Peter Farnum’s Summary of Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood, 2000

Addresses the question:  “How much are the bad turns of one’s life determined by things beyond our control, like sex and class, and how much by personal responsibility?’[1]

It also works as a mystery novel if one does not choose to address the moral question.

Structure:

Four Voices:

  1. Iris Chase, writing in retrospect during the last year of her life.                                                  Within a novella, “The Blind Assassin” attributed posthumously to Laura Chase.  There are two voices:
  2. A female voice describing trysts with her lover,
  3. The male voice of her lover mostly telling a science fiction story about a war on the planet Zyrcon.
  4. Various stories in newspapers and bulletins

    Four mysteries for the reader to figure out: They are introduced by the “newspaper” voice at the start of the book:

    1. Page 3.  Laura Chase, Iris’s sister, killed herself by driving off a bridge under construction.  She was 25.
    2. Page 14.  Richard Griffen, Irish’s husband, is found dead in his boat after being missing.  He is in his late 40s.
    3. Page 19.  Aimee Griffen, Iris’s daughter, is found dead at the bottom of stairs.  38 years old.
    4. Page 31.  Iris presents high school writing award in Laura’s name.  Question:  who is the woman in The Blind Assassin?  We assume it’s Laura.  Is it?

    Iris Age

    Laura Age

    Event

    Event Continues

    Page

    “Voice”

    0

    Iris Born

    73

    Iris

    3y 5m

    0

    Laura Born (see her age at picnic/Mounties visit)

    177, 210

    Iris

    6

    9

    Mother dies (during heat wave so probably Sept)

    88, 90

    Iris

    18

    14

    Company Picnic when Laura and Iris meet Alex

    170

    Iris

    18

    14-15

    Laura sees Alex in public around Port Ticonderoga

    199

    Iris

    18

    15

    Laura hides Alex in cold cellar

    210

    Irs

    18

    15

    Mounties Visit Laura re Alex

    210

    Iris

    18

    15

    Alex sexually attacks Iris

    217

    Iris

    18

    15

    Alex escapes to Toronto

    218

    Iris

    18

    15

    Father arranges marriage of Iris to Richard

    223-5

    Iris

    18

    15

    Iris marries Richard

    127, 239

    Paper / Iris

    18-19

    15

    Honeymoon

    300-306

    Iris

    18

    15

    Laura’s, Iris’s father dies, Richard doesn’t tell Iris

    307

    Iris

    19

    15

    Richard’s first attempt to seduce Laura, unsuccessful

    500

    Iris

    19

    15

    Larua runs away, found at Sunnyside amusement park

    258, 307

    Paper / Iris

    19

    15

    Iris sees Alex in Toronto, “commits treachery in her heart”

    321

    Iris

    19

    15

    Iris’s first meeting with Alex (“hard boiled egg”) / starts affair

    11, 510

    BA-I / Iris

    19-20

    15-16

    Laura lives with Iris/Richard, repeated unsuccessful seductions

    500

    Iris

    19

    16

    Iris, Richard, Winifred, Laura go on maiden voyage of Queen Mary

    9, 345, 347, 377

    BA-I / Paper / Iris

    19

    16

    Alex leaves for Spanish Civil War, wants her to leave Richard,         “I wouldn’t have any money” she says

    359-61

    BA-A/I

    20

    16

    Spanish Civil War starts

    390

    Iris

    20

    16

    Richard successfully seduces Laura on Water Nixie

    393-4, 500

    Iris

    20

    17

    Laura gets pregnant

    500

    Iris

    20

    17

    Laura sent to Bella Vista for abortion

    405, 428-30

    Letter / Iris

    20

    17

    Aimee born (with dark hair)

    432

    Iris

    20

    17

    Iris reads “Lizard Men of Xenor” by Alex, all  romance is gone

    399-402

    BA-A/I

    21-22?

    17-18?

    Reenie helps Laura escape from Bella Vista, Laura goes to Halifax

    443, 484

    Iris

    23-24?

    19

    Alex leaves for WWII, after seeing Iris the last tiime

    462

    BA-A/I


    28

    25

    Alex killed in Holland / Destruction of Sakiel-Norn

    466-9, 488

    BA-I, Iris

    28

    25

    VE Day

    28

    25

    Laura and Iris meet in Toronto

    483-89

    Iris

    28

    25

    Laura commits suicide

    1, 3, 491

    Iris, Paper

    28

    Iris learns that Richard was the father of Laura’s baby

    500

    Iris

    29

    Iris Leaves Richard, takes Aimee to Port Ticonderoga

    501-2

    Iris

    31

    Blind Assassin Published

    4, 509-511

    Iris

    31

    Richard Dies

    14, 510-11

    Paper / Iris

    54-55

    Sabrina born

    19

    Paper

    59

    Aimee Dies /Winifred Takes Sabrina

    19, 434-7

    Paper / Iris

    81

    Winifred Dies

    24,

    Paper

    82

    Iris starts writing her book

    31, 43

    Iris

    82

    Iris Dies

    519

    Paper

    83

    Sabrina comes back

    519

    Paper

    Legend for Voices

    Iris – the book Iris wrote for Sabrina in 1998

    Paper – news articles or bulletins

    BA/I – Blind Assassin the female voice about their trysts

    BA/A – Blind Assassin the male voice – Alex

    BA-A/I – Blind Assassin where both voices talk about event

    Iris On “The Turns Of Life” And Personal Responsibility

    • On Motives
      • “Curiosity is not our only motive:  love or grief or despair or hatred is what drives us on.” P. 494
    • On Her Motives
      • “I did believe, at first, that I only wanted justice.  I thought my heart was pure.  We do like to have such good opinions of our own motives when we’re about to do something harmful, to someone else.” P. 497
    • What She Wanted:  with respect to Richard
      • “What did I want?  Nothing much.  Just a memorial of some kind.  But what is a memorial, when you come right down to it, but a commemoration of wounds endured?  Endured and resented.  Without memory there is no revenge.” P. 508  Underlining added

    • Self Serving Epilogue:
      • “If you knew what was going to happen next – if you knew in advance the consequences of your own actions – you’d be doomed.”  P. 517.

