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Surfacing

A remote island in the Canadian wilderness, a missing family member, an abusive marriage, and an unstable narrator—Surfacing (1972) has all the makings of a horror novel, but the intensity of Margaret Atwood's (1939-present) novel is psychological, not physical. Atwood's second novel, Surfacing follows a group of characters who venture into an island near Quebec to find the narrator's missing father. Instead of uncovering the missing man, the narrator uncovers parts of herself that have long since been repressed. Surfacing examines themes such as the domination and alienation of women and the reclamation of identity. Keep reading for a summary, an analysis, and more.

Surfacing Summary

Surfacing begins when the unnamed female narrator receives word her father has gone missing from the remote island he lives on near Quebec. The narrator hasn't been home in a long time, but she returns to the village to look for him. She is joined by her boyfriend Joe, who she is not sure she loves, and their married friends, Anna and David. The narrator's friends are working on an amateur film entitled Random Samples, hoping to film some footage for the movie during the trip.

In her hometown, the narrator first seeks out her father's friend, Paul, but he doesn't have any additional information. Slightly weary, the narrator and her friends hitch a ride to the island and search her father's cabin. It has long since been abandoned, but the narrator believes he is alive and roaming the island like a madman. They search the area for her father, but they quickly realize searching the entire island with four people is futile. The narrator finds strange drawings on her father's desk, and their incoherency appears to confirm her belief he has gone mad. Part of her secretly believes he might be dead.

Surfacing, island in Canada with lake, StudySmarter

Fig. 1: The novel is set on an island in the Canadian wilderness.

The group decides to stay on the island for a week, enjoying their time together and casually looking for the narrator's father. Over the course of their stay, the narrator is shocked to discover Anna and David's marriage is not as healthy as it appears on the outside. David is emotionally abusive, pressuring Anna to wear makeup and belittling her. He also cheats on her and openly flirts with the narrator in front of the entire group. David justifies his behavior by claiming Anna has affairs and deserves it.

Meanwhile, the narrator and Joe hit a rocky patch in their own relationship when he proposes out of the blue. She refuses his offer, leaving him feeling jilted and upset. The narrator reflects on her ex-husband and their child, whom she left years before. She worries about her inability to feel anything, especially love.

Eventually, the narrator realizes her father's seemingly incoherent drawings are actually sketches of ancient rock paintings he had been studying. The narrator resolves to find the location of the paintings, determined to find clues to her father's whereabouts. The first attempt with the others is unsuccessful, and she later goes out alone to keep looking. Now believing the location has been submerged underwater, the narrator goes diving. She is horrified to discover what she believes to be a dead baby at the bottom of the lake.

Surfacing, Ancient cave drawings, StudySmarter

Fig. 2: Grace realizes her father has been studying ancient wall paintings.

The trauma of seeing the dead baby brings a suppressed memory to the surface of the narrator's mind: the picture of a family she has created in her mind was never real. She never had a child herself but decided instead to have an abortion. And her "ex-husband" is just her married art professor with whom she had an affair. The personal discoveries and shock send the narrator into a mental breakdown. She begins to believe her father was after divine information on the gods.

A police boat arrives on the island not long after, bringing news of the narrator's father's death. Already in her psychosis, the narrator refuses to believe her father is gone. She decides to have sex with Joe despite the tension between them. She hopes to replace her dead, aborted baby with a new, living one. The next day, Anna, David, and Joe leave the island, but the narrator hides from them and will not board the boat. They leave her behind.

The narrator continues to slip deeper into her madness. She slashes all her clothes and other belongings and begins sleeping outside in a lair she creates. She has hallucinations of her parents and believes a sacrifice will bring them back to life. The narrator also becomes convinced she is pregnant with a god.

Surfacing, Naked woman with leaves, StudySmarter

Fig. 3: The narrator runs around the island naked, acting like an animal.

The narrator's sanity gradually returns as hunger and thirst take hold of her body. One day, she sees herself in the mirror and undergoes a major mental shift. She realizes she is just an ordinary woman and has power over her own life. When Paul and Joe come back to the island to search for the narrator, she watches from the woods and realizes she trusts Joe and might grow to love him. The novel ends before she definitively decides to get on the boat and leave the island.

Surfacing Characters

The main characters in Surfacing are the unnamed narrator, her boyfriend, Joe, and their friends, David and Anna.

