Originally published: 1972
Part detective novel, part psychological thriller, Surfacing is the story of a talented woman artist who goes in search of her missing father on a remote island in northern Quebec. Setting out with her lover and another young couple, she soon finds herself captivated by the isolated setting, where a marriage begins to fall apart, violence and death lurk just beneath the surface, and sex becomes a catalyst for conflict and dangerous choices. Surfacing is a work permeated with an aura of suspense, complex with layered meanings, and written in brilliant, diamond-sharp prose. Here is a rich mine of ideas from an extraordinary writer about contemporary life and nature, families and marriage, and about women fragmented…and becoming whole.
Thoughts, Opinions and Themes
It’s fitting that I’m starting this challenge with Surfacing, because Surfacing was the first book I ever reviewed when I started book blogging. It was the book that began this crazy journey of talking about books on the internet. It also touches upon a lot of themes that are constantly coming up in Margaret Atwood’s work as a whole.
Before sitting down to write this post I re-read my original review and for the most part my opinions haven’t changed. It’s a bizarre book, and none of the characters are good people. But I definitely enjoyed it more this time around. Now that I was familiar with the plot I was able to notice a lot more of the nuances of the text and the message she was trying to get across. There’s a lot to discuss when it comes to this novel, and many, I’m sure, can do it more justice than I. But the three ideas/themes that stuck out the most while I was re-reading Surfacing were the environment, national identity and women’s role(s) is society, so I’m going to break them up and talk about each in turn. If this works out ok I’m hoping to use it as the format for all of these posts.
Surfacing is all about questions of identity. Particularly national identity. This is manifested in a couple ways. The first comes to light when the narrator arrives back home. She’s an English speaker in a very French village in Quebec. One thing I really liked about Surfacing is that it is so situated in a specific point in time. At the time of the story, rising Quebec nationalism was a very pressing issues in Canada, and the tension is immediately clear from the narrator’s first conversation after arriving.
But the questions of identity and who belongs where/who has sovereignty over a certain place doesn’t stop there. As it is for many Canadians there is the constant issues of staking claim to an identity that is *NOT* American. Surfacing constantly makes reference to the continuing American “intrusion” into Canada. Missile silos, tourist cabins, trash at all the camping sites the characters visits, references to overfishing etc. One character, David, even theorizes about an invasion to steal our water. A theory I’ve often heard in real life as well.
But what I found especially interesting is how the narrator begins to link the idea of “American” with certain behaviours, rather than national boundaries. She associates it with anyone who commits senseless violence and over consumes. But the main culprits of these behaviours in this book are actually from Ontario. She assumes they’re overfishing and disturbing the lake with their power boat and blames them for the senseless murder of a dead heron. She refers to them repeatedly as Americans – even after we know they’re technically not.
The narrator’s anger toward Americans is directly linked in the environmental ideals found in the novel. The narrator has a tremendous amount of respect for nature and is distrustful of those who don’t feel the same way. This novel pre-dates the environmental movement but you can see it’s foundation throughout.
Of all the scenes that deal with environmental protection and/or desecration the one that got me the most was the Heron. The narrator, Joe, David and Anna spend a day canoeing and in their travels they come across a dead Heron. The once beautiful bird had been shot and hung from a tree. A completely senseless killing and the majestic creature had simply been left to rot. Absolutely no respect or reverence for the beauty of the wilderness. It was a scene that made me disappointed with humanity and made me realize how relevant Surfacing’s themes still are today.
Women’s Role in Society
But the most obvious and pressing themes in Surfacing (in my opinion) is society’s expectations on women. It touches on a woman’s place as a wife, mother, sexual being etc. This is expressed in various ways. At one point the narrator and Anna discuss contraception, and the idea of it as a male invention to be imposed on women. At other points the issue of male dominance over women is raised in regards to marriage, sex, language, pregnancy. I can’t remember where I read this, but in one analysis of Surfacing I read that “men treat relationships as war and women are the spoils.” This statement hits the nail right on the head.
These ideas of men’s psychological control over women are perfectly exemplified by David and Anna. David is male dominance incarnate. He’s constantly tried to control everything Anna does and the way he treats her makes me cringe. When Anna and the narrator are discussing make-up she also makes the comparison of Anna being a doll and therefore David’s plaything.
Eventually the narrator feels more and more alienated by social pressures the she associates with her gender and this is where this book started to lose me. Her response is complete withdrawal from society. She reverts to an animalistic lifestyle, reasoning, I guess, that she’ll peacefully co-exist with nature. Though I understand her alienation and the pressure she feels, we have such completely different responses. Hers is clearly flight where mine has always been fight in these kind of situations. Throughout university I was always involved in social justice groups and I have always been outspoken about my beliefs regarding women’s issues and rights.
So though I enjoy this novel and feel strongly about all the issues presented within it, the ending leaves me wanting a different conclusion and I always feel very torn about it as a whole.
Have you read Surfacing? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Next up: Lady Oracle! Will you be reading it along with me? Discussion on February 25.