    Iris’s Actions Regarding, Laura, Richard, and Aimee

    In Her Own Words

    • Aimee’s death

    The last time I went to see Aimee; she was living in a slummy row house near Parliament Street, in Toronto.  A child I guessed must be Sabrina was squatting the square of dirt beside the front walk – a grubby mop-headed ragamuffin wearing shorts but no T-shirt.  She had an old tin cup and was shoveling grit into it with a bent spoon.  She was a resourceful little creature:  she asked me for a quarter….

    I knocked on the door, and when there was no answer I opened it and walked in, then climbed the steep, dark, narrow stairs to Aimee’s second floor apartment.  Aimee was in the kitchen, sitting at the small round table, looking at her hands which were holding a coffee mug with a smile button on it…I can’t say I found her very attractive…Most likely she was under the influence of some drug or other.

    I tried to talk to her.  I began gently, but she wasn’t in the mood for listening…She was tired of the feeling that things were being hidden from her.  The family had covered it up; no one would tell her the truth…

    “I may not have been a perfect mother,” I said.  “I’m willing to admit that, but I did the best I could under the circumstances, circumstances about which you actually know very little.  What was she doing with Sabrina? I went on. Letting her run around like that…”

    “You aren’t her grandmother,” said Aimee.  She was crying by now, “Aunt Laura is, or she was, She’s dead, and you killed her!”

    “Don’t be stupid, “ I said.  This was the wrong response…When I said the word stupid she began to scream at me…Then (she) picked up the smile-button coffee mug and threw it at me…I retreated backwards, clutching the banister, dodging other items – a shoe, a saucer.  When I got to the front door I fled…

    It was only tree weeks after this that Aimee fell down the stairs.

    pp. 434-437

    • Richard’s death:

    I sent the book off.  I due time, I received a letter back.  I answered it.  Events took their course.

    The moralists grabbed hold of it, and the pulpit-thumpers and local biddies got into the act, and the uproar began.  Once the corpse flies had made the connection – Laura was Richard Griffen’s dead sister-in-law – they were all over the story like a rash.  Richard had, by that time, his store of political enemies.  Innuendo began to flow.

    The story that Laura had committed suicide, so efficiently quashed at the time, rose to the surface again.  People were talking, not just in Port Ticonderoga but in the circles that mattered.  If she’d done it, why?

    Someone made an anonymous phone call – now who could have that have been? – and the Bella Vista Clinic entered the picture. Testimony by a former employee…led to a full investigation of the seedier practices carried on there…There was some correspondence between Richard and the director that was particularly damaging…

    …“That book!” he (Richard) said.  “You sabotaged me!  … I can’t believe Laura wrote that filthy – that piece of garbage!”

    “You don’t want to believe it,” I said, “because you were besotted with her.  You can’t face the possibility that all the time you were having your squalid little flight with her, she must have been in and out of bed with another man – one she loved, unlike you.  Or I assume that’s what they book means – doesn’t it?”

    pp.  509-510  underlining added

    • Laura’ death:

    “Laura, I hate to tell you this,” I said, “but whatever it was you did, it didn’t save Alex.  Alex is dead.  He was killed in the war, six months ago.  In Holland.”

    “How do you know?

    “I got the telegram,” I said.  They sent it to me.  He listed me as the next of kin.”  Even then I could have changed course; I could have said, There must have been a mistake, it must have been meant for you. But I didn’t say that.  Instead I said, “It was very indiscrete of him.  He shouldn’t have done that, considering Richard.  But he didn’t have any family, and we’d been lovers, you see – in secret, for quite a long time – and who else did he have?

    Laura said nothing.  She only looked at me.  She looked right through me.  Lord knows what she saw.  A sinking ship, a city in flames, a knife in the back”…

    After a moment she stood up, reached across the table, and picked up my purse.  Then she turned and walked out of the restaurant…Laura was gone.

    Page 488 italics in original, underlining added

    Judging Iris

    “How much are the bad turns of one’s life determined by things beyond our control, like sex and class, and how much by personal responsibility?’(1)

    Below are some events in Iris’s life.  Please indicate for each whether you think she had personal responsibility for them or if things beyond her control determined them.

    If she had personal responsibility, please characterize it (negligence, thoughtlessness, deliberate attempt to cause harm.)  For example Iris’s marriage might be due to things beyond her control.  Or, the role she played in Richard’s death may have resulted from deliberate conscious action on her part.  Her role in Laura’s death may have been due to a mistake due to thoughtlessness, or a deliberate attempt to claim Alex for herself only.

    Here are some events:  (the number in ( ) is her age when the event occurred.)

