Book Review: Surfacing By Margaret Atwood

The novel Surfacing is an eloquent work by Margaret Eleanor Atwood, a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, and environmental activist. Surfacing (1972) has become a touchstone for feminist and psychological criticism as it describes the narrator’s diving and surfacing: into her past life, her psyche, and the Canadian wilderness. 

The novel begins with the narrator’s search for her father, whom she doubts to be alive or dead. This idea of not knowing the truth allows the fictional reality to exist, thus creating suspense. However, knowing or not knowing does not change the reality. Significantly, the narrator believes at some level that if she isn’t aware of a death, it probably didn’t happen. The narrator herself is unsure about her observations. She seems happy living in the fictional world rather than knowing about anything fearful in reality. The entire novel is intrinsically the narrator’s internal monologue. She is struck by the things which have changed. She considers fictional reality over actual reality. There is a sense of disconnection in the narrator while she recalls her memories. Readers can feel the sense of separation and disconnection from her family. We think that we are stuck in the mind of a young woman who is mentally ill, and that leads the novel to the dreamlike style of writing. There is a sense of loss when she acknowledges her father, mother, and brother’s memories. She addresses her family members as “them” instead of “us”. This sense of separation is not only from her family but also from her friends and her boyfriend. 

The Narrator knows only Anna, her “best woman friend” for two months; she claims Anna to be her best friend despite knowing her alone for two months. She wants to protect Anna from her ungenerous husband. She observed the inconsiderate acts of his husband, but she remains silent and states, ‘it was not my concern.’ This behavior is quite abnormal and seems to be the cause of the narrator’s sense of alienation. Her bodily infirmities exacerbate this alienation of her mind; she grows more and more whimsical and capricious.

When the narrator looks at the profile of her boyfriend Joe, she seems emotionless. She thinks that Joe has fallen in love with her because she has some trouble expressing her emotions and feelings. Her feelings for relationships had already died. When Joe says that they should get married, she tells him about her unhappy marriage before and that she doesn’t want to go through all this again. She admits her lack of feelings about Joe. The protagonist is confused and in search of the time when she stopped having emotions. When she states that she is trying to learn the feelings by observing other people. she remarks,

“I rehearsed emotions, naming them: joy, peace, guilt, release, love, and hate, react, relate.. you watched the others and memorised it.” (Attwood, 81)

Here the readers can quickly identify the detached impassiveness in the mind of the narrator. The narrator struggles with the intense and painful memories of her childhood. She has a sense of uneasiness about her past. Nobody provides her information to locate her father. A guide named Evans takes the narrator and her friends to her father’s island. She searches for clues regarding her father’s disappearance and becomes convinced that her father is alive. She agrees to spend more days on the island so that she can find her missing father. There she recalls all her memories and painful experiences. She thinks of her failed marriage and the loss of her child. We get to know her past through the flashbacks. She recalls the memory of her lost child. She feels so powerless to control what happened to her. She thinks that instead of going to a hospital to have the child, she had gone to an abortion clinic. This exact memory of her is painful, and all her mental trauma fades and starts making sense when her artificial reality falls apart and reveals the truth. She has failed to express her emotions due to her painful experiences, which makes her feel like a killer. While looking below the surface, she starts seeing two canoes, but one canoe is the real one. She correctly perceives her double vision. The submerged memories come to the surface of her consciousness. Her dive can be seen as a symbolic dive into her subconscious, where her repressed memories are stored. She changes her story from leaving a husband to having an affair with a professor and is forced to abort a baby. By this time, words of love and promise seem only like a trap to her.

“Her parents have taught her that besides those of elemental nature, there are other powers that must also be reckoned with: the forces of language, of mind, of society. She realises that being human, she cannot simply live in the wilderness, but must live with other people, in society and the city. Having faced her guilt, having relieved her psyche of its immense burden of repression, she can summon her fall resources to live, to bear children, to raise the first true human. One in which body and mind, emotions, and languages are united.” (Attwood, 223).

On the way to the campsite, they see a blue heron that has been hanged from a tree. The heron’s death haunts the narrator. When she sees the two campers there, she quickly assumes that they are Americans and blames them for the crime. She doesn’t like Americans. She concludes by saying that she hates Americans because she doesn’t identify with them. Also, they are representative of a culture that she sees being toxic to nature and Canadian culture. She considers them violent and destructive. David even hated Americans, and in fact, He calls them “Bloody fascist pig yanks” and “rotten capitalist bastards.” Through the narrator, Attwood examines the destructive nature of human beings towards each other and the other living creatures.      

When she gets to know her father’s death, she entirely breaks from reality because she was full of delusions about her parents. In her madness, she refuses to believe David regarding the death of her father. She connects the drawings of her father with her experiences. One of her father’s drawings increases the narrator’s sense of being more at home in the animal world than the human one. She seduced Joe to get pregnant again so that the new child will replace her lost child. She feels very much connected to motherhood. She hides herself from her friends and society so that she can protect her child from human civilization. She narrates, 

“Nobody must find out, or they will do that to me again, strap me to the death machine, emptiness, machine, legs in the metal framework, secret knives. This time I won’t let them”. (Attwood, 119) 

She stays alone on the island, living like an animal. She becomes like an animal, running all around naked, eating plants. Later on, hunger and exhaustion bring her to sanity. She realizes that she does have power, and she is not a victim anymore. Surfacing is structured like a journey of the nameless narrator in which through her association with the people and nature, she becomes aware of different victims and victimizers. Atwood wants to show the plight of a woman is similar in all parts of the world. Eventually, the narrator can find her voice and identity. She also realizes her love for Joe and refers to this change as a positive thing. The final decision of the narrator is to get rid of every unfortunate aspect of her life and live naturally. 

-By Simranpreet Kaur