Literature Study GuidesSurfacingPart 1 Chapter 4 Summary

Surfacing | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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Surfacing | Part 1, Chapter 4 | Summary



The four unload their baggage from Evans's boat, pay him, and watch him motor away. They take their bags along the dock and walk toward the cabin. The narrator thinks about her child and about her sense the child never belonged to her: it was her husband's. She unlocks the door and everyone goes inside, poking around and finally settling down for a beer. She sees no evidence of what happened to her father.

The narrator lights the stove and scavenges for some vegetables in the garden, which is weedy and overgrown. They eat dinner, wash up, and go down to the dock to smoke pot. Anna and David seem to be happily married, and the narrator is haunted by memories of her failed and unhappy marriage. She holds Joe's hand and listens to the call of a loon echoing over the lake.


The isolated setting of the novel becomes more apparent as Evans drops the four characters off on the island. The sensory language used in the description of the boat's departure heightens the sense of isolation: "the sound dwindling to a whine and fading as land and distance move between us." As they settle into the house, the narrator shows the first signs of agency—taking action, having power. Unlike on the drive, when David was the driver and the narrator was simply a passenger, on the island the narrator is in charge. She has expertise the others do not have, and they wait aimlessly for instructions, at a loss for what to do.

Her clear competence in this domestic situation contrasts with her poignant memories of being powerless and lacking agency in her marriage. She recalls that once they'd signed the papers for the marriage, her husband had "wanted to be pleased" and then, when she'd become pregnant, she felt the child was her husband's, not hers: "He imposed it on me, all the time it was growing in me I felt like an incubator." The symbol of the barometer couple is used to elaborate on the narrator's confusion about marriage. As she thinks about her unhappy experience, she describes her expectations of marriage in terms of the barometer couple: "two people linked together and balancing each other."

Atwood uses and reuses images and ideas throughout the novel. For example, the narrator's desire to not know and her discomfort with change emerge in this chapter. She refrains from announcing their arrival at the house: "I want to ... shout 'Hello!' ... but I don't, I don't want to hear the absence." And when she visits the garden, she is struck by how much it has changed: "Before there were scarlet runners up one side of the fence." Her preference for a pleasant fiction over a harsh reality is evident in how her family reacted to her mother's illness: "We ceased to take her illnesses seriously, they were only natural phases, like cocoons." There are consequences to preferring artificial reality over true reality: "When she died I was disappointed in her."

An odd episode in the garden furthers the theme of power. As she works the narrator has a memory in which she believes the beans left to ripen and split in the garden could make her "all-powerful." When she was tall enough to reach these beans, she found they did not give her power after all. In a reference to world events, particularly Hitler, who is mentioned several times in the book, she thinks, "If I'd turned out like the others with power I would have been evil." It's clear the narrator associates power with doing harm, suggesting she does not wish to have power and may be actively working to avoid having it.

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