    • Getting married to Richard (18)
    • Not figuring out that Richard was sexually pursing Laura (19)
    • Her decision to have an affair with Alex (19)
    • Her decision not to leave Richard when Alex asks her to run away with him (19)
    • Not figuring out that Richard had successfully seduced Laura (20)
    • Not doing anything when Richard sent Laura away to Bella Vista. (20)
    • Not helping Laura escape from Bella Vista like Renee did (21-2)
    • Telling Laura that she had had a longstanding affair with Alex and not seeing the impact that would have on her.  (28)
    • Her degree of responsibility in Laura’s suicide. (28)
    • Her responsibility for Richard’s death.  (31)
    • Her responsibility for Aimee’s unhappy life (20-59)
    • Her responsibility to care for Sabrina (54-82)

    Add other events that come to mind, and characterize them.


    [1] Houppert, Karen.  2000. “’The Blind Assassin” by Margaret Atwood” Salon.com.  September 12, 2000. http://www.salon.com/books/review/2000/09/12/atwood/ Accessed on 10-11-2009

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    12 Responses to Peter Farnum’s Summary of Blind Assassin

    1. Ron Boothe says:

      Peter had to leave town right after our discussion meeting last Wednesday so I offered to post his summary of Blind Assassin that he passed out to us during our discussion. Here it is. There might be some minor errors in formatting in this posting. I did not want to make any edits since this is Peter’s document. I simply posted it here using cut and paste from a copy of the document that he emailed me before he left town. When he is back in town, he can make edits, as necessary. In the meantime, Peter and I both agreed that it was important to get this posted now so that members of our group can post comments about it while it is still fresh in all of our minds.
      Ron

    2. Ron Boothe says:

      Structure of Blind Assassin

      I would elaborate the voices of this novel to four and a half. The voice of Iris is presented to us in two parts. First are those passages where she is describing the events happening in her current life when she is 82 years old. Her thoughts and memories also intrude into those passages. This voice communicates private internal thoughts Iris is having as she goes through her daily routine. To the extent that she is trying to “communicate” in those passages, she is “talking to herself.” For this reason, I take these passages as trustworthy of Iris’ true thoughts, memories, and feelings, although they are probably not objectively accurate accounts of events because Iris’ “talks with herself” are full of self-deception (As are all of our own thoughts, as so skillfully delineated in the non-fiction book we read last Spring in the Book Club: “Why We Lie”, https://retiredmensbookclub.wordpress.com/2009/02/08/why-we-lie-2004/).

      Iris’ second voice is the manuscript she is writing in the form of a memoir. Passages from these two voices, the present day voice and the manuscript voice, are always clearly separated by an extra amount of white-space on the page. Usually the transition back and forth between these two voices is implicit, demarcated only by the white-space. However, occasionally the transition is made explicit, as on page 43 where the transition to the manuscript voice starts out “Why am I writing this?” . Another example is on page 313, “Where am I? It was winter. No, I’ve done that. It was Spring.” Then there is an occasional intrusion of Iris’ thoughts into the manuscript sections. These passages are always separated from the manuscript by parentheses, e.g. “this is a portion of the manuscript (writing that brings back another memory …) and the manuscript continues.”

      Atwood takes great care to separate these two voices within the novel, so I think it is important that we pay attention to which voice is speaking as we evaluate what is revealed to us as we read the novel. There are many, many levels of deception revealed in this novel, and some of these are impossible to appreciate without keeping in mind which voice is revealing what information. In addition, of course, we learn near the end of the novel that the voices in the “Blind Assassin” novel within the novel, were also written by Iris, so Iris has at least 3 ways of deceiving at her disposal: First, metaphorically, in the fiction she writes in the form of the novel within a novel; Second, in the memoir she writes, that we eventually learn is to be given to her granddaughter; and Third, in her own various forms of self-deception including denial, deliberate maintenance of ignorance about many events happening around herself, attempts to justify a guilty conscience, etc.

      One of the traits I really like about Iris is that she has a deep understanding of human nature, including her own frailties. She is aware of the fact that she can not tell the truth, as she tells us explicitly in her present day voice:
      “The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself.” (page 783)

      So we are forewarned explicitly by Iris herself that the voices revealed in the “Blind Assassin” book within a book, and in her memoir can not be trusted. Both were written with the express intent that they would later be read by others.

      While I am on the topic of voices, I will also make a comment about whose voice is behind Peter’s designation “#4 Various stories in newspapers and bulletins.” I read those passages as reflecting primarily the voice of Winifred. I have more to say about that topic but I will save it for a future posting.
      Ron

    3. Ron Boothe says:

      Constructing Memorials

      One of the major underlying themes of Blind Assassin involves the construction of memorials, as Peter points out in his summary with the quote from page 508, “What did I want. Nothing much. Just a memorial of some kind.” Iris has a lot more to say about this topic in words, thoughts, and actions, and in this comment I want to explore that theme a little more.

      There is a description in the book about the construction of a literal memorial, and this description can be read as a metaphor for the entire book. The literal memorial is a sculpture named “The Weary Soldier” that sits atop The War Memorial in the town square where Iris grew up. The sculpture was a project of Iris’ father, and the sculptress was Callista Fitzsimmons, an artist “friend” of her father. On the day the memorial was unveiled, Iris recounts,

      “…even the Catholic priest was allowed to say a piece. My father pushed for this, on the grounds that a dead Catholic soldier was just as dead as a dead Protestant one. Reenie said that was one way of looking at it. ‘What is the other way?’ said Laura.”

