Who is the Blind Assassin in Atwood ‘ s 2000 Booker winner ?

downloadWith the Booker nomination for Testaments , I picked up The Blind Assassin as my first read for my Booker project . Dystopia is not my genre and so I didn’t pick up The Handmaid ‘ s Tale . Now , I guess I have to give a shot at dystopia too with The Testaments ‘  split – win . . .

Plot summary :

Iris Griffen – Chase , the narrator is reminiscing about her life until the suicide of her younger sister Laura at the age of 25 . Iris published Laura ‘ s The Blind Assassin posthumously which had its own repercussions for Iris .  Interspersed in Iris ‘s narrative are the chapters from Laura ‘ s scandalous debut`, where two illicit lovers amuse themselves during their secret trysts  by telling a story about the eponymous Blind Assassin . Through Iris ‘ s narrative and the narrative in TBA , we come to know about the Chase family and the secrets it holds today . . .

My thoughts on the book :

The title of the book intrigued me from the start . Why would Atwood name a book after a roman a clef in the  book was my question .  On the surface , there is no significance to the title beyond it being the title of Laura ‘ s book .  But as I read the book , a thought occurred whether the title might be a reference to one of the characters in the book . I wanted to identify the character for whom the possible – sobriquet title is the best fit . ( Am I getting the word correctly ? Or is it something else ? )

I did not have to look too far or read too much between the lines to identify  who The Blind Assassin  might be . My idea is that Iris Chase – Griffen , the octogenarian narrator is the best fit for the term The Blind Assassin , whose actions  inadvertently led to the demise of her sister Laura . While she herself recounts being blamed for her husband ‘ s death by her sister – in -law , she does not seem to recognize her role in her sister ‘ s death or if she does , she does not say anything to that effect . Perhaps she did not want to incriminate herself when there are several other external factors which also had a role in Laura ‘ s death . The latter scenario  is the most probable one .

But I would say ,  while there were other factors too ,  they would not have pushed Laura over the edge if only she had had a sympathetic elder sister to turn to in times of distress – at the very least , for moral support if not for anything else .

But Iris is not the typical ” the – second – mother ” elder sister that literature is often fond of portraying elder sisters as  –  she is somewhat of an antithesis to the above said elder sister .  And that is where the problem lies . Let me point out the instances when Iris could have redeemed the situation with some fundamental concern which  one stranger might show to another when he / she discerns some cause for it with the other ‘ s situation .

Any reader knowing Iris around page 100 or so , would know better than to expect more of her .

Iris has always known that Laura was not happy with her marriage to Griffen . Iris is always somewhat careful not to prod too deep into Laura ‘ s emotions afraid of what she might have to deal with , understandably given Laura ‘ s ” sensitive ” nature . But , one would expect her to lend atleast a sympathetic ear  when Laura turns to her for some comfort in times of distress  . While Iris seemingly does the above all , we get to read  about her true feelings underneath all those mandatory gestures  and it ‘ s somewhat sickening . Surely , can ‘ t a younger sister count upon a shoulder to lean on from the elder one ?

She cried then , and I put my arms around her , the time – worn gesture from when she was little  . Just stop howling . If I ‘d had a lump of brown sugar I would have given it to her , but we were past the brown – sugar stage by then . Sugar  was not going to help .

Some readers might say that Iris was not in a position to acknowledge the truth  in Laura ‘ s  words about their new life in the Griffen home and to act decisively about it  ( of which Iris says she did not realize the true colors of  Richard and Winifred  !!! ) .  While that argument can be accepted  to a certain extent , one cannot accept Iris ‘ callousness towards Laura ‘ s feelings and fears . We don ‘ t see several  such exchanges  ( forget confidences . . . ) between the sisters which is also indicative of  how close the sisters are. Perhaps , during the early days , following her father ‘ s death and subsequent removal to the Griffen house only Laura reached out to her more . But Iris ‘ response effectively stopped Laura from confiding in her . . .

What makes Iris ‘ negligence appalling is that she expects Laura to also be satisfied the same way she is satisfied with the new life – the riches , the balls , the high – society which their father ‘ s precarious finances and old – fashioned ways had not introduced them to . Now that she has got the money also to spend , along with the prominent family name , Iris ,is too busy enjoying her life . She never gives a thought to Laura ‘ s increasingly erratic behavior . It looked like she was satisfied handing over the responsibility of the guardianship of a younger sibling to anyone who would be willing to take it off her hands –  think about the meeting with the head mistress for instance . . .  We know how this arrangement played out in the Griffen household : with an unconcerned / pushover elder sister who is keen only in looking out for herself  ,  the Griffen siblings had the opportunity to dictate the aspects of Laura ‘ s life too much which they did . Remember the time , when Winifred decided that Laura can volunteer for the  organization which did hospital visits ? And the plans for the debut ?

But the scene which took this indifference a notch higher is the one Iris unquestioningly  accepts Richard ‘ s & Winifred ‘ s  words about what happened with Laura . Iris ‘ tears  when she gets the news of Laura ‘ s confinement seem to be like the tears of an actress playing a part of a damsel in distress  :  a few tears in the white handkerchief  , some sniffs and then nothing . If one remembers Iris ‘ s  mourning for her father , the tears for Laura can be seen as a huge improvement . [ If I remember correctly there were some questions about why Richard had concealed her father’s death from her and  there were no more once Richard gave his sugar-coated dismissive answers . ]

One would expect Iris to be more careful about what she tells Laura especially after her ordeal at the asylum . Iris ‘ s words indicate that even she saw the need but still she goes ahead and says the last thing that Laura would want to hear –  that her sacrifice was in vain . Those words sapped out any hope of a life she looked forward to ” after the war ”  and later , the same day , she drove the car off the bridge .

I have picked out only certain instances to illustrate my reasons for picking out Iris among all the characters for the dubious distinction of being the blind assassin .  If you pick up the book you are sure to pick out other scenes which drive home the point .

You would not need one more new reader of Atwood to come up with the same boring words – beautiful , intelligent to describe her writing .  Atwood ‘ s writing impressed me with the innovative narrative techniques like the newspaper articles , the graffiti , the roman a clef and a lot more .

And here are some of my favorite passages –

. . . Beginnings  are sudden , but also  insidious . They creep up on you sideways , they keep to the shadows , they lurk unrecognized . Then ,  later ,  they  spring .

. . . A lot of clothes  ,  the styles and colors outmoded now , shed butterflies ‘  wings . A lot of dinners , not always  very good ones . Breakfast , picnics ,  ocean voyages , costume balls ,  newspapers , boating on the river . Such items do not assort very well with tragedy . But in life , a tragedy is not one long scream . It includes  everything that led up to it . Hour after trivial hour , day after day , year after year , and then  the sudden moment : the knife stab , the shell-burst , the plummet of the car from the bridge . .  .

Drowned now –  the tree as well , the sky , the wind , the clouds . All  she has left is the picture . Also the story of it .  The  picture is of happiness , the story not . Happiness is a garden walled with glass : no  way in or out . In Paradise there are no stories , because there are no journeys . It ‘ s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward , along its twisted road . 

If you have any thoughts on the above post , please do share them in the comments section below .

If you have not picked up the book , I would  urge you to pick up this book definitely . I hope the plot summary intrigued you sufficiently enough . . . If you had already read the book ,  what do you think of picking out Iris Chase – Griffen as the Blind Assassin ? Or do you have another character in the book who would be better suited for the sobriquet ?

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