The Unnamed Narrator

The narrator remains unnamed throughout the novel, emphasizing how she functions as a symbol of the feminine struggle to develop a personal identity within the patriarchy. She spends much of the novel searching for her missing father, oscillating between hope that he is alive, grief that he is dead, and fear that he has gone mad. The narrator also struggles to navigate her unloving relationship with her boyfriend and her fear that she is emotionless. She exemplifies an unreliable narrator, as her understanding of reality constantly twists, transforms, and contradicts itself. At the novel's end, the narrator sinks into madness, throwing off her complicated human identity and embracing that of an animal.

Surfacing, Girl with hands covering face, StudySmarter

Fig. 4: The narrator's sense of identity and reality are constant sources of confusion.

Joe

The narrator's boyfriend, Joe is depicted as an enigmatic, ambiguous figure. The narrator's understanding of Joe shifts throughout the novel, and she never fully understands him or his motives. Joe becomes angry after the narrator rejects his proposal, but at the end of the novel, he returns to the island to search for her despite her rejection. He seems to genuinely want to be with the narrator, but her biased perception of him makes it difficult to get an accurate depiction of his true nature.

David

Anna's husband and the narrator's friend, David is a controlling, abusive, manipulative man. He is the picture of male dominance and does everything he can to make his wife submissive to his demands. He cheats on her, insults her, and objectifies her. While the narrator initially thought David and Anna were in a happy marriage, she soon realizes their marriage is actually built on control.

When David tries to convince the narrator to have sex with him, he tells her Joe and Anna are having sex. What does that tell you about David's relationship with sex? What about to other characters?

Anna

David's wife and the narrator's friend, Anna seems to normalize abuse in a marriage. At first, the narrator idealizes Anna's role as a wife, but the narrator soon realizes their marriage is not one to envy. Anna's resignation to David's emotional and sometimes physical abuse makes the narrator apprehensive of the idea of marriage.

Paul

The narrator's family friend, Paul sends a letter to the narrator, letting her know her father has gone missing. He is not involved in much of the plot, but he seems to care about the narrator deeply, even going back to find her when she refuses to leave the island with her friends.

Surfacing Analysis

Surfacing is an allegorical novel in which the female narrator feels alienated from society and struggles with her own identity in her male-dominated world. The narrator isn't even given a name, enabling her to symbolize the loss of female identity at the hands of the patriarchy. Instead of being recognized as an individual, the narrator is primarily defined by her relationship with her boyfriend and missing father.

It takes submerging herself in water for the narrator to unbury her repressed memories and realize the truth of her history. The dunking herself in the water as she vainly searches for her father's lost research is symbolic of baptism and rebirth. The narrator surfaces cleansed of the identity the patriarchy has forced on her and can discover herself anew. The novel's title refers to the narrator's symbolic surfacing out of the lie-based reality she has been taught by the patriarchy and into a reality she can define for herself.

Surfacing, Girl being baptized, StudySmarter

Fig. 5: The narrator resurfacing from the water functions as a metaphorical baptism and rebirth.

It isn't just individual men that alienate and oppress women like the narrator. It's society itself. In this patriarchal society, exploitation becomes a natural fact of life. Take David's camera: he spends the entire trip capturing film that demeans and objectifies women and nature alike. He takes videos of a dead heron hanging from a tree and intends to use them to further his own agenda instead of honoring the bird's life. Likewise, he pressures Anna to strip for the sake of the film, verbally abusing her until she does. Anna immediately regrets giving in to her husband's demands, as he plans to objectify and exploit her body in his film.

In both cases, the camera symbolizes how the value of women and nature is commodified by the patriarchy, alienating both from the society in which they exist. The narrator eventually destroys the film as an act of rebellion against the oppression, exploitation, and alienation of women and their identities.

Surfacing Themes

The main themes in Surfacing are identity and otherness and the domination and reclamation of identity.

The Alienation and Domination of Women

The narrator's greatest conflict comes from feeling alienated from her patriarchal society, which emphasizes the role of men over that of women. She even feels isolated from her boyfriend, who she can't decide if she loves or trusts, and her friends, who she realizes she knows nothing about. The narrator almost feels like she's an outsider looking into a world she doesn't understand or want to be a part of. The more time she spends with her friends, the more she realizes marriage—and life inside the patriarchy in general—terrifies her.

She watches as Anna is oppressed by her abusive husband, who traps her in a marriage characterized by emotional abuse, infidelity, and violent sex. Anna accepts his actions as the norm, never rebelling against or leaving him when he mistreats her. On the outside, their marriage looks happy and healthy, but the narrator soon realizes what she thought was romance is merely control and manipulation.

Surfacing, Couple kissing in front of sunset, StudySmarter

Fig. 6: Anna and David's happy facade conceals the oppressive nature of their relationship.