      Several things strike me about this passage. First, how funny it is. And, it is funny only because Iris in recounting this event from her memory of the actual event many many years earlier filters everything through her own delightful sense of humor. A hundred other people who might have been present during the original event and then asked to recount it many many years later would not have remembered/recounted it in this humorous way. This passage is typical of Iris’ voice throughout the book. She sees humor in the present (the graffiti on the walls of the bathroom when she goes to the coffee shop), as well as in the past, in the behavior of others, but also in herself. Everywhere. It permeates her writing, and brought a chuckle to me every few pages as I read the book. (As I assumed it would to everyone who read the book who is not totally humorless, until I discussed the book with certain other members of our book club who were apparently sleeping during the humorous passages 🙂 ).

      Second, this passage is one of many that give us an insight into the character, Laura. There is something not quite right about this little girl. As a psychologist I would speculate perhaps Asberger syndrome, due to her recurrent literal interpretations of phrases and events. At any event, following the death of their mother, Iris is forced into the unwanted role of being Laura’s caretaker and protector, and it is obvious that this would not have been an easy role for anyone. My sympathies go out to Iris in the passage where she almost faints during the presentation of the “Laura Chase Memorial Prize”, recalling, “Some alert functionary caught my arm and slotted me back into my chair. Back into obscurity. Back into the long shadow cast by Laura.” (page 41)

      In the novel as a whole we see that Winifred has erected a huge public memorial that is expected to live long after she and her brother are gone. One form this memorial takes is stories fed to the newspapers. It is interesting to examine who is included in that memorial and who got left out. Who is the metaphorical dead Catholic soldier who deserves a memorial as much as anyone else, even as much as the Protestant soldier who is clearly already getting his?

      On page 14 we see a newspaper story about the death of Richard Griffen. The first two paragraphs are about his career and position in society. In the third paragraph his famous sister-in-law Laura is mentioned, followed by his sister, “the noted socialite”, Winifred, and only then, bringing up the rear, as an afterthought, “and by his wife, Mrs. Iris (Chase) Griffen, as well as by his ten-year-old daughter Aimee.” Adding insult to injury, note the ‘his’ in the last sentence. Iris is not only put at the end, she does not even get credit for ‘their’ daughter.

      Lets look next at the newspaper story about the death of Aimee, shown on page 19. We learn in the first sentence that she is “daughter of the late Richard E. Griffen, the eminent industrialist, and niece of noted authoress Laura Chase…”. In the second paragraph we learn that Aimee’s daughter Sabrina “has been placed in the care of Mrs. Winifred Prior, her great-aunt.” Only after all this do we get a single sentence mentioning Iris, “… Aimee Griffen’s mother, Mrs. Iris Griffen of Port Ticonderoga, was [not] available for comment.”

      Seems as though someone forgot to include Iris in the memorial that was being constructed. Can’t say as I blame Iris for thinking “perhaps even the Catholic priest should be allowed his say.” I was rooting for her all the way through the book, and all in all, I think she did alright by herself.

      Nevertheless, we should not confuse a constructed memorial with objective reality, and part of what makes this such a great read is that we, the reader, get both a first hand look at the memorial(s) Iris constructs, and also clues about the nature of the objective reality she deliberately chooses to ignore. More on that in my next posting.
      Ron

    4. Ron Boothe says:

      Should We Convict Iris

      Peter,
      You raise some good issues about whether Iris should be held responsible for the deaths of Richard and Laura.

      I just finished preparing for the discussion of two films about juries for the Tacoma Film Club, 12 Angry Men, and its recent Russian remake, 12. Having that mindset firmly in my head, I will summarize my points for the rest of you retired gentlemen of the jury who might be thinking about voting Iris guilty.

      Lets review some facts about what happened to Iris:

      Iris’ mother dies when she is only about 10 years old.
      (page 93) “On [mother’s] last morning, which I did not know would be the last…
      ‘Be a good girl’ she said. ‘I hope you will be a good sister to Laura. I know you try to be.”

      What a burden to put on a little girl, and when we learn, later in the book, what a psychologically disturbed little girl her younger sister Laura was, it is obvious that this was a burden few little girls of Iris’ age could have handled.

      Soon after her mother’s death, Iris has lunch with her father.
      (p. 101) ” ‘If anything happens to me’ he said finally, ‘you must promise to look after Laura.’ … ‘Shake on it’ he said. … I wanted desperately to deserve his good opinion.”

      The little girl Iris does her best to look after her little sister Laura.

      A good example of the kind of burden this put on Iris, trying to take care of her disturbed little sister, is recounted on pages 150 – 151:
      “All of a sudden Laura was in the river. … then I hauled her out. …
      ‘You did it on purpose!’ I said. ‘I saw you! You could’ve drowned! … Why did you?’
      ‘So God would let Mother live again’, she wailed.”

      Later that night we get a glimpse of the living hell Iris was living under with this burden of being responsible for her sister:
      (p 151) “I lay awake for hours that night, arms wrapped around myself, hugging myself tight. My feet were stone cold, my teeth were chattering. … How hard it had been to hold on to her. How close I had come to letting go.”

