Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The story of Surfacing covers nine days that the four younger people—the narrator, Joe, Anna, and David—spend on the island that had been the narrator’s childhood home and several more days when she is there alone. Though the unnamed narrator is attempting to find explanations for her father’s mysterious disappearance, the others treat it more as a vacation, filming quaint Quebec oddities during the trip and their own outdoorsy exploits on the island. They expect the narrator to entertain them by taking them fishing and blueberry picking.

The detective-novel feel of the early part of the novel is emphasized as the group hunts for traces of the narrator’s father on the island and as the narrator searches the cabin for something that might indicate his whereabouts. The past gradually comes into sharper focus for the narrator as she finds things in the cabin that trigger memories of her childhood and her young adult years. Memories of her wedding and her child are juxtaposed with memories of her school years and images from drawings she produced as a child that her mother kept in scrapbooks.

After finding childlike drawings of strange animals and figures among her father’s papers, the narrator concludes that he must have gone crazy as he spent another winter alone in the isolated cabin. She fears that he is alive on the island and a danger to her friends. The forced intimacy on the island is also proving dangerous, as David and Anna bicker and insult each other while Joe broods silently.

Digging further into her father’s papers, while the others try to amuse themselves with reading old paperbacks from the cabin or working on a film called “Random Samples,” the narrator comes across letters from an archaeologist to her father. Apparently, the odd drawings were not indications of her father’s madness but sketches of ancient Indian rock paintings from around the area....

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Atwood’s novel raises many issues about women and about modern society. The narrator’s need to control her destiny at the end of the novel arises out of the drifting young adult years when she let others—such as the married professor with whom she had the affair—make choices for her. Atwood explores how women react when they cannot live as they desire. The narrator responded to her abortion by building more socially acceptable fantasies to hide her behavior from herself and others. Anna responds by playing the victim role: She loves David and defines herself as his wife, so she endures his cruel jokes and his infidelity.

Likewise, the narrator’s namelessness can be seen to signify the role of women in a society where they are not valued as individuals. Her lack of a title emphasizes her lack of secure role or position. Her namelessness also suggests that the search that she undertakes is something all women must do—she is Everywoman. Many critics see the novel as exemplifying a female quest. The characters and events can be viewed as archetypal patterns that resonate with mythology and folklore about heroic women.

Because of the recognition gained by Atwood’s poetry and her first novel, The Edible Woman (1969), Surfacing was not released in obscurity. Critics recognized in it Atwood’s previously established patterns of feminism, Canadian nationalism, and ecological issues. Surfacing, however, is the novel after which Atwood began to be considered as a public voice for women. Some critics made the link between the victimization of female characters and a postcolonial Canadian attitude of victimization.

Literary Techniques

Critical commentary on Surfacing has described it as "a poet's novel," given its spare, elliptical, and imagistic texture. The prose of the novel weaves a rich mythic context in which the protagonist's experiences, developed in a three part structure, suggest the traditional mythic hero's progression from recognition through initiation to return. Yet her difficulty in reconciling with society following her transformative experiences in the wilderness provides what has been termed "poetic meta-criticism of the mythic process itself."

Told in the first person by an unnamed speaker, the narrative unfolds in the present tense with the immediacy of a film being projected before the reader. The resulting monologue seems to exist in a claustrophobic vacuum: the protagonist is talking to herself, since she admits her reluctance to share her emotions or personal history with the friends she has brought with her on this mission. Like other Atwood heroines, she hides her real self, often losing that self in the process. Her narration is interrupted, however, by numerous elusive flashbacks setting forth her memories of family life in the Quebec outback and her subsequent adult experiences in urban Ontario. Importantly, those memories prove duplicitous, and their retraction is the necessary precondition of her eventual spiritual and psychic renewal. The failed marriage in fact never occurred, nor had a child been born; instead, the true memory is of an abortion she had agreed to years earlier.

Atwood's experimental form shatters any clear distinctions between realistic and fantastic modes of fiction as she blends both into a story that is by turns satirically incisive, lyrically evocative, and startlingly surreal in its depiction of the narrator's descent into and resurrection from madness.

