In “Surfacing,” by Margaret Atwood, the unnamed protagonist acquires a radical perception of reality that is developed through an intense psychological journey on the island that served as her childhood home. Truth can be taken from the narrator’s viewpoint, but the reader must explore the inner turmoil plaguing her in order to understand the basis of such beliefs. The narrator’s perception of reality can be deemed reliable once all of these factors are understood; however, throughout the novel Atwood develops many unseen connections that are essential to such and understanding. Once the reader is able to understand the basis of the narrator’s perception of reality, it is then possible to receive and accept Margaret Atwood’s stance on the role of women and nature and, thus, discover the underlying meanings of the novel.
The narrator returns home to an unforgotten place that is gradually being taken over by the diseased culture of the “Americans.” At this point in the novel the narrator feels as if she has allowed herself to fall under the control of man and hence has, too, like nature, been a victim of the “American” culture. Although it is not yet clearly evident, it can be inferred when she makes first light of the situation. The baby was “my husband’s, he imposed it on me, all the time it was growing in me I felt like an incubator. He measured everything he would let me eat, he was feeding it on me, he wanted a replica of himself.” With this in mind, it is quite understandable why the narrator feels contempt towards the “Americans.” Perhaps, she relates her husband’s masculinity and need to control her to the “Americans” need to disrupt and manipulate nature. Thus, it is hypothesized, that as the novel progresses the narrator’s perception of reality, and, consequently, Atwood’s main argument, is developed through the connection between both nature’s and women’s inability to resist domination from men.
According to the narrator women are victims of man and culture. They hold little status in society and are expected to be inferior to men. This notion is obvious early in the novel when the narrator visits Paul and Madame. Irrelevantly Paul asks, is “Your husband here too?” “What he means,” in the narrator’s opinion, “is that a man should be handling this.” Although she is confident with her ability to handle the situation and look for her father, the general belief of the time is that women should let men do the grunt work. Throughout the novel she continues to develop this theme through Anna’s character, so that we obtain an exaggerated, but clear, vision of the role of women as created by society.
David and Anna’s relationship is used to symbolize the inequality of the sexes and concurrently acts as indicator as to why the narrator is so psychologically tormented. David is overpowering and domineering, whereas Anna is weak and controlled. Anna feels as if she must paint her face in order to please David and she allows herself to be subordinate to his rules. Anna tells the narrator that David has “this little set of rules. If I break one of them I get punished, except that he keeps changing them so I’m never sure.” David also treats Anna as an object of sex instead of as equal counterpart. He constantly remarks about her body and even forces her to strip naked in order to provide footage for his film. He obviously has little respect for her, which becomes even more apparent when he cheats on her with the narrator. The narrator resents David because he devalues women like an “American” devalues nature, but subjects herself to him because she has not broken away from the grip of society and allowed herself to be purified.
As the novel progresses the narrator feels further withdrawn from the other characters and more connected to nature. The narrator’s disdain for David is a result of her previous relationship with her ex-lover. We eventually learn that she had an abortion, and we can concur that it has had a major effect on her life. She is no longer content with being a victim to men. “After the slaughter, the murder,” she says, “he couldn’t believe I didn’t want to see him any more; it bewildered him, he resented me for it.” In fact the narrator wanted to abolish all connections with men, which leads to the eventual separation with her lover Joe. Although Joe is not yet totally taken over by the “American” culture, the narrator feels alienated from him because of his masculinity and inability to understand her at an emotional level. Their connection is merely physical. She also successively grows unattached from Anna, because Anna lets herself fill the role that men have created for her. Rather than standing up for herself, she allows David to dominate and manipulate her to the point that she is just a product of his rule.
The negative effects of the abortion is fully realized when the narrator encounters the dead heron. The unnecessary murder of the bird provides a direct connection for the narrator between the effect men have on both nature and women, and propels her into the purification process. “Why had they strung it up like a lynch victim,” thought the narrator, “why didn’t they just throw it away like the trash? To prove they could do it, they had the power to kill. Otherwise it was valueless; beautiful from a distance but it couldn’t be tamed or cooked or trained to talk, the only relation they could have to a thing like that was to destroy it.” The narrator feels solace for the dead heron, because in effect it shared the same fate with her unborn baby.
The narrator finally comes to terms with her torments during her second trip out on the lake. Up to this point, she had always connected the lake with the near drowning of her brother. However, after diving deep into the abyss of the water she emerges with a new perception. She realizes that she has seen something that is representative of death. Laying in the canoe she says the shape of what she saw “formed again in my head: at first I thought it was my drowned brother . . . Then I recognized it: it wasn’t even my brother I’d been remembering, that had been a disguise.” It was the image of her aborted baby. She discovers that up to this point her life had been nothing more than a fiction. In a moment of truth, she reveals to us that she had pieced her life together. “A faked album, the memories as fraudulent as passports; but a paper house was better than none and I could almost live in it, I’d lived in it until now.”
The narrator returns to the house feeling enlightened. She has sunk to the deepest depths of the lake and her sanity in order to rise again refreshed. She goes through an animal-like transformation and sheds her clothes, sleeps outdoors, and refuses to eat food from the house or garden. She allows Joe to impregnate her so that she may produce a baby that is pure, and exempt from the evil nature of man. After days of purifying herself she regains her sanity and realizes that at some point she must return to civilization. Although this time she will live under her own will. She will no longer be a victim of a dominating society, nor will she hide behind the fake collages she had created since she was a little girl. She says “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.” She has broken free from the rein of man and become one again with nature. She is now pure.
The narrator’s perception of reality is constantly developed throughout the novel. She returns to her childhood home in the same state as she was when she left, but she undergoes a complete transformation in which she discovers the true essence of her reality. Although she becomes psychotic and withdrawn, she eventually arrives at a logical and reliable perception of reality. Nature leads her to the ultimate state of purity and acts as a psychiatrist to pinpoint the torments of her soul. Margaret Atwood uses the narator’s experiences during the week at the lake in order to stake the main argument of the book. By relating examples of senseless acts against nature with the defamation of women, Atwood helps the reader understand the problems that are embedded in society and the “American” culture.
Word Count: 1464