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Surfacing | Context


Change in the 1960s: Quebec's Quiet Revolution

The "Quiet Revolution" in Quebec, Canada, came at a time of social and cultural change across North America. But in Quebec it bore unique characteristics because of broad changes to political, economic, and educational systems. Before the 1960s Quebec's school system was run by the Catholic Church. The political party that took power in 1944—the Union Nationale—was extremely conservative and invested in maintaining traditional values. When the Quebec Liberal Party, led by Jean Lesage, won a majority in 1960, change was rapid and widespread. The public hospital network was created. Private power companies were transferred to government control. The electoral map was redrawn, and election finances were regulated. The voting age dropped from 21 to 18. Women's rights expanded. The power of the Catholic Church in directing educational institutions decreased while the influence of government in education greatly increased. One result was a far greater role of government in daily life and a consolidation of power in Quebec's leaders, which sometimes put the French-speaking province at odds with the rest of Canada.

Another result was a secularization of society, as the Catholic Church became less prominent in directing social norms. Although there was some pushback against these reforms later in the 1960s, the change that occurred in the early part of the decade had lasting ramifications. Much of the religious tension in Surfacing shows signs of these effects, as the distrust between the religious, traditional citizens of the town and the narrator's nonreligious family adds to her sense of isolation and separation.

The 1960s and 1970s: Changing Sexual Attitudes

The Quiet Revolution occurred amid a cultural shift that was far more widespread, as women's rights gained traction across the continent. The birth control pill became available in 1960. Within a decade millions of women in Canada and the United States were using it. This gave women the freedom to engage in sexual activity without worries about unintended pregnancies. At the time Surfacing was published, abortion was only legal if the health of the mother was endangered. Not until 1988 did women in Canada gain the freedom to choose legal abortion as a matter of women's rights.

Women's roles in society were already changing, and attitudes toward sex were becoming more liberal among the younger generation. This shift was aided by the availability of reliable birth control and legal abortion. These changes had the unfortunate result of alienating generations from one another, something that is apparent in Surfacing. The young characters are estranged from their parents. The narrator often thinks about the way the older generation will see and judge her and her friends' clothing and hair.

Postcolonial Literature

Postcolonial literature generally concerns itself with the stories of populations living in areas colonized by European empires. It uncovers the racial and cultural tensions that continue to exist in these populations and the ways indigenous and colonial populations coexist in the same space. Although the predominant cultural tension in Surfacing is between French-speaking and English-speaking cultures, some scholars have made the case that the novel can be read as a kind of postcolonial literature.

  • The novel involves an area with a preexisting indigenous culture, represented by the rock paintings.
  • The threat of a more aggressive colonial presence exists: American culture, which colonizes not with weapons but with the infection-like poison of senseless violence.

If postcolonial literature describes the process of healing and integrating in the aftermath of colonization, Surfacing may qualify. It takes place, after all, in "border country," where cultures meet and accommodate each other in an uneasy peace. The loosely formed Canadian identity constantly feels under threat, both from the insidious American culture and from the French and English cultures on which it rests.


In her nonfiction work Survival (1972), Atwood explores the issue of Canadian cultural identity. She looks at the influence of British and American cultures. Furthermore, she explores how literature expresses Canadian identity, pointing out that cultures often have basic symbols or guiding ideas that weave throughout their literature and represent a fundamental aspect of cultural identity. For example, the American symbolic idea is the frontier. The British symbol is the island, and Atwood argues that the Canadian idea is survival. Canadian literature, she says, features stories about "those who made it back. ... The survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival." These ideas, and this particular sense of Canadian identity, prominently characterize Surfacing. The narrator endures painful emotional experiences, processes these in a dramatic break from reality, and survives. The alternative to achieving wholeness—reuniting her head and body—is death.

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