Ideas for Group Discussions

Surfacing offers a rich cache of discussion topics ranging from the politically volatile to the aesthetically sophisticated. Atwood's contributions to ongoing social debates over such issues as gender conflict, ecological catastrophe and American cultural imperialism promise to stimulate lively conversation among readers. Her indictment of consumer society does not lead her to romanticize the alternative of wilderness, however, and her unblinking depiction of the violence of the primitive should trigger commentary from those on both sides of the environmentalist divide. In this mythopoetic narrative, Atwood illustrates the contradictions rife within the human animal and invites examination of its competing physical and spiritual hungers. Those readers familiar with Jungian archetypes will find Atwood's evocations of masculinity and femininity especially intriguing. The popularity of Joseph Campbell's mythological studies will offer another useful context in which to place the narrator's psychic descent into a symbolic underworld from which she returns reborn and better equipped to face the challenges of remaining human amid a soul-deadening social order within an existentially bleak universe.

1. How does Atwood provide her own view of the so-called "family romance" —that is, the intense psychological intertwining of parents and children in a lifelong dance of negotiated relationship? What are the effects of the narrator's parents on her adult life, and why? Why is it so crucial that she come to terms with them? Do you think she achieves that goal? If so, how? If not, why not?

2. Atwood exposes and links the tricks of memory and narrative in this novel. What is the difference? Where does the past defy access, and to what extent is memory the culprit? What other factors render the past inaccessible? In terms of narrative duplicities, what is the effect of discovering a character has misrepresented the past to the reader as...

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Social Concerns

Among Margaret Atwood's early fiction, Surfacing has garnered the most critical attention and has become something of a feminist classic. Published in the same year as her polemical study of Canadian literature, Survival, Surfacing also investigates what Atwood calls "the great Canadian victim complex. If you define yourself as innocent then nothing is ever your fault ... [Y]ou will always be the object of that rather than somebody who has any choice or takes responsibility for their [sic] life. And that is not only the Canadian stance toward the world, but the usual female one." Surfacing thus merges Atwood's celebrated nationalism with her insights into heterosexual politics.

The story involves a young unnamed female protagonist whose quest to locate her missing father in the rural woodlands of Quebec becomes a search for her own •identity as she comes to accept the full weight of her past. The woman acknowledges her emotional numbness at the novel's outset; her deadened psyche embodies the alienation inevitably produced in denizens of a technocratic and capitalistic consumer society. While labeling this an "American" disease "spreading up from the South," Atwood makes clear that "Americanism" represents a habit of being in which the natural world is subordinated to economic exploitation that transcends national borders. Atwood's Canadians, far from demonstrating moral superiority, prove to be eager participants in the ravaging and selling of their country to the highest bidder. The outrages perpetrated against nature by so-called civilization, symbolized in the narrative by a wantonly killed heron, closely link the novel to the themes of Atwood's poetry.

Literary Precedents

Critical discussions of this novel repeatedly draw parallels to Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1963; see separate entry) and James Dickey's Deliverance (1970; see separate entry), both of which are also prose fictions bearing the stamp of a poet's language and habits of mind. The Bell Jar and Surfacing explore the desperate emotions of young women thrown into crisis by their own biology and the soul-crushing conditions of modern life, including its relentless sexism. While both heroines descend into seeming madness, Atwood's protagonist rejects Esther Greenwood's paralytic helplessness before her fate; the later character is a product of more feminist times and moves to re-engage the world with a newly empowered sensibility.

The links between Surfacing and Deliverance rest upon both novels' use of the wilderness as a primal testing ground whereby characters achieve a larger understanding of self. Yet any further analogy would entail a gross misreading of each text, since, as Atwood has noted, Deliverance falls squarely in an American literary tradition which posits nature as untamed, feminine, and in need of conquest through violence and killing. Surfacing, by contrast, belongs to a Canadian literary tradition in which nature is equally dangerous and other but does not trigger impulses to murder and control so much as discoveries of one's own physical participation in its processes: in other words, the human embraces the natural and is not inexorably at odds with it.

