Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
Margaret Atwood is an internationally renowned writer whose work has been translated into more than twenty languages and published in dozens of countries. She has received numerous awards and honors for her poetry, novels, short stories, children’s books, literary criticism, and nonfiction. Her work reflects her position as white, Canadian, and female, but she challenges these and all labels and the limitations they place on self-understanding and understanding others.
Surfacing was Atwood’s second novel, and it is an outstanding example of her ability to use the written word to convey her beliefs and to argue the urgency of reexamining traditional ways of thinking. This questioning is consistent throughout her fiction, but the writing approach or genre she uses varies markedly from novel to novel: for example, the comic pathos of the first, The Edible Woman (1969), the dystopian future of The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), and the historical novel based on an actual nineteenth century criminal case, Alias Grace (1996).
Surfacing can be read on many levels and thus appeals to diverse readers. It is a detective story, a psychological study of self-discovery, a realistic study of male-female relationships, an ecological tract, a sociological examination of power, a recasting of fairy tales in terms of modern sexual politics, and a philosophical discourse on the meaning of life.
Most significant is Atwood’s aesthetic concern for language. The writing in Surfacing at first is flat and objective, as though the unnamed narrator is observing from the outside, unmoved by event. As the protagonist moves closer to what society would call madness, however, the language changes, just as it does again during her visions and during her return to face society. The writing is at times experimental, at others poetic. Always, it is compelling and powerful. Surfacing is a novel to read and re-read.