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Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Updated on January 8, 2014

”Saving the world, everyone wants to; men think they can do it with guns, women with their bodies, love conquers all, conquers love all, mirages raised by words.”


After the synopsis I included some context information, personal reflections, and author info. The boxed quotes were some of my personal favorites from the novel.

Surfacing is Margaret Atwood's second novel, published in 1972. A political, nationalistic, environmental, and proto-feminist novel, Surfacing clearly served as a way for Margaret Atwood to display her beliefs through her unnamed female protagonist, whose life consistently mirrored that of Atwood's throughout the novel. The novel is also considered to be post-colonial, although not in the tradition sense (read more about this classification in the "Helpful Context Information" below).

The novel takes place in Canada, and it begins with the speaker/protagonist, a woman who remains unnamed throughout the entire novel, her boyfriend Joe, and a married couple, Anna and David. The protagonist has only known these people for a few months, but she needed them to drive her back to the place she grew up because her father is missing. They currently live in a relatively industrial urban area, but her old home where she is returning is on an isolated island in a large lake in Norther Quebec.

The characters in this novel are very different from one another, and it seems they are each strategically placed in the novel to express a different belief of Atwood's.The women in the story serve as examples of the way society treats and looks at women, and the men then obviously serve as examples of the dominant forces in society that oppress them.

It is mentioned, although not explained well enough, that each of the characters had separated themselves from their families at some point and now pretend that their families never existed. This is something that we are not given too much of a motive for, but this tends to be a recurring element of Atwood's; to leave out seemingly important pieces of information. Plot elements and clarifications get pushed to the wayside to make room for Atwood's larger statements and beliefs.



Anna is described as a very artificial woman. She is afraid of allowing her husband to see her without makeup, and she puts on a constant front of silliness and cheerfulness as she is constantly singing and laughing at her husband's sexist and crude jokes. Anna seems to be rather empty as a human being, a receptacle for her husband's desires and oppression. Everything she does and says seems to be forced. Anna succumbed to all of the social pressures that society places on women, whereas the protagonist responds to the pressures with complete disregard and separation.

The Protagonist

The protagonist and speaker,although she had a decent childhood, has become cold and hardened emotionally for reasons we don't find out until later in the novel. She is a commercial artist, doing illustrations for advertisements and children's books. Despite running away, she still has obvious ties to her home, to Canada, to nature itself, and to her family. Although she is dating Joe, she is aware that she does not love him in the way that he wants her to. She feels she is incapable of love completely, yet she lives with Joe because it seemed to make sense at the time.



David is an arrogant, womanizing male stereotype if I ever read about one; making constant arrogant jokes and openly talking about his sex life with his wife and others. Anna shares with the protagonist that David sleeps around and tells her about it to make her jealous. He both rewards and punishes Anna with sex when she doesn't act the way he would like her to, and Anna uses her body and sex to fight right back. They both feel that marriage is a war, with sex being the only method of solving issues. The protagonist dislikes him because, despite actually being from Canada, he possesses all of the traits of a typical American that she despises.


Joe is described as a strong yet very quiet and self-reserved man. He doesn't say much of anything, which the protagonist actually prefers. He is a failed pottery artist and is often very moody and difficult to read. He does seem to love his girlfriend in some way, and he is willing to stay in the relationship despite her refusal to marry him more than once. Joe is too simple-minded to understand the complexities of the protagonist.


”I learned about religion the way most children then learned about sex, not in the gutter but in the gravel-and-cement schoolyard, during the winter months of real school. They would cluster in groups, holding each other’s mittened hands and whispering. They terrified me by telling me there was a dead man in the sky watching everything I did and I retaliated by explaining where babies came from.”

Summary Continued

Now that the protagonist is returning home, she is aware of all that has changed since she ran away to live in the city. She notices that clothes have become more revealing, which she takes to mean that the church has lost its power. She also notices the large amount of "American" additions, such as billboards and other advertisements and customs. The characters make clear from the beginning their strong dislike for the Americans and their culture. David in particular throws out comments such as, "Bloody facist pig yanks" and "Rotten capitalist bastards".

