The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The characters in Surfacing all contribute to the narrator’s sense of alienation and victimization. David, a college communications teacher, is talkative but insensitive. Most characteristically, he imitates the sounds of movie cartoon characters. Egotistical and controlling, he forces Anna to strip for his film. He fancies himself clever and superior to others but is dependent upon his wife to reinforce this attitude. Anna shares the love/hate codependency, trapped in her marriage but constantly straining to please him. When the narrator opens the movie camera and throws all the film in the lake, Anna, rather than acknowledging female support, only says that David will be vindictive.

Joe, a potter who makes oddly mangled pots that no one buys, seldom says much, most often grunting responses, and the heavy hair on his back and body emphasizes the image of a primitive, animalistic man. He wants the narrator to say the words “I love you” and to marry him, a repeated refrain that indicates his insecurity. Once he has sex with Anna, perhaps intending to make the narrator jealous. David, in turn, tries to get the narrator to sleep with him, but she refuses. It is Joe she pulls to the earth, watching the moon over his shoulder in an almost primordial mating, and at the end of the novel, it is Joe who comes back to the island. He will not wait long, she thinks, and she is not quite ready to answer his call, but she will soon, because his very...

(The entire section is 488 words.)

Surfacing Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

The narrator

The narrator, the main protagonist, an unnamed commercial artist and illustrator in her late twenties. She is divorced and the mother of one child. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator is returning to an island on the U.S.-Canadian border, where she will look for her father, a “voluntary recluse” who has disappeared. She spent much of her childhood on this island, except for winters. David and Anna are doing the narrator a favor by driving her and her boyfriend, Joe, to the remote island, which is inaccessible by boat or train. The narrator is disoriented, introverted, and fearful, trying to recover from the shock of an abortion and a broken love affair with a married man. After the four have stayed on the island for a week, the narrator hides from the group and remains on the island when the others leave. She engages in a ritual of grieving for her parents and of shedding the garments and other vestiges of civilization.


Joe, her boyfriend, an avant-garde potter who teaches night school. He seldom speaks. Joe and David are doing a makeshift film, including Anna and the narrator in much of the footage. They plan to put the miscellaneous clips together and call it “Random Samples.” After Joe asks the narrator to marry him and she refuses, a series of conflicts unfolds. In the final scene of the novel, Joe returns to the island with Paul to look for her. He calls to her and waits for her response. The novel ends with the narrator on the brink of making this decision.


Anna, the narrator’s so-called best friend, though the narrator has known her for only two months. She is somewhat older than the narrator. Insecure in her marriage of nine years to David, Anna dyes her hair, hides behind a coat of makeup, and worries about getting fat and losing David. She suspects him of being unfaithful. To make her week on the island away from the city and civilization tolerable, she reads many detective novels and rations her cigarettes. Although Anna laughs about David’s...

(The entire section is 848 words.)

Surfacing The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

This profoundly disturbed woman narrates her own story with fragmented and obsessive memories which are themselves suspect, given the nature of her consciousness. Her tendency to describe everything she relates, from the chopping of wood to the gathering of vegetables, in images of amputation and mutilation suggests the power of the anger and guilt she has repressed Moreover, she has invented a fantasy about her past life—a fantasy which she so clearly believes that the reader is likely to be misled as well.

As she tells it, she has recently divorced her husband and abandoned his child, apparently because he treated her like an object and she lost the ability to love. The trouble is in the neck, which isolates mind from body, she explains, observing that her own neck must have closed over, shutting her into her head and preventing her from feeling any emotion whatsoever. The reality which finally “surfaces” is that she has had an illegal abortion several years earlier and has been unable to live with her guilt at betraying her parents and her own childhood horror of ever hurting any living creature. It is out of self-hatred and a profound desire for atonement that the narrator not seeks to isolate herself from the human world she identifies as full of deceit, exploitation, and violence.

Joe, the narrator’s current boyfriend, is a thinly drawn character who represents the opposite of the fake husband/lover, the father of the aborted fetus. The narrator was the victim in that first relationship—having the abortion because he wanted it, accepting his judgment that women could not become true artists, believing that he could love her and still be faithful to wife and children. As her art professor, he gave her C’s in proof of his aesthetic objectivity. Joe is not nearly so self-confident or dominating. He is the one who loves too much, who cannot mask his own vulnerability, whose face contorts with pain when she refuses to say, “I love you.” Every time the narrator sells one of her drawings or gets a new commission, he mangles another pot. Joe is furry and like a buffalo, the narrator asserts, but because “he is only half-formed,” in the end she knows that she can trust him. He will, in fact, be waiting for her when she finally surfaces from her descent into madness.

If Joe represents honesty and possibility, David represents hypocrisy and inauthenticity. Despite his anti-American diatribes, he turns out to be as destructive and exploitative as he accuses the “fascist-pig Yanks” of being When...

(The entire section is 1041 words.)

Surfacing Characters

Atwood's unnamed narrator is a woman at long last undertaking a quest for moral self-clarification. A commercial artist and illustrator who once aspired to a more idealistic painterly career, she is working on sketches for a volume of Quebec fairy tales as the novel begins. Clearly reveling in the Gothic extravagances of that genre, she soon finds her own circumstances in the narrative mirroring the grotesque mysteries common to such tales. Despite having been estranged from her parents for years after a supposedly disastrous marriage of her own, she has returned to the Quebec wilderness, where a large part of her youth had been spent, because her father has been reported missing and is feared dead. She is accompanied by her lover Joe, an unsuccessful potter and night school instructor, as well as married friends Anna and David. Toward none of these people does the narrator feel any commitment or affection, and as time passes she grows increasingly distant from each of them until she ultimately flees their company altogether.

Much of the central action of the novel deals with the protagonist's tormented memories of her parents and her gradual reconciliation with each of them as she comes to accept not only their deaths but their different philosophies toward life. Her father, a botanist who alternated between remote field work and urban desk assignments, taught his children a rational, scientific response to the world of phenomena; it was he who once trained the narrator in the survivalist tactics necessary to endure the wilderness. His mysterious disappearance in the present creates much of the surface tension of the plot: has the isolation and harshness of the raw natural environment at last driven him insane? Has he capitulated to suicidal despair? Has senility made him the victim of some fatal misstep? The narrator has only the curious drawings found among his papers to guide her to the answers.

In contrast, her mother had...

(The entire section is 652 words.)

Surfacing Character Analysis

Surfacing Anna

Anna is David's wife and the narrator's "best woman friend" for the past two months. Although she appears "always cheerful," Anna:


(The entire section is 160 words.)

Surfacing David

David is Anna's husband. David teaches communications classes in an adult education program with Joe. Although he tries to pass himself off...

(The entire section is 319 words.)

Surfacing Joe

Joe is the narrator's often untalkative lover. She admits that "speech to him was a task, a battle, words mustered behind his beard and...

(The entire section is 369 words.)

Surfacing Mother

The narrator's mother is also dead when the novel begins. Her influence in her daughter's life becomes evident as the narrator begins her...

(The entire section is 155 words.)

Surfacing Narrator

The narrator is the novel's main character, a young woman returning to the remote island on a lake in Northern Quebec, where she spent much...

(The entire section is 441 words.)

Surfacing Other Characters

The narrator's father is dead at the beginning of the novel, but she strongly feels his influence throughout...

(The entire section is 193 words.)