Unpacking the Invisible Back Pack in Atwood’s The Blind Assassin

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin has been herald as one of the finest novels of the 21st century. And it is. Yet, it is perhaps a novel that often gets overlooked because of it’s “sci-fi” billing. Don’t’ get me wrong, I ADORE sci-fi/fantasy novels. In fact, at least eight out of ten trips to my local Borders Superstore will find me ensconced amidst the aisles, books in hands and no decision in sight. And perhaps, because of its billing as sci-fi, that is exactly why I picked up The Blind Assassin.

Atwood follows in the footsteps of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, depicting a story within a story (within a story, within a story ad nauseum as there are more than one set of nested stories between the covers of this novel). One story is that of the sisters Iris and Laura (as told by the older Iris) and what befalls their old-money family over the course of two World Wars and is told in a confessional/memoir manner by Iris Chase Griffen as Laura is dead by the opening pages of the book. The other story is a novel written by the younger Chase sister and depicts the clandestine meetings of two ill-fated lovers. If that’s not mind boggling enough, with in the pages of this fictitious novel–coincidentally titled The Blind Assassin–there is another set of stories told by the male lover to his unnamed female counterpart. Whew!–you still with me?

Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of this book is how subversively feminist it is. Don’t get me wrong, there are times that the characters act out prescribed gender roles and in fact Iris spends a large part of her time pondering how these roles affect her place within the story as well as how they have changed not only for her, but for other female characters. She spends, for example, time comparing the roles assumed by her caretakers (first Reenie when she is a child, and then Reenie’s daughter when she is an old woman) and the freedom that these women are allowed in comparison to good, upstanding high class citizen such as her. In a sense, she spends a lot of time unpacking what Peggy McIntosh calls The Invisible Backpack. McIntosh theorizes that we each carry this invisible backpack of privileges–men have theirs (the patriarchy), “whites” vs. minorities, women vs. minorities, etc.–and the elements within our backpacks are not items that we’re necessarily conscious of, rather just inherit based on who we are biologically and racially (for more in-depth information, see here).

While McIntosh primarily focuses on white privilege, the concept can be applied to feminism and the patriarchy as well, and in turn those concepts applied to a reading of Atwood. Through the various story-lines, the characters tend to the challenges presented to them by their “invisible back packs,” some times succeeding in rising to and exceeding expectations, other times failing miserably, until the very ending. Each time a situation or challenge is presented, the reader finds themselves both secretly hoping that Iris will rise above her assumed “station” in life and surprise us, and even though we’re not surprised when she doesn’t (or reveling in the minuscule triumphs she does manage to attain) we intuitively know why she can’t–she’s lugging around this extremely large, extremely heavy sack of things she can and can not do, things that are proper and things that are not. Her sister, Laura, in a sense is a foil to Iris’s properness. While Iris willingly sacrifices herself on the alter of propriety, Laura flaunts her willfulness and self preservation in its face. The reader spends a large portion of their time being frustrated, openly and secretly wishing that Iris would just shuck off that damn invisible backpack and embrace freedom.

Yet… no.

Atwood deserves the accolades that she is given. She is a gifted storyteller who never makes her readers feel as though she is holding back even when she is. And it wasn’t until the very end of this novel that every thing finally came together and the Big Reveal happens that this reader found herself going “Atwood you tricky little minx!” Though the character’s “backpacks” may be socially constructed, they do, in the end, have the right to unpack them and toss the contents aside.


  1. says

    I love this book. I sat down in the bookstore several years ago and read it all in one sitting. I think Iris’ passivity is necessary to maximize the impact of “the Big Reveal” at the end. She thought of her sister as the free, crazy one, and it changes Iris’ view of her world when she learns that Laura was a woman just as trapped as she was.

    I also loved what Atwood did with the obituaries, articles, and excerpts from the science fiction novel. It reads as a fascinating commentary on women in history, especially women whose lives are defined by us looking back as “wife of ____.” That’s pretty much Iris’ role. The real story of Iris and Laura is what exists between the words and images, what can be pieced together. Neither of them are who people thought they were at all.

  2. Gategrrl says

    I went to my local library’s website and reserved a copy. I usually don’t go for Atwood – her style just doesn’t inspire me to read her books – but I’ll give this one a go.