The four arrive at the protagonist's childhood home, an old and very basic cabin on the shores of a lake, and they begin the search for her father. The protagonist looks for clues that her parents may have left her, which she eventually finds in some odd drawings of what looks like mythological creatures and a map with markings, which the protagonist figures out are locations where these drawings might be. She figures that this was a retirement hobby that her father picked up, and she knows it is likely that he died while searching for these drawings.

The protagonist frequently reminisces about her past. She tells stories of her strange childhood with her brother, how they were brought up as atheists believing that Jesus was merely a historical figure, and God was a superstition. They were also very isolated from community until a later age, and at that point they had missed out on learning normal social customs. Her brother was older and was often her informant on the ways of the world (or at least, his take on how the world worked). It was her brother that informed her about the occurrence of World War II, which she otherwise would have known very little about, considering very little actual fighting occurred on Canadian ground. She also reminisces less fondly on her more recent past, which is told in confusing bits and pieces slowly throughout the novel. She was apparently once married and had a child, but she left them. However, as the novel goes on her story is changed to her having an affair with a married man who forced her to have an abortion.

After having some sort of vision in the lake when she goes off alone to search for her father, where she believes the spirits of the island have shown her the unborn fetus that she aborted, the protagonist stays on the island when the other three leave. She desires some sort of enlightenment or message from the spirits of her parents. For five days she seems to have lost her mind, thinking she is an animal and living like one, until her hunger and exhaustion help her to regain her sanity, at which point she returns to the cabin and has another unexpected enlightened realization.

”He said he loved me, the magic word, it was supposed to make everything light up, I’ll never trust that word again.”

Themes & Motifs

A large theme throughout the novel is Canadian national identity and how Americans have asserted its cultural influence over Canada. This infiltration of social and cultural identity is a form of colonialism, at least to Atwood, which is why the novel is often classified at post-colonial. Another theme is the question of women's sexual and social role. Anna and the protagonist at one point discuss contraception and its negative effects (which would have been a big controversy at the time), and the process of getting an abortion is painted in a horrific light. The social implications of makeup are often discussed, and the idea of a truly natural woman being rare is reflected upon often by the protagonist. The idea of men's power over women is obvious with David and Anna, and the false ideals of marriage are also presented through their relationship.

There is a strong sense of environmentalism, as the protagonist has a strong reverence for the Canadian wilderness where she grew up. She feels very protective of it, and when an American man proposes to buy her property in order to turn it into a vacation retreat she strongly refuses. She also shows strong distaste for the tourists that often occupy the lake for fishing and camping, any urban expansion, and any technology that has impacted the wilderness of Canada.

Context Information

When I started reading this novel I was rather confused by some of the references made to World War II and about some of the socio-cultural situations and beliefs at the time the novel took place, because I had no prior extensive knowledge of Canada's history. In order to better understand some of the comments that were made by the characters about Germany, America, and Canada and to understand some of the opinions on war itself that were made very clear, I did some research. This section isn't all that necessary to read if you just wanted a synopsis and personal opinion on the novel, but if you really do plan on reading it or already have, it may be helpful.

Although it never explicitly said, I found in my research after finishing the novel that it takes place in Quebec (I was only able to know for sure that it took place in Canada). There is a strong sense of national identity throughout the novel, as the main characters frequently make known their hatred for the Americans and their culture that they are pushing on Canadians. It may be helpful to know that Quebec is the only province that is populated by people of French descent, which explains the language barriers throughout the novel. The main characters were often unsure whether or not to use the native language (French) or use their better-spoken English. Apparently, at the time this book was written, there was a growing dissent between people of Quebec and the rest of Canada, and America was also moving into Canada, extending the hand of capitalism across national borders.