      Later, Laura gets sexually molested by Mr. Erskine, the live-in teacher. Here is the exchange where Iris learns about what has been happening to her sister Laura:
      (p 164 – 165)
      ” ‘It doesn’t matter whether I annoy [Mr Erskine] or not’, said Laura. ‘Anyway, he’s not annoyed. He only wants to put his hand up my blouse.’
      ‘I’ve never seen him do that’, I said.
      ‘Why would he?’ ‘He does it when you’re not looking’, said Laura. ‘Or under my skirt. What he likes is panties.’ …
      ‘Shouldn’t we tell Reenie?’, I asked tentatively.
      ‘She might not believe me’, said Laura. ‘You don’t.’

      A few years later, when Iris is only 18, her father coerces her to marry his arch rival, Richard:
      (p 226) ” ‘Richard will be asking you something’, said father. His tone was apologetic. … ‘I think he may be asking you to marry him,’ he said. …
      ‘What should I do?’
      ‘Ive already given my consent,’ said father. ‘So, it’s up to you.’ Then he added ‘A certain amount depends on it.’ ‘A certain amount?’ … ‘Laura’s future, in particular. … I have to consider the factories as well. … Your grandfather, and then … Fifty, sixty years of hard work, all down the drain.’
      ‘Oh. I see.’ I was cornered.”

      Later that night we see Iris:
      (p 228) “I spent that night lying huddled and shivering in the vast bed of the hotel. My feet were icy, my knees drawn up, my head sideways on the pillow; in front of me the arctic waste of starched white bedsheet stretched out to infinity. I knew I could never traverse it, regain the track, get back to where it was warm.”

      When Iris informs Laura that she will be marrying Richard, here is Laura’s response:
      (p 236) ” ‘I don’t want you to get married,’ she said. …
      Her eyes were damp and pink; She’d been crying. This annoyed me: what right had she to be doing the crying? It ought to have been me, if anyone. …
      ‘Well, you’ll have nice clothes, anyway,’ she said.
      I could have hit her.”

      Nevertheless, Iris bucks it up. She marries Richard. She tries her best to be the the martyr who can save her sister, her father’s business, three generations of hopes and dreams of her family going back to her grandfather.

      During the honeymoon, Iris’ father dies. Richard learns this but does not bother to tell Iris. She learns this fact after they return and confronts Richard:
      (p 308) ” ‘Father’s dead,’ I said. ‘They sent five telegrams. You didn’t tell me.’
      ‘Mea Culpa,’ said Richard. ‘I know I ought to have, but I wanted to spare you the worry, darling. … I wanted you all to myself, if only for a little while. Now sit down and buck up, and have your drink, and forgive me. We’ll deal with all this in the morning.’ “

      Things only get worse. Richard does not try to save the factories.
      (p 314) “I’d maried Richard for nothing then – I hadn’t saved the factories, and I certainly hadn’t saved Father. But there was Laura, still …”

      Laura comes to live with Richard and Iris. She is only 15.
      Richard, the sexual predator seduces Laura. (p. 500) “Besotted.”
      Laura is committed, involuntarily, into a mental institution, and told she just imagined that she had been pregnant with Richard’s child. (p 405, 430)
      Richard, the wife abuser, has his way with Iris.
      (p 371) “Did it bother [Richard] that I was indifferent to his nighttime activities, even repelled by them? Not at all. He preferred conquest to cooperation, in every area of life. Sometimes – increasingly as time went by – there were bruises, purple, then blue, then yellow. It was remarkable how easily I bruised, said Richard, smiling. … He preferred thighs, where it wouldn’t show.”

      Life begins to look more and more hopeless.
      (p 476) “I’d had one miscarriage and then another. Richard on his part had had one mistress and then another…”

      So, after all of this, what was it that Iris did, on the basis of which we are being asked to judge her?

      First, in a moment of exasperation after hearing more ‘crazy talk’ from Laura, in which Laura claims
      (p 487) “[Having sex with Richard] was horrible, but I had to do it. I had to make the sacrifice. I had to take the pain and suffering onto myself. That’s what I promised God. I knew if I did that, it would save Alex.”

      Iris reaches her breaking point
      (p 487) “I wanted to shake her. … [I remembered] that day after mother’s funeral. … Laura was sitting on the ledge beside me, humming to herself complacently, secure in the conviction that everything was all right really and the angels were on her side, because she’d made some secret, dotty pact with God.”

      So here is what Iris did. Here is the ‘crime’ she committed. In that moment of total exasperation, she replied to Laura with a single sentence
      (p 488) “Laura, I hate to tell you this, [Iris] said, but whatever it was you did, it didn’t save Alex. Alex is dead.”

      And here is the ‘crime’ she is accused of committing with regard to Richard. She wrote a fictional book called The Blind Assassin.
      (p 509) “ I sent the book off. In due time, I received a letter back. I answered it. Events took their course.”

      So, I realize that some of you fellow men of the jury are ready to convict this woman. You find that she is a dislikeable, whining old women. Why can’t she just buck it up? you ask. Be more like a man. Why is she trying to overplay this victimhood role? How could she possibly be so mean and insensitive to do these awful things that led (or at least contributed) to the deaths of Richard and Laura. OK. Vote guilty. Feel free to crucify her. But you are not going to be getting my vote.

      Ron

    5. pmunrafp says:

      Well, Ron it is fun to disagree with you so I can’t resist.

      But I will be short.

      I think you totally missed the “crimes” that Iris committed.

      Concerning Laura you said her crime was saying “Laura, I hate to tell you this, [Iris] said, but whatever it was you did, it didn’t save Alex. Alex is dead.”

