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The Blind Assassin

  • Study Guide
Further Study

Context

Further Study Context

Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. She grew up in rural areas of Ontario, due to her father’s career as a forest insect researcher, and in cities, such as Ottawa and Toronto. Atwood regularly sets much of her fiction, including The Blind Assassin, in Ontario. Atwood identified her passion for literature early in life, and she studied English at the University of Toronto and Radcliffe College. After her studies, she began publishing poetry and fiction while also working as an academic. By the 1970s, Atwood was considered to be one of the foremost Canadian authors, and since then, she has published prolifically, including poetry, novels, works of non-fiction, and collections of short stories. The Blind Assassin (2000) is her tenth novel. Atwood received the Booker Prize for The Blind Assassin in 2000, which was the first time she had won this prize, although several of her previous novels had been finalists.

Themes of identity construction through memories and unreliable accounts of the past often surface in Atwood’s fiction. The Blind Assassin reflects Atwood’s ongoing interest in these themes. Like many of her other novels and short stories, this one focuses on a complex and unreliable female narrator, Iris, who is haunted by memories of her past and gradually reveals how apparently straightforward events have actually been distorted. The Blind Assassin is a historical novel but can also be characterized as an example of historic metafiction. The novel features several stories embedded within the main text and self-consciously plays with the idea of how narratives are constructed and come to be considered “true.” Before writing The Blind Assassin, Atwood published another historical novel, Alias Grace, in 1996. Alias Grace focuses on a documented historical event (an 1843 murder), whereas The Blind Assassin invents a fictional plot which plays out against a backdrop of many real and important twentieth-century events, such as World Wars I and II. Atwood uses both novels to explore questions of how individual lives intersect with larger historical dynamics.

The novel’s plot is driven by an implied ideological conflict between capitalism and communism. Iris’s father and husband are both prominent businessmen whose financial success allows them access to political power and influence. Alex Thomas, on the other hand, persistently advocates for rights for working-class individuals. By casting the characters most strongly allied with capitalism as villains, Atwood uses her novel to make a comment on how Canadian society and politics functioned for much of the twentieth-century. In her role as a public intellectual, Atwood has been critical of established systems of power, arguing that they often lead to ethically irresponsible choices and exploitation of vulnerable individuals. These political viewpoints are reflected in The Blind Assassin, even though it is a novel driven primarily by interpersonal dynamics.

The Blind Assassin highlights Atwood’s persistent interest in gendered power dynamics. Perhaps most famously, her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale (subsequently adapted as a television series) used a dystopian lens to describe how women are often disempowered and abused as a result of social and cultural expectations of gender roles. In its representations of women being sexually coerced, trapped in unhappy marriages, and having little control over their reproductive health, The Blind Assassin continues to explore these themes using a lens of realist historical fiction. The Blind Assassin features a character who becomes famous as an author but who also remains mysterious and often misinterpreted, which might reflect Atwood’s own relationship to her fame and status. Throughout her career, Atwood has assertively embedded political critiques within her fiction and has also been an outspoken advocate for causes which are important to her. As a result, she has been subject to significant criticism and has noted publicly that her beliefs are sometimes misrepresented.

The Blind Assassin also reflects Atwood’s interest in speculative and science fiction, which is seen in many of her novels. The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a dystopian alternative reality, and after the publication of The Blind Assassin, Atwood published her MaddAddam Trilogy, consisting of three novels published between 2003 and 2013. This trilogy explicitly features elements of speculative fiction. While most of The Blind Assassin is realistic, the embedded narrative about the planet Zycron introduces elements of fantasy and speculative fiction into the text. Atwood researched ancient Sumerian civilizations to develop this storyline. Within the world of the novel, the invented Zycron storyline is presented as a form of low-brow, lower status entertainment, but it carries deep thematic resonance with issues that show up in the primary plotline as well. Throughout her writing career, Atwood has used imaginary worlds and speculative plots to draw attention to serious political issues, such as climate change and the exploitation of women.