Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Blind Assassin Close-Read, Volume II

I'm participating in The Atlantic's 1book140 read-a-long of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin this month. The following is the second of a series of posts close-reading sections of the novel. If you somehow found your way here through 1book140, welcome. It's nice to have you

I so enjoyed writing about the first sentence of The Blind Assassin that I am going to take a shot at discussing another smallish piece of the novel, this time from Part III.

Let's set the stage: Iris is visiting her family's grave-site, some fifty years after her sister's death. She describes the monument:

The Chase family monument is hard to miss, it's taller than everything else. There are two angels, white marble, Victorian, sentimental but quite well done as these things go, on a large stone cube with scrolled corners. The first angel is standing, her head bowed to the side in an attitude of mourning, one hand placed tenderly on the shoulder of the second one. The second kneels, leaning against the other's thigh, gazing straight ahead, cradling a sheaf of lilies. Their bodies are decorous, the contours shrouded in the folds of softly draped, impenetrable material, but you can tell they're female. And rain is taking its toll of them: their once-keen eyes are blurred now, softened and porous, as if they have cataracts. But perhaps that's my own vision going.

Alright, there's more backstory about the monument in the next paragraph, but let's stop here for a moment. Last time, I wrote about why first sentences are a particularly good place to stop and smell the roses a little as you read. This passage is an example of another way-station, which is ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is the narrative description of a work of visual art. (The greatest example in Western literature is Homer's description of Achilles' Shield in Book XVII of The Iliad, the most well-known one is in Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," where he describes, well, the urn.)

Why is looking at ekphrasis interesting? Couple of reasons. First, it is hyper-mimetic: not only does the writer have to describe the work of art, they also create the work of art. These are moments when a language artist is dipping into other art forms. Another reason is what ekphrasis does to the narrative time of the novel; it slows it down dramatically, even stops it. The closest cross-medium comparison is to a still-life, where precision, vision, and execution are at a premium. The writer is saying "hey, stop and pay attention to this, even though it has nothing to do with plot." For the close-reader, this is more inviting than cold pizza after a 2-for-1 night at the pub.

So, what's going on with this description of the Chase family monument?

1.  We have to remember that this is Iris narrating, not Atwood herself, so really this ekphrasis is Iris' vision, even as Atwood is staging it. Atwood is showing us what Iris is seeing, not what she would see herself or what we might notice ourselves. So, perhaps it's best to think of Atwood telling us something about how Iris sees as much as it is Iris telling us something directly.

2. Physical description tends to work structurally, so paying attention to how the description is built is important. Here we begin with the size ("taller than anything else") and then quality ("well done as these things go"). If the monument is a symbol of the Chase family, then the reading here is pretty simple: their family's story is bigger and more interesting than the average family's story. Or at least that's the way Iris sees it. One of these descriptions is empirical, "taller" is not up for debate. But the qualitative description certainly is. As cool as Iris' narration has been, here we get a small glimpse of how she understands her family history.

2. The most prominent feature is the pair of angels, and their parallel to Iris and Laura seems obvious. What is not obvious, however, is what exactly beyond two women the angels are saying about Iris and Laura. My sense is that the standing angel is Iris; it is in the "attitude of mourning" and standing, which suggests she is grieving. The phrase "attitude of mourning" is telling; is the angel mourning or just performing an attitude of mourning? At this point in the novel, Iris' attitude toward Laura and her death is still somewhat of a mystery. This angel is both turning away and touching the second angel, which suggest an ambivalence. Does she want to turn away but cannot fully? Or does she want to remain in contact but is forced to move away? At the very least, it is an enigmatic move and Iris is nothing if not a mystery here.

The second angel would then be Laura, the kneeling and sheaf of lilies (which often represent innocence) combined with the stare into the distance suggests youth and remove. She is the one being left kneeling, who is now looking away from the living.

3. The appearance of the angels is telling as well: "Their bodies are decorous, the contours shrouded in the folds of softly draped, impenetrable material, but you can tell they're female." There is an incongruity in describing "bodies" as "decorous," as "decorous" implies restraint and civility. How exactly can a body be "civil"? A similar incongruity occurs in the description of the clothing, which is both "softly draped" and "impenetrable" (Churchill's image of the "iron curtain" comes to mind.) The overall effect here combines frailty with strength, the physical with the emotional, and the overt with the mysterious.

4. The last sentence here about time and vision seems the most crucial. Of all the sculpted details that would be subject to corrosion, Iris (note the ocular reference inherent in her name) sees the blurred eyes and connects their aging with her own. I think a connection to memory is present, for what is memory but our seeing of the past? That time makes our memory "softer" and more "porous" means that our lived experience changes even after we have lived it, and our relationship to what has happened to us is in flux. And even the monuments, both sculptural and textual, we build in commemoration can never fully preserve the commemorated.

There are other meanings to be gleaned from this passage, I am sure. And the next paragraph adds a layer of personal history to Iris' description that is worth incorporating into an analysis of this paragraph, but this is probably enough from me now.

What else do you see in this paragraph? What did I get wrong or miss?

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  1. it's been a bit hectic around the plantation and i haven't slipped the disc into my cd player YET! i'll remedy that soon, BUT just yesterday i went looking for my copy of the blind assassin and found it missing! i shall use amazon after i listen to my first ever audio book! (i owe you areview, right?)! thank you! xoxo

  2. There's a relationship between the last phrases about the angels' eyes and Iris's vision to the title of the novel. What is blindness? In what sense (or senses) of the word does Atwood mean "blind?" Who assassinated whom, and how, what does vision or lack thereof have to do with it? (I haven't read the book in several years, but I remember being frustrated that I didn't understand the title immediately, and was knocked for a wallop when I finally caught on.)

    There are also lots of other references to statuary (e.g., the sphinxes) in the novel. I seem to recall that the various statues are key images that can be read as reflecting on each other, and that together are thematically significant. Worth taking a look at how they're perceived from a sensory perspective as well.

  3. I think that your analysis sounds spot on-and these posts make me think I need to go back and read The Blind Assassin again!

  4. I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this close reading!

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