(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Atwood’s unstable and less-than-trustworthy narrator undermines the security of the plot but causes readers to focus instead on her mental state and interpretations. The events that she reports are not as important as how she sees them. Because of her scrambled and deliberately evasive memories, the narrator provides an example of a mind unable to accept modern civilization and a psychological study of a woman attempting to cope.

Atwood’s didacticism and moral message are especially evident in the conflict between civilization and nature. She questions whether the so-called progress of culture is only an illusion. Canadian nationalism also figures in the story, as David and the narrator rail against Americans or people with Americanized attitudes who kill animals for fun and pollute the environment. The narrator becomes increasingly alienated from civilization, yet David and Anna are securely anchored in modern technological society. Joe remains on the border—his silence shows that he has not been completely coopted by modern existence. At the end of the story, he is described as an ambassador or mediator between civilization and wilderness.

After she has surfaced to the knowledge about her delusions and past lies, the narrator needs to reject the trappings of modern life. Her destruction of the film is one aspect of this, as is her abandonment of her clothing in the lake—a baptism or ritual cleansing. She is attempting to become part of nature because her years of trying to become civilized were unsuccessful. When searchers return to the island for her, she is afraid that the natural woman she is becoming will be treated like an animal— brutally killed or put on display.

The question “What is natural?” is also raised in the love relationships in Surfacing. The narrator feels...

(The entire section is 751 words.)