      That is not a crime, that is a fact and Laura had to learn it sooner or later. The crime was what she said right after that. Here is the total quote:

      “Laura, I hate to tell you this,” I said, “but whatever it was you did, it didn’t save Alex. Alex is dead. He was killed in the war, six months ago. In Holland.”

      “How do you know?

      “I got the telegram,” I said. They sent it to me. He listed me as the next of kin.” Even then I could have changed course; I could have said, There must have been a mistake, it must have been meant for you. But I didn’t say that. Instead I said, “It was very indiscrete of him. He shouldn’t have done that, considering Richard. But he didn’t have any family, and we’d been lovers, you see – in secret, for quite a long time – AND WHO ELSE DID HE HAVE.?” (caps added)

      The crime is the last sentence which can only be regarded as devastatingly mean, especially considering Laura’s probable Asperger’s condition.

      In fact in this very quote Iris herself says she did not have to say the last two sentences.

      Iris telling Laura that she had been Alex’s lover was sticking the knife in, but saying “who else did she have?” was twisting the knife with the intention to hurt Laura and hurt her badly. And, as we know Iris succeeded, the next day Laura killed herself.

      You similarly leave out the real “crime” concerning Richard. To you the crime is that she wrote the book “The Blind Assassin.” But the book got little notice, by itself it was an ineffective crime at most. The real crime comes later just after your quote. It is:

      “Someone made an anonymous phone call – now who could have that have been? – and the Bella Vista Clinic entered the picture. Testimony by a former employee…led to a full investigation of the seedier practices carried on there…There was some correspondence between Richard and the director that was particularly damaging… ”

      The crime was not in writing the book but in making the anonymous phone call about the Bella Vista to the papers. This assured Richard’s public destruction.

      Concerning your general thesis, I totally agree that Iris had a tough life, you chronicle it very well. But as some point don’t adults have to take responsibility for their own actions, in spite of their tough childhoods? Iris arguably drove two people to commit suicide – and did it intentionally.

      On page 508, just before the passages about Richard, she says

      “What did I want? Nothing much. Just a memorial of some kind. But what is a memorial, when you come right down to it, but a commemoration of wounds endured? Endured and resented. WITHOUT MEMORY THERE IS NO REVENGE.” (Again caps are added)

      So her role in the destruction of Richard was likely premeditated.

      So here is my take on her crimes and guilt.

      I think the crimes were awful and she for sure is guilty of playing a significant role in two deaths. Her tough childhood does not change that. What her childhood does change is our reaction to her crimes and guilt. I think we need to convict her for what she did, but then treat her with mercy because of her hard life. These aren’t the kind of crimes she would go to court for, but if she did and was convicted, then I’d argue that she serve no sentence. In fact I’d argue that the misery in which she spent her later years was her sentence and there is no reason to punish her more.

      Peter

    6. Ron Boothe says:

      Peter,
      What every slick defense attorney dreads is encountering a competent prosecutor. 🙂
      Perhaps we can negotiate a plea bargain for justified homicide.
      Ron

    7. Ron Boothe says:

      Objective Reality: Who were Aimee’s parents (and Sabrina’s maternal grandparents)

      I had planned to take the time to go carefully through the book to amass evidence that pertains to this topic. But I need to move on to next month’s selection, Under the Volcano, so I am simply going to raise the issue here, along with a few comments about why the issue intrigues me. I understand that Peter has done some research that bears on the topic, so I will leave it up to him (and/or others) to track down the relevant evidence if they are so motivated.

      Here are the possibilities as I see them:
      1. Iris was the mother and Alex was the father. This is the “standard version” answer. This is what Iris explicitly claims in the manuscript she leaves behind for us. What got me to thinking about this issue was primarily that Iris seemed to me to wrap everything up a little too neatly at the end of the book. This is obviously the version that Iris wanted to “sell” to Sabrina in the memorial she left for her. Might even be true, but there is LOTS of evidence that Iris cast a blind eye to events going on around her that she did not want to accept, or easily allowed herself to be self-deceived. End of the book left me wondering if Atwood had not planted a few clues along the way that would have discounted this possibility as an objective reality to any discerning reader who took the time to look for the clues.

      2. Laura was the mother and Richard was the father. This seems to be the version Winnifred accepted. I do not know any other explanation for why she took such an interest in being the caretaker for Sabrina. Does not quite fit Winnifred’s personality to want to care for a child of Iris. Remember that the stuff Winnifred pushed to the newspapers elevated the status of Richard and his famous niece Laura, and basically ignored Iris.

      3. Laura was the mother and Alex was the father. This is what Aimee thought. It would explain the “dark hair” of the baby. This would also explain Laura’s reaction (committing suicide) when she found out Iris was a lover of Alex. That is why I had assumed the reaction had to do with being told that she had not “saved” Alex by having sex with Richard, rather than being due to finding out that Alex was Iris’s lover (see last exchange of comments between Peter and I). However, if Laura was secretly having a sexual relationship with Alex, he could be the father, and the “betrayal” theme of the Blind Assassin novel within a novel takes on a whole new meaning (at least for me).

      As far as whether the mother is Laura or Iris, I was struck by the parallel passages: Laura is in the mental institution, says she is pregnant, is put under ether, wakes up and told she made the entire thing up. At about the same time (here is where I would have to do more research, but I think the dates match up) Iris is put under ether to have her baby, wakes up with no baby present, but later “a” baby is brought to her from down the hall “in the nursery”.