Reclamation of Identity

On a personal level, the narrator's society has alienated her from herself as well as others. The narrator doesn't seem to have any control over her memories or sense of reality. Her stories don't quite blend when she talks about her past with her husband and child. It's almost as though she has been told so many different things, she doesn't know how to separate fact from fiction anymore. The narrator's false memories of her husband and child have been used to distance herself from the guilt of the abortion and affair. But the narrator's complete acceptance of the lies as truth shows how little control she has over her own identity.

After her symbolic surfacing from the patriarchy's false reality, the narrator has shaken free of the alienation forced upon her and can reclaim her own identity. She starts by distancing herself from Anna, David, and Joe, all figures who uphold the patriarchy's status quo.

What do you make of the narrator's "madness"? Do you think it was necessary for her to reframe her identity? Why is the island a significant place for her to find herself?

The narrator then tries to distance herself from society completely by giving in to her animal instincts. She sheds her complicated human identity and rebuilds one based on an intimate relationship with nature. In this natural state, which is seen by human society to be a form of madness, the narrator can see her life clearly. She recognizes herself as a normal woman, but one who has the power to shape her own life and become an active part of the world around her. After reclaiming her identity, the narrator considers joining Joe on the boat and reentering society as a changed woman.

Surfacing Quotes

Below are some of the most notable quotes from Surfacing, reflecting the novel's major themes.

I have to be more careful about my memories. I have to be sure they're my own and not the memories of other people telling me what I felt, how I acted, what I said: if the events are wrong the feelings I remember about them will be wrong too, I'll start inventing them . . ." (Chapter 8)

In this section of the novel, the narrator is thinking about the difference between her childhood on the island and in the city. She is worried she won't be able to discern the truth of her past, as her memory might be influenced by what other people have told her. This anxiety over memory being subjective and untrustworthy foreshadows the narrator's later revelation that she has been suppressing her past trauma. She struggles to make sense of her identity and reality amidst her ever-changing perception of the past.

This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing. I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless and because of it nothing I can do will ever hurt anyone . . . withdrawing is no longer possible and the alternative is death." (Chapter 27)

When the narrator finally reclaims her identity after spiraling into "madness," she resolves to take control of her life. For years, the narrator had lived under the false belief that she was powerless and unable to change her own life. After reconnecting with the natural world and removing herself from the complexities of the patriarchy, the narrator finally recognizes the power inside of her all along.

Surfacing - Key takeaways

  • Surfacing was written by Margaret Atwood and published in 1972.
  • It is a psychological thriller that follows the narrator as she tries to uncover parts of herself that have long since been repressed.
  • The narrator is unnamed to symbolize how women's identity is compromised and inhibited in the patriarchy.
  • Major symbols in the novel include the water, the camera, and the narrator herself.
  • The main themes in Surfacing are identity and otherness and the domination and reclamation of identity.

Frequently Asked Questions about Surfacing

Surfacing is a psychological thriller novel published in 1972.

David is portrayed as the epitome of male domination. He is abusive towards his wife, and their entire marriage is built off control.

The camera objectifies and devalues both nature and women in Surfacing.

The main themes are the domination and alienation of women and reclamation of identity.

The narrator is unnamed to function as a symbol for how women's identity is compromised and inhibited in the patriarchy. Without a name, she stands as a universal symbol for alienation. 

Final Surfacing Quiz

Question

Who wrote Surfacing

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Answer

Margaret Atwood

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What genre is Surfacing

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Answer

Psychological thriller. 

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Question

What is the narrator's name? 

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Answer

She is unnamed.

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Why isn't the narrator named? 

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Answer

The narrator is unnamed to function as a symbol for how women's identity is compromised and inhibited in the patriarchy.

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Question

Who accompanies the narrator to the island? 

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Answer

Joe.

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Why is the narrator returning to her childhood home? 

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Answer

Her father is missing.

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What does the narrator find in her father's office? 

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Answer

Research on ancient wall art.

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What does the narrator say happened to her ex husband and child at the beginning of the novel? 

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Answer

She left them.

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What does the narrator realize about her ex-husband and child? 

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Answer

She aborted her "child," and she was never married; she had an affair with her art professor. 

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What causes tension between Joe and the narrator? 

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Answer

He proposes and she says no.

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What does the narrator think she sees in the water? 

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Answer

A dead baby

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What happens to the narrator after her memory comes back? 

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Answer

She sinks into madness.

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What are the main themes in the novel? 

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Answer

Reclamation of identity.

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What does the water symbolize for the narrator? 

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Answer

A reclamation of her identity and a break from the identity put on her by the patriarchy. 

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