Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Surfacing is divided into three parts of eight, eleven, and eight chapters, respectively. The time span of the novel is about two weeks, during which the protagonist is in the remote wilderness where she had spent her childhood. Her mother is dead of cancer, and her father is missing.
The protagonist tells her story in the present tense, as the action unfolds. Joe, David, and Anna plan to vacation while she checks on her father. From the moment they approach the small town on the other side of the lake, she begins to recall events and people from her childhood and to notice many changes. It is now a commercialized resort area appealing to American sportsmen. She speaks with Paul, a French Canadian who had contacted her because of his concern for her father, his longtime friend. With Paul’s wife, Madame, who speaks only French, she experiences the same awkwardness she remembers when she and her mother would try to visit with Madame while her father visited with Paul. She goes to buy supplies for the group to take to the island and timidly tries a few French words to make her purchases; the people in the store mockingly imitate her accent. These opening scenes set up several continuing plot lines of the novel: the narrator’s search not only for her father but for herself; her pondering of the loss of her parents and her years of not communicating with them; and her sense of alienation in a border area torn between French and English cultures and inundated with affluent Americans.
At the cabin, the narrator feels responsible for the others, feeding them, showing them how to fish, and taking them for hikes in the woods. The isolation leads to interpersonal conflicts....
(The entire section is 696 words.)
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Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Surfacing is a dense, multilayered narrative with tantalizing symbols. Margaret Atwood’s second major novel, it was the first to gain international critical attention. Surfacing relates an unnamed narrator’s search for her missing father, presumed dead. This protagonist is also seeking her authentic identity as a woman and a spiritual being. She returns to the Canadian wilderness where her father vanished, finding its purity despoiled, desecrated by Americans heavily outfitted in hunting gear. Wild creatures struggle to survive; Canada seems a virgin who is violated and victimized.
The woman feels anesthetized. She can describe her surroundings vividly, but they evoke little emotion in her. The remoteness and loneliness of the wilderness mirrors her inner reality. She talks about a husband and child, but they have never existed. The reality was that a man she loved abandoned her, after coercing her into an unwanted abortion. Commercial art, her profession, now seems a prostitution of talent. She calls herself an escape artist.
With her on this odyssey are three companions. Unlike the protagonist, they have names: Anna, David, and Joe. Anna is ostensibly the woman’s best friend, but Anna is an acquaintance of only two months. Joe, the narrator’s current lover, has never aroused her with his embraces. Little of her life seems authentic. During their wilderness tramping, the companions come upon a dead heron, obscenely...
(The entire section is 443 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The narrator is driving with her lover, Joe, and another couple, David and Anna, from the city where they live to a lake in the wilderness of northern Quebec. Every year as a child, the narrator and her family had returned to this lake to spend the summer on an isolated island reached only by boat. The narrator and her brother had gone to school in a different town every year because her father was a botanist who worked in several locations for industry and the government. The narrator’s mother had died on the island, and her brother had fled the family.
The narrator, who had not attended her mother’s funeral and is now estranged from her father, has not returned to the island for some years. A family acquaintance, Paul, who lives in the village along the lake, had contacted the narrator to say that her father, who has been living alone on the island, is missing. She does not tell her traveling companions the real purpose of the trip.
The quartet reach the village. The three friends go into a bar while the narrator talks with Paul; she learns nothing more about her father’s disappearance. She buys supplies, then another villager, Evans, runs the narrator, Joe, Anna, and David in his motorboat up the lake to the island, which is two miles long. The narrator does not want to see her father, only to find out that he is all right. She claims to be estranged from her father because she had abandoned a husband and baby some years ago, for which her parents never forgave her.
When they get to the island, they find the father’s boats, but no sign of him. The narrator also finds some childlike drawings and decides that her father went insane living alone. The four had planned to leave the next day, but David, the dominant member of the group, urges them to stay for a week. He enjoys this primitive life, he says, away from the city where he and Joe teach in an adult-education school. David and Anna have been married for nine years, but their relationship is filled with tension and abuse. Joe and the narrator live together, but Joe is silent, and the narrator is not sure she loves him, although Joe would like them to marry.
Soon, the narrator becomes increasingly unmoored. She feels trapped on the small island and senses her father watching her...
(The entire section is 935 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Surfacing, Atwood’s second novel, recapitulates many of the themes and images from both her poems and The Edible Woman (1969), her first novel. In both novels, for example, a young woman finally rebels against a technological society that would mold and shape her life and then experiences a psychological breakdown before emerging as a survivor with an integrated or whole personality. Surfacing, however, is a richer, denser novel because the journey that the unnamed narrator undertakes is literal, psychological, and mythical; the novel is further complicated by the unreliable narrator, who not only acknowledges fictionalizing her story but also must use the very rational language that she comes to distrust because it is the language of the Americanized culture that she rejects.
In the first part of the novel, the unnamed narrator (her lack of a name suggests a lack of real identity and implies that she does not belong in her culture) leaves the city and travels to the Canadian wilderness to find her missing father, who is perhaps dead. Her companions are David, a would-be cinematographer; Anna, his passive doll/girlfriend; and Joe, the narrator’s shaggy lover and a frustrated potter. As they travel north, the narrator suggests that “either the three of them are in the wrong place or I am” and calls her “home ground” a “foreign country.” When she later adds, “I don’t know the way any more,” it seems clear that she has become alienated from her parents (she also did not attend her mother’s funeral) and from her past. She also is alienated from “them,” the companions whom she comes to see as exploitive “Americans” with the technology, pollution, and violence that slowly creep northward. As she narrates the story, she mentions her husband and a child, as well as a drowned brother. The brother, however, is not dead; he “surfaced,” foreshadowing her own surfacing. The husband and child are also part of her fiction; she aborted the baby she conceived with her married lover, and that abortion, cutting her off from nature, still haunts her. She is an incomplete person, a point that Atwood makes by having her mention that Anna thought she was a twin; later, the narrator states, “I must have been all right then; but after that I’d allowed myself to be cut in two,” obliquely referring to the abortion.
The narrator returns to the divided self at the beginning of part 2 and maintains that the language that divided the body and the head is...
(The entire section is 1029 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Surfacing is the story of a young woman’s search for her lost father in the Canadian wilderness. As narrated by the daughter herself, the search soon takes on symbolic significance as a quest for self-discovery which will lead her to a wiser understanding of the childhood paradise she believes she has betrayed.
The novel opens with the narrator and her three friends on their way to the island where she and her family once spent their summers. The father, a botanist, lived alone in their lakefront cabin as a “voluntary recluse” following his wife’s death. As the narrator approaches the town where they will pick up supplies and a boat ride to the cabin, images from her childhood keep intruding. She notes the...
(The entire section is 435 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Surfacing has been applauded for its characterizations, style, and themes. Thematically, the novel is about victimization and attempts to avoid victimization. The heroine of the novel battles the forces that suppress her, and at the end of the novel she gains confidence and a sense of freedom. In many ways, the novel is evocative of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963).
Surfacing begins with the nameless heroine and her lover Joe traveling away from the city. They are accompanied by a married couple, David and Anna, and they are all visiting her family’s cabin on an island in a Quebec lake. The heroine’s father has disappeared, and the heroine is trying to find some answers as to...
(The entire section is 422 words.)