      I hope someone takes the time to track down some of the evidence bearing on these issues and posts it here.
      Ron

      P.S. — cannot help myself from making passing reference to another issue I would like to track down. Was Laura sexually molested by her own father. See the parallel passages regarding burning heads that Laura applies first to her own father, and later to Richard after he has besotted her.

    8. powersron says:

      Quotes, from “The Blind Assassin”

      There’s nothing like a shovelful of dirt to encourage literacy. (39)

      History, as I recall, was never this winsome, and especially not this clean, but the real thing would never sell: most people prefer a past in which nothing smells. (52)

      From a financial point of view, the war was a miraculous fire: a huge, alchemical conflagration, the rising smoke of which transformed itself into money. (71)

      Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence. (76)

      He loved her; in some ways he was devoted to her. But he couldn’t reach her, and it was the same on the other side. It was as if they’d drunk some fatal potion that would keep them forever apart, even though they lived in the same house, ate at the same table, slept in the same bed. (78)

      What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves—our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies. (94)

      Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? (95)

      Children believe that everything bad that happens is somehow their fault…. (138)

      How I would like to have them back, those pointless afternoons—the boredom, the aimlessness, the unformed possibilities. (154)

      Arithmetic had entered the picture, with its many legs, its many spines and heads, its pitiless eyes made of zeroes. (204)

      It was noon, one of those unsettling winter days that are brighter than they ought to be. (227)

      Touch comes before sight, before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth. (256)

      The three of them were beautiful, in the way all girls of that age are beautiful. It can’t be helped, that sort of beauty, nor can it be conserved; it’s a freshness, a plumpness of cells, that’s unearned and temporary, and that nothing can replicate. (294)

      Inside our heads we carry ourselves perfected—ourselves at the best age, and in the best light as well…. (311)

      I am not scoffing at goodness, which is far more difficult to explain than evil, and just as complicated. But sometimes it’s hard to put up with. (366)

      …the rich have always been kleptomaniacs. (379)

      The living bird is not its labeled bones. (395)

      When you are 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. (396)

      But in life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it. (417)

      Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment. (419)

      An unearned income encourages self-pity in those already prone to it. (434)

      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. (517)

    9. J. Kling says:

      Interesting discussion, as I just finished this book and was Googling the Web for anyone who possibly had anything to say on the invisible author. Since I did not see that discussed here, I will do so. There are the shifting points of view, as Iris recounts the events of her youth set against the day-to-day observations of old age, with the novel-within-a-novel science fiction and its original telling. But there is the unseen hand, the one who sets down the (selected) passages of the Blind Assassin, of Iris’s observations and retellings, and — most critically — the odd newspaper clipping. The Atwood-book is almost a scrapbook, and it is not Iris’s scrapbook: Iris placed a great deal more into the chest than is collected here, and the invisible author of this book is Sabrina, who returns to collect this family mystery.

      Sabrina’s discovery is our discovery, peeling away layers of time, and trying to discern what is true. Iris — like her father, a memorialist — dedicates her notebooks and scraps to Sabrina. Why? As the last living remnant of her being? Not exactly. Sabrina is the one who has escaped this Chase-Griffen damnation, as none of the principals (Iris, Richard, Winifred, and Alex Thomas) could, nor could the fifth business of Laura. Sabrina is the apotheosis of Iris (and Laura’s) quashed desires for freedom and self-expression.

      The notion that Laura was Iris’s left hand and vice versa may shed some light onto whose child Aimee was, and whether Laura had some form of ASD. Laura dies in the crash, but Iris has mostly died already, with the telegram before the crash. The two hands, that write together, tell one story, but each life is incomplete: Iris simply manages to live hers to the end. Iris, like her war hero father, wishes to build a memorial; like war memorials, hers marks the tragedy of lives ended with unrealized potential. Iris and Laura are almost hemispheres: Iris, the younger sister’s keeper, who weds young to save the Chase family, is entirely rooted in reality; Laura, whose flabbergasting literalness and obsessions with God, morality, and philosophy, is willing to wade into the swift current and be carried away to redeem (was when she nearly drowns herself to bring her mother back to life, or when she works as an angel of mercy at the hospital).

      The grounded Iris and the head-in-the-clouds Laura are like Estragon and Vladimir (with their boot and hat obsessions in Godot), waiting for the one who will surely come soon (Alex). There are countless analogs of such duality, but the death of Laura coming so soon on the heels of news that Alex has been killed seems to indicate the death of the dream, by killing the dreamy half, leaving only a life of dreary earthbound responsibilities.

      As fifth business (Robertson Davies has a wonderful explanation of story characters explaining this), Laura precipitates the fatal end of Richard, and vicariously of Winifred, but the notion that Iris’s child is imagined (or stillborn) and Laura’s aborted child is actually Aimee beggars belief. There has already been quite enough sleight of hand by the time of Iris’s belated realization of Laura’s violations by Richard, and one critical part of the timeline is Laura’s “meltdown,” where her child has not yet been aborted, yet she rants about Iris’s baby being her own. This information cannot be ignored: the fates have conspired and damned her with Richard’s child, and given Iris Alex’s baby instead.

