Surfacing | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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Surfacing | Character Analysis



The novel's protagonist, an unnamed female narrator, is summoned to her childhood home—a small town on the Quebec border—because her father has gone missing. As she travels to the town and the isolated island where her father's cabin is located, she also embarks on a journey into her own past. While trying to solve the mystery of her father's disappearance, she delves into other mysteries, including the cause of her disconnected memories and lack of emotional connection to her lover, Joe. Over the course of a few weeks, the narrator puts the pieces of herself together. This process means confronting painful suppressed memories, grieving the deaths of her parents, and taking responsibility for her own choices. The journey moves from sanity into delusion and back again. In the end she finds a kind of wholeness and the courage to survive.


Anna goes with the narrator to find her missing father, but she's never at home in the wilderness as the narrator is. She is uncomfortable being apart from city life and its easy access to luxuries not found on the island. Although at first Anna seems happily married to David, the narrator comes to realize Anna is terribly unhappy. However, it is also clear Anna desperately wants to stay in this unhappy marriage. This situation gives the narrator an opportunity to explore ideas about women and the expectations they face from men and from society. Anna is the embodiment of all the destructive forces at work on women. She is afraid to be seen without makeup. She is humiliated and objectified by her abusive husband. She does little to help herself not play the victim, instead retaliating against David by sleeping with other men. Deeply invested in creating the veneer of pretense required of women, Anna's presence allows the narrator to see clearly the harm these expectations cause. The narrator's declaration of herself as "natural" is a rejection of the kind of womanhood Anna represents.


David, full of himself and confident in his power over others, is unlikable from the beginning. While Anna's vulnerability makes her a sympathetic character, David shows no such vulnerability. He is calculated and unfeeling, enjoying the game of emotional abuse and feeling no regret for the way he treats Anna. Even when he strays outside social boundaries—such as trying to coerce the narrator into sex—he deflects the blame onto others. He blames Anna for making him seek out other partners with her own indiscretions. He blames the narrator for her coldness, accusing her of hating men. David's inability to love is a trait the narrator recognizes in herself as well—a point of commonality that makes her take stock of her own emotions. Unlike David, who seems uninterested in repairing this broken part of himself, the narrator urgently seeks repair. Perhaps seeing the destructiveness of David's lack of love provides incentive for the narrator to seek healing.


There is little to like about Joe throughout most of the novel. He is a quiet man who seems uncomfortable with the intensity of the narrator's personality and deep psychological pain. He makes pottery that is deliberately unusable for the sake of artistic expression, which the narrator takes to be a rebuke of her own commercial art career. He withholds physical affection when the narrator refuses his marriage proposal. He wants to have the relationship on his terms; he wants her declaration of love. He passively goes along with David's schemes, even when they are abusive. He has sex with Anna when the narrator seems to distance herself from him. However, though flawed, his love for the narrator seems authentic. He comes back to the island to look for her, although the others do not. In the end the narrator thinks she can trust him because he, too, is a work in progress.

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