Margaret Atwood’s second published novel, Surfacing was immediately popular with readers, and it established the author as a major North American writer. The often-read and often-studied novel has become a touchstone for literary criticism, particularly feminist, archetypal, and psychological criticism. The novel has a number of layers: On one level it is a detective novel, on another a gothic ghost story reminiscent of both William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603) and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898). On still another level, it is a wilderness-quest novel, and on a fourth level, it is a mythic story like that of the Greek goddess Persephone taken to live in the underworld. Through these many levels and through language—and particularly the novel’s poetic use of metaphor and motif—Atwood weaves together many subtle issues and ideas.
The arc of the novel describes the narrator diving and surfacing—into herself or her psyche, into her own past, and into the Canadian wilderness. From the beginning of the story, readers sense something missing in the narrator and her friends: The narrator claims that Anna is her best friend yet has known her for only two months. David and Anna are married yet constantly try to tear each other down. The narrator lives with Joe, but she does not love him and cannot explain why they are together. It becomes clear that the novel is the narrator’s spiritual quest to find her lost identity, and that her identity is tied up with her past—with her dead mother, with a father from whom she is estranged, and with her own sexual history,...
(The entire section is 677 words.)