Literature Study GuidesSurfacingPart 1 Chapter 2 Summary

Surfacing | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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Surfacing | Part 1, Chapter 2 | Summary



They pull up to a motel with a small bar, and David, Anna, and Joe go inside to have a drink. The narrator walks onto a dam that separates a river from the lake and recalls an incident in which she and her family canoed dangerously close to the rushing water of the dam.

She walks through the village and down a dirt road to a house belonging to a man named Paul, a family friend. She asks Paul if her father has come back yet. He says not yet, "but maybe soon." Madame, Paul's wife, makes them tea, and the narrator recalls being there with her mother when her father was visiting Paul. Madame says something to Paul in French, and he translates: "Your mother, she was a good woman, Madame says it is very sad; so young too." The narrator recalls being with her mother in the hospital as she was dying of brain cancer. She had told her mother she would not go to her funeral. Her mother had agreed that funerals are not enjoyable.

The narrator asks Paul what happened to her father, and he says he "is just gone." This is why Paul had written her to say he had disappeared. Paul asks about her husband, and she lies and says he's with her. She says (and later we find out this is a lie) she is divorced, and has left her child with her ex-husband. After tea the narrator tells Paul and Madame she is going to go to the lake.


This chapter introduces Paul and Madame, a French-speaking couple. They had been friendly toward the narrator's father and mother, but the language barrier had prevented a deep friendship. The narrator describes a memory in which her mother and Madame had attempted a sort of conversation. Each only knew a few words of the other's language, and the result was awkward silence. Even sitting in the same room, they had been separated. Thinking back, the narrator realizes it was not just language that had separated her family from the other families in the town. The narrator's family were isolated because they were considered "peculiar," not just "anglais." This sense of separation is evident in the present as well as in the narrator's memory. She is having trouble communicating with Madame now, too. And the narrator's peers have separated from their parents, a generational separation: "Joe never mentions his mother and father, Anna says hers were nothing people and David calls his The Pigs."

An interesting development in the theme of natural versus artificial is seen in the idea that not knowing the truth about something allows a fictional reality to exist. Readers already get the sense the narrator doesn't want to face what might be a difficult reality about her father. He may be dead, no one is sure. But this not knowing occurs in a wider context as well. During World War II when the narrator was a child, she didn't know about the terrible things that were happening until her brother told her. "At the time it felt like peace," she says. When she was unaware of the violence, it was like living in a fictional, or artificial, reality in which Hitler did not exist.

The theme of natural versus artificial is also developed in this chapter through the description of the barometer couple. The barometer is decorated with a carved wooden man and woman. The narrator thinks Paul and Madame look like the barometer couple: "I'm annoyed with them for looking so much like carvings ... but of course it's the other way around." The narrator is unsure which explanation tells the true story; she can't distinguish between the artificial or fictional and the real. She effectively creates a fictional version of her own narrative, which she is telling to the reader. This echoes the observation in Chapter 1 that the fountain "looks like an imitation but it may be real." These references to artificial versus real things are an important part of the narrator's search for self. They are also a clue that all may not be what it seems in the novel. It is important to keep in mind that when a novel uses a first-person narrator, readers get one person's account of reality. Readers must look for other clues that the narrator's observations may not be reliable.

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