    I’ll let you know what I think.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    Can’t read this one, can’t read this one! I recently bought the book on Amazon for a penny plus shipping, but haven’t read it yet. 😀

  4. Purtek says

    Atwood’s style of feminist writing is frequently driven by women playing out proscribed roles, usually without recognizing the way it’s making them miserable or limits them. I think her best work (like The Blind Assassin, and I would also recommend the short story collection Bluebeard’s Egg) is done when she just depicts this without adding an omniscient narrator judgment on it–the invisible backpack stays invisible, whether it gets unpacked or not.

    I’m surprised, however, that the book is getting a “sci-fi” billing. Atwood is well known for thinking sci-fi=inferior, not serious literature, and she has insisted that even The Handmaid’s Tale is “speculative fiction”. What. Ever. I love many things about Atwood and her work, but damn that pisses me off.

  5. Gategrrl says

    Purtek, can you write something about the mainstream/scifi chasm?

    It’s strange to me how certain authors manage to bypass the publisher’s and readers’ slotting of their fiction into the science fiction “ghetto”.

    Kurt Vonnegut is another writer who seemed to escape the labelling.

  6. Purtek says

    You know, I’d love to write something about that in general, but honestly, I don’t really get it overall. I’m currently listening to a series of lectures on the History of Sci Fi, and it does deal with how science fiction came to be perceived (initially in America) as trite and shallow based on the overwhelming number of pulp sci fi novels produced in the US following WWII.

    But there’s a big difference, from what I understand, between Atwood and Vonnegut, in that reviewers decided Vonnegut couldn’t be sci-fi because it was serious literature (while Vonnegut himself just wrote what he wrote and didn’t much care about classification), whereas Atwood regularly insists, when her books get called science fiction, that they’re not. Because, you see, they’re good, and serious, and meaningful, and literary. I can kind of understand the difference in resistance levels between the two since she already gets heavily slotted into a “feminist” grouping (and therefore only relevant to women), but her level of literary influence (especially here in Canada) is now such that she has a voice that could help to overcome that dichotomy.

  7. says

    This book, Handmaid’s Tale, and Oryx and Crake all have strong scifi elements. (Blind Assassin less so, but the scifi novel intertwined within the story shows that Atwood clearly knows how to write in the genre.) And Alias Grace is a ghost story, and her other novels have elements of magical realism. (At this point it might become obvious that I own all her works…) I think she leans away from the SF label toward “literary fiction” (itself a kind of pretentiously empty label if you think about it). I wish great authors who write with SF elements wouldn’t… it just perpetuates the idea that genre fiction is fluff. But some of the greatest ideas of the century appear in books that are essentially SF, even if they’ve escaped the labeling. Slaughterhouse Five, 1984, I could go on.

    There’s a division in the SF/F community about the term “speculative fiction” anyway: some authors argue that it’s the PC name for SF, an attempt by authors uncomfortable with writing “genre” fiction to make it sound more serious.

    Agree with Purtek re: Atwood’s feminism. I think she has a gift for subtlety, and for portraying the small victories of her characters. Her books aren’t about “WHOO I WAS A WOMAN AND I DID SOMETHING NO WOMAN HAS DONE BEFORE!” They’re about ordinary women who gradually learn to maneuver in their own worlds, and make the little choices to give themselves agency.

    • says

      You know, I read this book sometime after this review, and I’ve just re-read the review as I’m going through old posts and updating the categories and tags. Not only do I really get what the review is saying now, but it also strikes me that Dolores Claiborne hits this same note… in a way. Dolores can’t protect her child because her white male husband’s privileges prevent her from doing so, and all the options she can’t choose and the reasons she can’t choose them are detailed very carefully. Upper class Vera, much less used to bowing to society’s limitations, figured out a way to work around the system – murder dressed up as an accident. Death by misadventure. And Vera is correct: if privilege prevents Dolores from doing the right, moral thing, then Dolores must make a one-time bypass of her morals for the greater good.

      The movie builds on all this. I can’t imagine anyone, however privileged, coming away from this and thinking Dolores had any other options. Or, even if they can think of one, not understanding why, in the short time she had to deal with the situation, she made the choice she made.

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