Margaret Atwood Atwood, Margaret (Vol. 13)

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Atwood, Margaret 1939–

Atwood is a Canadian poet, novelist, critic, and scriptwriter. At times nearly confessional in nature, hers is intensely personal poetry, praised for its imaginative imagery and striking detail. Elements of fantasy pervade her fiction and poetry alike. Atwood's tightly controlled, deceptively simple style allows her work an impact which Melvin Maddocks calls "the kick of a perfume bottle converted into a Molotov cocktail." (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 4, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

Patricia Morley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

You could call it an adventure thriller set in the wilds of northern Quebec. You could call it a detective story centering on the search for the main character's missing father. You could call it a psychological novel, a study of madness both individual and social. You could call it a religious novel which examines the origin and nature of the human lust to kill and destroy. You could call it any of these and I wouldn't quarrel. But you'd better call it a novel to be reckoned with, a step in the direction of that mythic creature, the Great Canadian Novel, whose siren song echoes mockingly in the ears of our writers. (p. 99)

[Margaret Atwood] said that it took a stay in Boston to make her realize she was a Canadian. This is interesting, in connection with a motif in [Surfacing] which might appear as anti-American until one examines it more closely. Americans tend to destroy what they can't eat or take home. Americans prefer powerboats to canoes, and build dams at the cost of flooding and killing the land. Come now, murmurs the voice of reason and fair play, Americans aren't the only ones who do these things. But it's okay, Atwood knows this too.

In Surfacing, the American is a metaphor of modern man in his most unlovable state: "It doesn't matter what country they're from, my head said, they're still Americans, they're what's in store for us, what we are turning into". Eyes blank behind dark glasses, they spread like a virus: if you look and think and talk like them, then you are them. We're all Americans now, evolving, "halfway to machine, the leftover flesh atrophied and diseased". Atwood's American is a fictional version of Jacques Ellul's technological man who has let his mechanical means come to dominate and determine his ends, his values, his goals. (pp. 99-100)

The narrator, like so many of the characters in the novels of Hugh MacLennan, is an orphan figure, a female Odysseus, a disturbed and frightened individual in search of a lost father and a lost way of life. She is in search of roots….

We find we can't believe everything the narrator tells us. She can't believe herself. A modified stream-of-consciousness technique is effective here. The last half-dozen chapters become increasingly surreal and fantastic. After some literal deep-diving, where the drowned body of her father merges in her mind with her aborted child, the narrator accepts the mistakes of her earlier life. She returns, like a time-traveller home from a prehistoric junket, to present realities. Withdrawal, secrecy, non-feeling is no longer possible. To 'surface' is to choose love, defined by its failures, over the safety of death: "To trust is to let go". (p. 100)

Patricia Morley, "Multiple Surfaces," in Journal of Canadian Fiction (reprinted by permission from Journal of Canadian Fiction, 2050 Mackay St., Montreal, Quebec H3G 2J1, Canada), Vol. 1, No. 4, 1972, pp. 99-100.

Gloria Onley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature … Margaret Atwood argues that every country or culture has a single unifying and informing symbol at its core: for America, the Frontier; for England, the Island; for Canada, Survival, la Survivance. In her Afterword to The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) she had previously diagnosed the national mental illness as paranoid schizophrenia …; here she develops the idea that most Canadian writers must be neurotic because, "given a choice of the negative or positive aspects of any symbol—sea as life-giving Mother, sea as what your ship goes...

(The entire section is 5,968 words.)