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Surfacing | Motifs



Throughout Surfacing certain motifs are used to build important themes and provide imagery that reflects and connects the narrator's fragmented memory and identity.


The motif of language helps to build the theme of separation versus wholeness. It draws on the fact that language can separate people—when they do not know each other's language, or when they use words to lie and hurt. The narrator grew up in northern Quebec, an area where two distinct cultures coexist: one French speaking and one English speaking. Although the majority of the people in the town speak only French, the narrator speaks only English and a little school French, but not the dialect spoken in Quebec. Because of this the narrator grew up feeling different from other children—isolated and unable to build friendships. As an adult she continues to find language and words to be a barrier between people: "Language divides us into fragments, I wanted to be whole" (Chapter 17).

In contrast she admires the animals, who have no language. Language is a human invention and is associated in the narrator's mind with the bad parts of being human—violence, destruction, suffering, war. So for a time in the novel she gives up language, living as an animal and rejecting the human part of herself.

Severed Body Parts

Severed body parts, one of the most prominent recurring images in the novel, also supports the theme of separation versus wholeness. Heads separated from bodies on coins, women's dresses with no heads atop them in her childhood scrapbook, a one-handed woman, and drawings of sex organs without bodies are just a few of the many images sprinkled throughout. These smaller examples support a larger and more meaningful one: the narrator feeling her head has somehow become separated from her body. Separated from herself, she cannot feel emotions or recall events correctly. Her inability to remember the events of the recent past correctly and her inability to feel love for Joe are both attributed to this division between head and body. Ultimately the severed body parts all come to represent the narrator's feelings about her abortion, which she characterizes as the loss of an actual part of her body.

Random Samples

The two men, David and Joe, work on a short film called Random Samples during the novel. The nature of this film supports the theme of separation versus wholeness as well. It is made up of random shots that are not connected in a meaningful way and are often just whatever strikes David as being weird or bizarre. The random samples captured on camera juxtapose fish guts, a dead heron, a naked woman, a house made of bottles, and other images, but they do not have a meaning or pattern. Lacking any cohesion, the random samples are similar to the parts of the narrator's self and memory. Her thinking self is separate from her feeling self; her memories are disjointed and lack meaning. These parts need connections that tie them together in order to have meaning.


In the novel paintings support the theme of natural versus artificial and give the reader glimpses into the confusion within the narrator's mind. The narrator is an illustrator, and she has brought her work with her to the cabin. But whenever she tries to work, the figures do not turn out as she intends. A giant looks instead like a football player; a princess looks stupefied rather than filled with wonder. These difficulties in rendering an accurate portrayal of characters from the folk tales reflect the narrator's difficulties in rendering her own self from her memories. Other paintings become important to the story as well, and they also fail to reflect reality. Her father's drawings of the rock paintings lead the narrator to believe he had gone insane. Later they become part of a delusion that her father left his research as clues to lead her to the sacred place where she could find truth.

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