After I finally narrowed down the time period to the 1960s, I did some research on the situation in Canada at that time. During that time, the "Quiet Revolution" took place in Quebec. This revolution was a series of economic and educational reforms, and there was a move towards a more secular culture which was shocking and disturbing to the older population. The Quiet Revolution gave Quebec more political and economic freedom, giving the French citizens of the province a sense of nationalism and a desire to separate from Canada. It becomes obvious that the main characters left before this Revolution, and upon returning (with their American-like habits and trends) they found that there was a split in culture between the French nationalists and the other more-American-like Canadians. Atwood references this frequently, but never specifically says what it was called.

Like I said before, Surfacing is considered a post-colonial novel, although not in the traditional sense because that usually is a story of a country attaining independence from a large country such as France or Great Britain after a brutal and bloody war, but Canadian independence from Britain occurred gradually.

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I personally found this novel, at least at first, to be very frustrating. It was a challenge to find out simple plot details such as character names, settings, and especially time periods. I found myself re-reading and re-reading multiple times in order to look for any clues that could help me figure out the time period this story took place in. This may not be important to some people, but for a full-length novel such as this, I think it's important to have some information like that to get a sense of what is going on at the time the novel takes place. I did eventually find out some things (some I never did), but there was a sense of confusion for me while reading this from start to finish.

The main character switched from reminiscing on memories to the present almost constantly with no clear transition or paragraph break so it was difficult to determine if the protagonist was her present age, or if she remembering things from when she was a child. Aside from the confusing writing style, I will say that this novel is one of the most unique I had ever read. There is such a vivid passion that Atwood has for Canada, her homeland, and nature, and there was such a huge sense of nationalism that I really appreciated. It was also very realistic, if not dramatically so. The motif of hatred for modernization and industrialization (all thanks to the "bastard Americans") is a common one in twentieth-century American literature, but Atwood may be the most passionate on this subject of any that I have read. I enjoyed her appreciation for nature, but felt slightly disturbed at the extent her main character went to in order to reconnect herself with it.

Overall, I'm glad that I read this book. It encouraged me to do some research into the history of Canada in World War II and the 1960s, which I previously knew nothing about, and it is always refreshing to read novels with a nationalistic feel for a country other than America, because it is a perspective we are not familiar with, and I think it's important to read novels that do that.

”I have to be more careful about my memories. I have to be sure they’re on my own and not the memories of other people telling me what I felt, how I acted, what I said.”

About the author

Margaret Atwood is a Canadian poet, novelist, essayist, and environmental activist. The ladder occupation is not at all surprising to learn after reading her novels which so often include motifs of returning to nature and the distrust of the modern man-made industrialized world. Born in 1939, Atwood is now 72 years old living in Ottawa, Canada. As one of the most honored writers of fiction in modern literary history, Atwood has won multiple awards in both Canada and the United States, and has been frequently mentioned as a prime candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.

Along with her thirteen well-known novels, she has also published ten collections of short stories and over fifteen books of poetry, as well as some non-fiction books, children's literature, and essays. She is easily classified as an activist, as her novels often speak on behalf of environmental preservation, Canadian cultural pride and identity, feminism, and animal rights.

Having spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of Quebec with her father who was an entomologist and not attending school full-time until eight grade, she spent much of her time reading and writing from a very young age. She graduated from Victoria College in the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts in English, and then from Radcliffe College with her Masters. In June 2011 she received her doctorate of literature from the National University of Ireland, Galway.

This particular novel, Surfacing, relates very frequently to Atwood's personal life and her beliefs, as the main character lived in the backwoods of Canada on an isolated lake island with her father, an entomologist. In the novel the protagonist and her brother did not attend school until a later age, as she did in real life. Atwood was divorced, as was the main character in this novel. There are also references in this novel made to certain interests that Atwood had as a young girl, such as Grimm's Fairy tales. Having only read one book from Margaret Atwood, I am curious as to if all of her novels closely portray her own life. It's always interesting to see which authors align themselves with the novels and the characters they create and which authors completely remove themselves from their fiction.

Learn more about the author on her official website, here.

Purchase this novel and other's by Margaret Atwood


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