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Donostia Book Club

My name is Slawka Grabowska. I organize Donostia Book Club. We meet every month to discuss previously chosen books or short stories. Check out our FB page! https://www.facebook.com/pages/Donostia-Book-Club/105225566276875?ref=hl


Our Thoughts on Margaret Atwood's 'Surfacing'

Surfacing - Margaret Atwood

We all know who Margaret Atwood (born Nov.18, 1939, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada) is. And all she does, and all she achieved up to know is a little bit intimidating: a poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist and environmental and human rights activist. She is seen as one of the world's leading women novelists. She has received so many different prizes that it's almost impossible to mention all. Only for a Booker Prize she was shortlisted 5 times (to win it in 2000 for The Blind Assassin). She has 40 books of poetry, among her most famous novels we can mention Oryx and Crake, The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye. Although many consider her a feminist writer, she herself believes that the feminist label can only be applied to writers, who consciously work within the framework of the feminist movement. Across the years, certain themes, concerns and ways of writing recur. Among other things, Atwood writes about art and its creation, the dangers of ideology, and sexual politics, she deconstructs myths, fairy-tales and the classic for the new audience. Her work is often gothic, which is also one of the reasons for its wide popularity.


Surfacing is her second novel, written in 1972 (adapted into a movie in 1981).It is often compared to Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and Jack Keourac's On The Road. It is  one of her most written-about-books. It is classified as a psychological thriller, detective, feminist,postcolonial and postmodern novel. It is quite obvious why the fist two. But the rest need a bit of explaining.


Surfacing definitely is not a postcolonial novel in its traditional sense. Most postcolonial novels are written by authors from countries, that have gained bloody independence from empires such as Britain, France, Spain or America. These novels usually mark the effects of upheaval and bloody revolution, documenting a search for an independent national identity coupled with a reaction to the political scarring left by imperialism. Since Canadian independence from Britain occurred so gradually, Surfacing does not fall into the traditional postcolonial categorization. It does, however, explore an emerging Canadian identity:

- passage about the national flag, which has only been adapted in 1965

- America's cultural infiltration of Canada as a form of colonialism.

It is a postmodern novel in that its ideological strategy is to rethink traditional views and question conventions.


Surfacing themes are numerous:

-portrayal of male/female relationships


-psychological quest

-feminist themes

-autonomy of the individual

-sacredness of life.

If I had to describe it in one sentence, I would say it explores a woman's journey into madness and self-discovery. It is an accessible exploration of female subjectivity.


Surfacing is divided into 3 parts (of 8,11 and 8 chapters respectively). The time span of the novel is about two weeks, but the protagonist constantly talks about past events. It is written in 1st person and in present tense. The protagonist, whose name remains unknown, is driven to psychological breakdown due to her unwillingness to adhere to social expectations imposed on women. An absence of name hints at serious problems of identity and of communication.


Throughout the whole novel. Atwood questions a woman's conventional social and sexual role. Surfacing touches on the health risks associated with hormonal contraception, abortion, the idea of contraception as a male invention, the power inherit in pregnancy, the social implications of makeup, the potentially false ideal of marriage, the notion of a natural woman, the psychological mechanism that men use to exert control over women. 


Atwood creates a narrator who feels alienated by social pressures that cast her in a specific gender role, complete withdrawal. As such, Atwood presents a frank condemnation of the sexual and social norms forced upon women. 



The unnamed protagonist (the narrator) is reverential toward nature, intensely private, anti-American, and introspective. She searches for her missing father on a remote island in Quebec along with her boyfriend, Joe and their friends, David and Anna. Socially alienated and distrustful of love, the narrator suffers a debilitating emotional numbness that eventually fixes itself through the grand psychological transformation. She eventually goes mad on the island. For a time she lives like an animal, but she eventually emerges as a more enlightened being. Surfacing is composed entirely of narrator's unfiltered thoughts and observations.


The title:

The title of the novel is very significant, because it reveals the efforts of narrator's self exploration. The title word surfacing, apart from the title itself, is used only once and it refers to a restoration from death (of a never-born, aborted child):

<<I love you,>>he says into the side of my neck, catechism. Teeth grinding, he's holding back, he wants it to be like the city, baroque scrollwork, intricate as a computer, but I'm impatient, pleasure is redundant, the animals don't have pleasure. I guide him into me, it's the right season, I hurry.

He trembles and then I can feel my lost child surfacing within me, forgiving me, rising from the lake where it has been prisoned for so long, its eyes and teeth phosphorescent; the two halves clasp, interlocking like fingers, it buds, it sends out fronds. (p.165)



Questions we've also discussed:

  • Why might Atwood choose anonymity for her heroine?
  • Our narrator frequently refers to herself as an 'accomplice'. Why the guilt?
  • What clues in the novel suggest that the narrator is struggling to suppress memories of an abortion?
  • Each of the couples employ different strategies for wounding and communicating with one another. Describe them.
  • Does the heroin remain a reliable narrator throughout the novel? Do her perceptions ever deviate from reality? At what point, if ever, do you discount her version of reality?
  • Does your opinion of Joe alter as the novel progresses?
  • Why do you think the narrator has such a strong dislike for Americans?
  • Did you like the protagonist? Why? Why not?
  • Surfacing suggests being kept under. In narrator's case, under what and by whom?
  • At what point the protagonist 'surfaces'?
  • When she realizes that her father discovered rock paintings created by First Nations artists, she looks for the painting herself. She dives into the lake, believing the paintings to be on the submerged part of a rock. What she discovers in the depths is highly ambigous. How do you interpret this scene? (p.143)
  • What are the symbols of the aborted child throughout the novel?
  • What does the lake symbolize? What is its meaning in the whole story?
  • Interpret the 3rd part of the novel: the strange ordeal that is like a rite of passage or like a reversion to the state of an animal.
  • What will the narrator decide to do: she goes back with Joe or she stays in the wilderness?


If you have any doubts or comments don't hesitate to post them below or on our Facebook page!




- Atwood Margaret, "Surfacing", Anchor Books, New York, 1998.

- Gautam Vijeta, Sinha Jyotsna, "Role of Nature in Self-Exploration in Margaret Atwood's Surfacing", in: International Journal of Scientific and Researcg Publications, Volume 2, Issue 4, April 2012.

- Odenmo Emma, "Empowerment of the Oppressed in Margaret Atwood's Surfacing and Louise Erdrich's Tracks - A Comparative Study of Feminism and Postcolonialism", English C Essay, January 2010.

- Davidson Arnold E., Davidson Cathy N., "The Anatomy of Margaret Atwood's Surfacing",  source unknown.

- Koukhaei Zeinab, Afrougheh Shahram, "New Perspective in Women and Nature: Dualism in Margaret Atwood's Surfacing", in: International Research Journal of Applied and Basic Sciences, Vol.4, 2013.

- Niederhoff Burkhard, "The Return of the Dead in Margaret Atwood's Surfacing and Alias Grace", in: Connotations, Vol.16.1-3, 2006/2007.

If any source was omitted it was no on purpose and I would appreciate if you could let me know in any such case.