Atwood has also insisted upon the Gothic elements of the novel, calling it a ghost story in the Jamesian tradition, "in which the ghost that one sees is in fact a fragment of one's own self which has split off." In rediscovering and facing the fragments of her psyche represented by the ghostly visitations she receives from both parents, the narrator is able to perceive the need to reintegrate head and heart, which together create the distinctly "human." Her emotional nullity in the years preceding this journey typifies the excessive rationality that has split her off from her body; in attempting to become pregnant, she is trying to heal that wound. The ghost-fetus of the past offers a potent image for her own aborted existence, and that too she seeks to reverse as she takes up a newly defined future of hope and possibility, however attenuated.

Related Titles

If Surfacing involves a protagonist whose descent into an irrational underworld enables her to move beyond emotional stasis, Life Before Man (1979) introduces a trio of young Torontonians crushed by their own paralysis in the face of an impenetrable unhappiness: As one explains, "I don't know how I should live. I don't know how anyone should live. All I know is how I do live." Their stories, told through three separate lenses in brief chapters alternating among their respective points of view, unfold within the context of the Royal Ontario Museum, a monument to a desiccated past with which the classifying intellect has fallen in love. Museum curator Elizabeth and ex-lawyer cum toymaker Nate, although married and the parents of two daughters, each pursue other lovers. Lesje, Nate's paramour and a museum paleontologist, is given to fantasies where she dwells as the only human among indifferent dinosaurs. Only Chris, Elizabeth's lover and a museum taxidermist, proves himself averse to the stagnant sexual intrigues of the others, but his indulgence of his passions in defiance of the cautious rationalism behind the bourgeois code of conduct to which the others ultimately adhere, leads him to the grand gesture of suicide. His quest for transcendence remains incomplete; descent is not followed by regeneration. But Lesje's careless disregard of her birth control regimen so as to court pregnancy offers a glimmer of hope akin to that in Surfacing, Lesje seems ready to jettison her enthrallment to the past so as to enter a future conceived on wholly new terms. Atwood's poem entitled "A Night in the Royal Ontario Museum" in the collection The Animals in That Country (1968) further demonstrates her fascination with places where once-living creatures are "fixed" and ossified.

In The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970), an early work based upon actual writings left by a pioneer Canadian woman, Atwood creates a cycle of poems that explore the peculiar impact of wilderness upon the human psyche. An artist at heart like the narrator of Surfacing, Susanna records her responses to nature's primitive power, its deflation of the illusions she had brought with her to the frontier, and its transcendent patterns of death and renewal. A motion picture entitled The Journals of Susanna Moody made in 1972 is available from Universal Educational and Visual Arts.

Finally, Atwood has cited a short story entitled "Under Glass" (from Dancing Girls and Other Stories, 1977) as "a practice run" for the madness of her narrator in Surfacing.


A 1984 feature film was made of the novel starring Joseph Bottoms and Kathleen Beller. It is available from Ingram Entertainment Inc.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

A Woman's Place
Women's struggle for equal rights in the Western world gained slow momentum during the middle decades...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
The novel is related through the narrator's point of view. Atwood never provides her protagonist with a...

(The entire section is 523 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1970s: Canadians, as well as their American neighbors, struggle over the issue of abortion. Although abortion is legal,...

(The entire section is 245 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Investigate the history of relations between Canada and the United States. Why do you think the narrator has such a strong dislike for...

(The entire section is 161 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Kathleen Beller in the 1980 film version of the novel Published by Gale Cengage

Surfacing was made into a film by a Canadian production company in 1981. It starred Joseph Bottoms and Kathleen Beller, was directed...

(The entire section is 36 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Margaret Atwood sets The Handmaid's Tale (1986) in the futuristic, totalitarian society of the Republic...

(The entire section is 119 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Christ, Carol P. Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest. Boston: Beacon Press, 1980. Discusses women’s quests and spiritual awakenings. A chapter on Atwood is entitled “Refusing to Be Victim.”

Davey, Frank. Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1984. Provides a useful biography of Atwood which is interspersed with quotes from interviews. Also examines her poetry, novels, short fiction, and criticism.

Davidson, Arnold E., and Cathy N. Davidson, eds. The Art of Margaret Atwood. Toronto: Anansi, 1981. Thirteen essays dealing with Atwood as a poet,...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Delany, Paul, Review in New York Times Book Review, March 4, 1973, p. 5.

Godard, Barbara,...

(The entire section is 208 words.)