Surfacing is a postmodern novel in that its ideological strategy is to rethink traditional views and question conventions. Its themes are numerous, virtually unlimited, one of the reasons it is the most widely written about of all Atwood’s many works. Foremost is the portrayal of male/female relationships and the examination of power relationships of all kinds. It is also a psychological quest. Examining her life under extreme circumstances, the narrator experiences herself as part of a larger wholeness. The dead heron is thus more than itself; it is Christ crucified, the death of the cosmic harmony, humanity destroying the very nature of which it is a part. The feminist themes merge with the autonomy of the individual and the sacredness of life.
All the themes are interrelated. The narrator reclaims integrity as she acknowledges her complicity in the abortion rather than blaming everything on “him” or “they.” The new life that is possibly growing in her will be given a chance to be more fully human than the violent actions of the historical past and present generations. The narrator refuses to relinquish her wilderness landscape to resort developers; it must be preserved for itself and its ecological system. Individuals must accept others regardless of differences and borders and languages that divide them. Artists must be allowed to and be willing to speak their truth and not be perverted into “random samples” of the bizarre and sensational. Rather than Canadians blaming Americans or children blaming parents, each person must accept responsibility, be compassionate, and work to find a third possibility beyond the dichotomous poles of “killer” or “victim.” Such moral engagement demands actions that emerge from an understanding of the interconnectedness of all life.
One of the major themes of the novel is the recovery of a childhood paradise enriched through the wisdom of experience. At the end of the novel after the narrator has descended as far as she can into a primal state of nothingness, her parents appear to her as if in a dream, each offering a legacy of hope in the future. As she goes to the fence where they stood and places his feet in the footprints, she discovers that they are her own. The island itself thus functions as a metaphor for an Edenic innocence that can exist only in imagination. Now that the narrator has come to appreciate and understand the true significance of the island she called childhood, she can return to civilization with knowledge of the secret places of the soul she had to discover for herself.
This pattern story of loss, quest, and rebirth underlies the novel’s overall structure and grants it the quality of myth. Embedded within this classic structure are many other themes and motifs, all tightly interwoven. The most obvious is the wilderness theme, which uses the presumed purity of the natural world to judge the corruption of civilization. The narrator, like her parents, seems to abhor everything associated with modern technology, from hospitals to factories to birth-control pills sold in moon-shaped packages “so that the woman can pretend she’s still natural, cyclical instead of a chemical slot machine.” Americans in particular are associated with machines, pollution, and senseless killing; the novel opens with an allusion to...
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The scars of modern living appear everywhere in the characters' lives. Families collapse before generational conflicts; marriages become hollow sites for predatory power games; children are abandoned or aborted. Madness threatens human nervous systems so attenuated they prove incapable of meaningful communication. Both because of and in retaliation against the condition of the postmodern world, Atwood's narrator submerges herself within "wilderness," here depicted as an embodiment of the irrational energies still operating beyond the control of "culture." There she glimpses alternative realities residing below duplicitous social surfaces.
The mythic nature of the protagonist's breakdown is reinforced by her renunciation of all the accouterments of civilization, even language, in exchange for a primal identification with the creatures of the forest. These processes of rebirth are triggered by a watery descent into the world of the dead, where she discovers her drowned father's corpse and encounters the specters of both parents as well as that of her aborted child. All of this shakes her from the cool aloofness that has allowed her to remain a neutral observer of her own self-nullifying existence. But the novel's conclusion is an ambivalent one: the still unnamed speaker, upon "surfacing" again to normative perceptions of reality, plans to return to her urban world and lover, now that she believes she is pregnant with his child. While she realizes "we will have to begin again," she also concedes, "we will probably fail." She cannot leave that world behind because she herself is a hybrid: Shaped by both civilization and wilderness, she is not totally at home in either.
What she attains is a greater understanding of her humanity and the complicity in human evil that entails. Trying to retreat into primitivism merely feeds the self-deluding escapism of the victim, a posture Atwood regularly critiques. Thus the narrator of Surfacing concludes, "This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing . . . . [W]ithdrawing is no longer possible and the alternative is death." Atwood regards Surfacing as a fiction about coming to terms with "the nature of human limitation." If one is to escape passivity one must recognize the necessity of survival, which in turn implicates one in the corruption of the human condition. While there is no alternative if one is to avoid self-destruction, there is also the obligation to become morally aware of one's actions and responsible for their consequences. It is, finally, the agonizing process of coming to informed consciousness about one's life that imparts whatever psychological coherence is possible to this representative Atwood protagonist.