In Surfacing, Margaret Atwood examines the ways in which women support and uphold male authority, how their support is coerced, and how they might escape from male dominance. Atwood uses Anna and David to explore the dynamics of an abusive marriage, in which the man continually exercises paternalistic authority over the woman. David's authoritarian conduct is not noticeable at first, but proximity to the couple reveals it, primarily in Anna's nervous behavior. She tells the narrator that David does not like to see her without makeup, and later becomes very agitated when she forgets to bring her cosmetics with her. The narrator dismissively says that David may not notice, to which Anna responds:
He’ll notice, don’t you worry ... He wants me to look like a young chick all the time, if I don’t he gets mad.
She then reveals how David uses sex to abuse and manipulate her, while he pretends that she is imagining his control over her:
He watches me all the time, he waits for excuses. Then either he won’t screw at all or he slams it in so hard it hurts ... But if you said any of this to him he’d just make funny cracks about it, he says I have a mind like a soap opera, he says I invent it.
Although the protagonist's relationship with her lover, Joe, is not as abusive as Anna and David's, the protagonist still feels dominated and objectified by Joe. When he tries to have sex with her, he is persistent almost to the point of violence, “shoving against me, his body insistent as one side of an argument.” At this point in the novel, the protagonist uses a peculiarly feminine shield, the threat of pregnancy, to undermine Joe's attempt to assert himself:
I slid my arm between us, against his throat, windpipe, and pried his head away. “I’ll get pregnant,” I said, “it’s the right time.” It was the truth, it stopped him: flesh making more flesh, miracle, that frightens all of them.
At the end of the book, it is left open for the reader to decide whether the narrator will return to civilization with Joe, or attempt to forge her own path through the wilderness. What is clear is that, though she still identifies civilization with patriarchy, the narrator no longer thinks it necessary to submit to male authority in order to live within this structure. Surfacing from the lake has changed her permanently, and she has sworn to herself that from this point onwards, she will refuse to be a victim. She will neither submit to male authority, not undermine it with traditional feminine strategies, but challenge it openly.