it brings about the same pain and destruction as does the assassin blinded through forced labor. And, in viewing Iris as both the assassin and the virgin, we can see a truth that, unfortunately, Iris never seems to learn -- that the only person who can save you is you.


    Thank you for a fine review, Tammy. I liked it a bit better than you! But, I agree with your assessment of the story about the Blind Assassin and how it relates to Iris.

    I just finished the book, and your review is excellent. It sums up exactly how I felt. It seemed like I should like it more, but I didn't.