Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 696
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. David and Anna continuously bicker and belittle each other. Joe, who seldom speaks, has decided that this is the time when he must force the narrator to tell him she loves him and will marry him. All three companions thus contribute to the strains on the narrator.
On a hiking trip, they find a dead heron hanging with a rope around its neck. The narrator assumes Americans have wantonly killed the bird just for the sake of killing. David sees it merely as something to add to his amateur film, “Random Samples.”
The narrator believes her parents would not have approved of her life after she left home. Frequently, she recalls scenes from her marriage and divorce, and she slowly begins to admit to herself that much of what she wants to imagine about her recent years is false. There was no wedding; the scene she has in her memory is actually of the time her already married lover sent her to have an abortion. What her current lover, Joe, admires as her calmness she considers her numbness, an inability to feel.
The narrator finds strange stick-figure drawings that indicate that her father had discovered ancient Indian petroglyphs. Deducing that his most recent finds are on the rock edges of the lake but underwater, she repeatedly dives looking for them, but instead encounters dark limbs and open eyes. It is her father’s body, weighted down by the camera around his neck, but she refuses to recognize it as such. That night, she pulls Joe outside on the ground and has urgent, impersonal sex with him.
When the others leave the island as scheduled, she stays behind. For the next few days, she abandons all forms of civilization. She leaves the cabin, eats only what berries or plants she can find, and attunes herself to the “native gods.” In a kind of visionary madness, she sees something of her father, and she sees her mother in a characteristic pose, standing with her arms outstretched to feed birds. After flashes of insight into their lives and her own, she “surfaces” with the knowledge that she must protect the life that may be forming inside her. Perhaps that baby will be the first “true human.” She hears Joe calling her. He has come back. She thinks she will try to trust him; but above all, she says, she must refuse to be a victim.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443
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 strung up in a tree, insulted even in death. The woman is sure that insensitive American hunters are responsible for this grotesque crucifixion. She sees her own vulnerability reflected in that of the humiliated animal.
Her journey is also a quest. The woman must discover what spiritual legacy her parents have left her. After reaching her father’s cottage, she plunges into the nearby lake. There she finds his submerged body, a Shakespearean vision of sea transformation. The shock of discovery brings healing. She surfaces, divining the gift of her father to have been insight. Her mother has left for her an awareness that the rhythms of nature, so at one with menstruation, childbirth, and menopause, are the same harmonies that Canadian Indians once understood. She deliberately conceives a child by Joe, resolving to return to the city, where she will practice her profession, give birth, and sustain new life as an awakened woman.
Surfacing may at first seem excessively introspective, lacking the narrative suspense of other Atwood novels, but it is likely to remain the favorite of readers primarily interested in spiritual and psychological insight. Speaking less directly than other Atwood writings to the political concerns of the feminist movement, its probings make it the most profound of her writings and possibly the most enduring.