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.)

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.)