      Laura’s fatal shock has nothing to do with the knowledge that Iris and Alex were lovers. In some ways, Laura the dreamer is far more perspicacious than her practical sister. Iris never suspects the Xs and O that Laura later chronicles, except in terms of general mood and tension between Laura and Richard. Laura may likely have known (having seen Iris in town, en route to trysts) that Iris was having an affair, but what mattered to her was a purer kind of love for Alex. Her relationship to Alex, almost a religious mission early on, is of a different sort than any Iris would have. Alex represents an escape for Iris from the prison of her marriage, and loveless lovemaking, and all practical concerns. For Laura, he is an escape into realms of discussion, philosophy, religion, metaphysics, and his death represents the death of the dream of the only world that matters to Laura, which has little to do with living on Earth.

      The other critical piece of information, that Aimee is a “dark” baby, precludes her as Richard’s, and therefore as Laura’s. The striking parallel of Iris giving birth and of Laura’s forced abortion illustrate, again, how Iris and Laura are both authors of the novel, and the child Aimee: Laura spiritually, Iris physically. Aimee, whose dark nature represents a wildness not found in the Chase-Griffen households, is a first step towards final freedom, but Aimee herself is too much poisoned by that world (the estrangement from Richard, Richard’s death, the manipulations of Winifred). She herself cannot be free, so freedom is ultimately delayed another generation, to an even wilder child, the ragamuffin Sabrina, whose father remains unknown, whose location for most of the novel is unknown, and who in returning to assemble this mystery provides us the satisfaction of finally getting the whole tale out, revenge for Iris and Laura, but also but also their ultimate birth.

      Hope this was not intrusive. Thank you again for a lively discussion thread, and I hope these comments are not unwelcome.

    10. David Gilmour says:

      Ron makes mention of the chuckles he enjoyed while reading Blind Assassin. Humour is sometimes peculiar to the nervous decussation of one’s brain or funny bone. I found snide humour at work in Atwood’s (Iris’s) phraseology and diction, but she was funniest in her depiction of bakery goods and health foods of our time that shone forth as metaphors of our age and the ingesting of such food was closely connected to colonic disposal or to the lavatory. E.g. “Myra had left me one of her special brownies, whipped up for the Alumni Tea–a slab of putty, coverered in chocolate sludge–and a plastic cup of her very own battery-acid coffee. I could neither drink nor eat, but why did God make toilets? I left a few brown crumbs, for authenticity.” Iris, ever fudging reality. Also comical are the self-deprecatory remarks she lavishes us with–her dandelion fluff hair, frizzy, upward flying, electrocuted wisps; and the greyish pink mice feet on her scalp. All this is chucklesome.

      However, I think Iris story is a good horror story with its mystery morsels that Ron and Peter have a penchant to work out as if solving a good puzzle. Atwood uses a meta-fictional device from time to time, as with the analogies in the several stories, for instance, of a tongue-mutilated sacrificial maiden who get squashed and sliced by the boogie god-man, which Iris explicates as “nowadays she’d look like a pampered society bride.” About her own book, Atwood has Iris write ” What did they want from it? Lechery, smut, confirmation of their worst suspicions. But perhaps some of them wanted, despite themselves, to be seduced. Perhaps they were looking for passion; perhaps they delved into the book as into a mysterious parcel–a gift box at the bottom of which, hidden in layers of rustling tissue paper, lay something they’s always longed for but couldn’t ever grasp.” Very clever Atwood was in her seduction and some of us have really played hard at unpacking the mysterious parcel.

      One of Miss Violence’s Rubaiyat stanza’s: “Ah, Love! Could you and I with him conspire/ To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire/ Would we not shatter it to bits–and then/ Remould it nearer to the heart’s Desire!” To grasp Atwood’s (Iris’s) sorry Scheme of Things entire, would we not shatter it to the tesselated bits and pieces of which it is formed?

      One of Iris’s metaphors to depict our world as a huge lump of raw, undigestible cookie dough may also be a metaphor for her BA story, in Iris’s snarky, witty words. This image was used some 40 years ago by Denise Levertov:

      Life at War

      The disasters numb within us
      Caught in the chest, rolling
      in the brain like pebbles. The feeling
      resembles lumps of raw dough

      weighing down a child’s stomach on baking day.
      Or Rilke said it, ‘My heart . . .
      Could I say of it, it overflows
      With bitterness . . . but no, as though

      its contents were somply balled into
      formless lumps, thus
      do I carry about.”
      —————————-
      We are the humans, men who can make;
      whose language imagines “mercy,”
      “lovingkindness”; we have believed one another
      mirrored forms of a god we felt as good—

      who do these acts, who convince ourselves
      it is necessary; these acts are done
      to our own flesh; burned human flesh
      is smelling in [Afghanistan] as I write.

      Yes, this is the knowledge that jostles for space
      In our bodies along with all we
      Go on knowing of joy, of love;

      Our nerve filaments twitch with its presence
      day and night,
      nothing we say has not the husky phlegm of it in the saying,
      nothing we do has the quickness, the sureness,
      the deep intelligence living at peace would have.

      If we could hear Iris’s voice in her writing, I sense her words about her psychic wars would have been uttered through husky phlegm. Enough of entertainment on the back of Iris’s sorrows for me. –D.G.

    11. David Gilmour says:

      Nothing More Here. Onward to drunken Goeffrey and his Joycean nightmares Under the Volano. I need a bloody drink. -D.G.

    12. anne smith says:

      Awesome, you have helped me put some of my suspicions to rest. Aimee does say that Iris is not her daughters grandmother i.e. she is not Aimee’s mother P436 but that could have been because Winifred had brain-washed her into believing this?

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