Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.)

Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations 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.)