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Literature / The Blind Assassin

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"The best way of keeping a secret is to pretend there isn't one."

Margaret Atwood's 2000 novel is told from the point of view of Iris Chase Griffen, an octogenarian who chooses to record her life story after discovering that she's suffering from a potentially fatal heart disease. In particular, Iris details her relationship with her younger sister, Laura — who committed suicide in 1945, aged twenty-five, by driving a car off a bridge — and the publicity surrounding Laura's posthumously published novel, The Blind Assassin.

Winner of the 2000 Booker prize.


The Blind Assassin contains examples of:

  • Arranged Marriage: Iris's father arranges her marriage to Richard in the hopes that it will save the family company and ensure a better future for at least one of his daughters. His plan fails in every possible sense: the company still goes under (with Richard making a point of giving it a final push, before taking what's left and absorbing it into his own business empire), and both his daughters suffer years of psychological, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of Richard and his sister.
  • Batman Gambit: When creepy tutor Mr. Erskine starts molesting Laura, she goes to Iris and Reenie, who are both pretty sure he'll be able to convince the girls' father that Laura made it all up if they tell the truth. So Reenie contrives to "find" some dirty pictures under his bed (Iris notes that sure, they might genuinely have been there, but Reenie has a cousin who smuggles pornography who'd help her out), and then righteously presents the evidence to Mr. Chase in front of a huge crowd of factory workers, ensuring that he has to fire Erskine.
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  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Laura often baffles those around her. As Winifred remarks, "You have to admit, she's a little odd."
  • Creepy Housekeeper: Even though she's a relative and not a servant, Richard's sister Winifred manages to be very reminiscent of Mrs Danvers.
  • Doom Magnet: While Iris's life hasn't exactly been happy, the tendency of people around her to suffer at least as badly as she does and, ultimately, die young as well, does not go unnoticed, by herself or other people. Specifically, a lot of people in her life seem to have committed suicide, though for various different reasons: Laura, her father, her husband Richard and her daughter Aimee are all at least believed to have taken their own lives.
  • Downer Ending: Well, let's see: Laura commits suicide after Richard raped her and she discovered that what she told herself to deal with it was probably a lie, Iris has lost both her daughter and granddaughter to her terrible sister-in-law and her heart gives out, and Iris and Alex were never able to be together like they planned.
  • Ephebophile: Richard, who rapes his teenage sister-in-law. Iris married him at eighteen and later realizes that she was nearly too old for him, at the time.
  • Family Relationship Switcheroo: Aimee suspects this had happened, insisting that Laura was her real mother, and Iris had cruelly insisted on adopting the baby, rather than risk scandal. Aimee is wrong, however.
  • Foregone Conclusion: One of the first scenes is a newspaper article about Laura's death. The rest of the novel is taken up by how the characters got to that point.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Averted. Iris appears to be the practical sister and Laura the beautiful, strange one. There's friction between both of them, but:
    I didn't like it when other people criticized Laura—her vagueness, her simplicity, her fecklessness. Criticism of Laura was reserved for me.
  • May–December Romance: Iris marries mid-thirties Richard when she's only eighteen. Despite Iris's suspicions, ultimately averted by Alex Thomas, who did not pursue a teenage Laura.
  • Nested Story: The book's title refers to Laura's novel, published posthumously by Iris. The Blind Assassin tells the story of an unnamed woman's affair with a pulp sci-fi writer who would tell stories to her in bed, making this a case of stories within a story within a story.
  • No Such Thing as Bad Publicity: In-universe example. Iris notes that The Blind Assassin, while it got a few good reviews, actually didn't make a splash until Port Ticonderoga's Moral Guardians started denouncing it.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Iris learns to act much less competent than she actually is to keep Winifred off her back.
  • Rebellious Princess:
    • Laura has shades of this. She would rather scrape by than live under Richard's thumb.
    • Decades later, Sabrina rebels against her rich guardian, Winifred, eventually leaving to travel the world.
  • The Reveal: Iris reveals that she wrote the book, and only put Laura's name on it, although she feels Laura was a spiritual collaborator. Not only that, but she had the affair with Alex Thomas, and Aimee is his.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: Aimee is correct that she is not actually a Griffen, but makes the wrong conclusions about why based on the book.
  • Scarpia Ultimatum: Richard threatens to get Alex Thomas arrested if Laura doesn't have sex with him. It's possible that his threat was an empty one (depending on whether or not you choose to believe Callie's denials that she informed on Alex], but it worked.

Tropes Applying to The Blind Assassin Novella

Also to its nested stories, "The Blind Assassin", and "Lizard Men of Xenor"

  • Author Existence Failure: In-universe, the man is never able to finish either his pulp serial or the stories he was telling the woman because he's killed in action.
  • Based on a True Story: Everyone assumes it's a veiled autobiography. It is, but it's about Iris, not Laura.
  • Blind Weaponmaster: The blind assassin.
  • Cute Mute: In the nested story, "The Blind Assassin," the city of Sakiel-Norn's sacrificial girls have their tongues cut out the night before their deaths. The titular character is supposed to kill one of these mute girls, but falls in love with her instead.
  • Happily Ever After: The woman says that the two lovers go into the mountains and discover the stories about hungry ghosts and wolves are just rumors spread to hide a peaceful society of escaped slaves, and they settle down. The man suggests the opposite.
  • Mars Needs Women: The Lizard Men of Xenor want to kidnap Earth women.
  • Nameless Narrative: The Blind Assassin does not name the woman or the pulp fiction writer, preferring to use pronouns.
  • Open Secret: Despite its characters not being named, The Blind Assassin causes a scandal as it is clearly autobiographical.
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: The beautiful carpets of Sakiel-Norn, which have made the upper class very rich, are woven by children. This work inevitably blinds them.
  • Pulp Magazine: The pulp fiction writer would like to be a legitimate author, but finds himself forced to write trashy, derivative stories in pulp magazines for what scant money he can earn. He also dies in the war before getting the chance to write anything of real value.


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