Literature Study GuidesSurfacingPart 1 Chapter 5 Summary

Surfacing | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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Surfacing | Part 1, Chapter 5 | Summary



The next morning, before dawn, the narrator wakes up to the sound of birds. She looks at Joe, still sleeping, and tries to decide whether she loves him or not. She thinks she would "rather have him around than not; though it would be nice if he meant something more" to her. She looks at the pictures on the walls—her own childhood drawings—and a jacket that had belonged to her mother, now hanging at the foot of the bed. She falls asleep and wakes up—"surfaces"—again later, when Joe is also awake.

The narrator gets out of bed and gets dressed. Anna is already up, putting on her makeup. After breakfast the narrator makes plans to go search for her father. The four go out into the forest, and as they walk along the trail she recalls being with her husband, years ago, when he seemed perfect. She also recalls a conversation with Anna while they were cleaning up breakfast. She'd asked Anna how she and David manage to stay together. She'd told Anna her own marriage fell apart because she was too young. Then she thinks about reading survival manuals, rather than romance magazines, as a teen.

They find no sign of the narrator's father, and she realizes the futility of trying to find him in the dense woods. They turn around and go back to the cabin.


Both the narrator's thoughts on Anna's predawn makeup routine and on Joe develop the theme of natural versus artificial. As the narrator watches Joe sleep, she suggests he is content with their relationship because he doesn't know if she loves him or not. When he knows, he might not like it: "There's always a moment when curiosity becomes more important to them than peace and they need to ask." He might want to know for sure someday, but the risk in facing reality is you might not like it. Anna's makeup plays a similar role: it maintains an artificial beauty that is a substitute for the natural Anna. Anna claims David doesn't know she wears it—a statement that may or may not be true but which is itself a fiction Anna prefers. The narrator is surprised at Anna's face without the makeup: it looks unnatural. She thinks, "I've never seen her without it before ... her artificial face is the natural one."

The motif of language is used in this chapter to develop the theme of separation versus wholeness. The narrator recalls "the feeling, puzzled, baffled, when I found out some words were dirty and the rest were clean." This idea evokes a remark found in the preceding chapter, when the narrator remembers her brother needing to divide things into categories of good and bad. Here the separation between clean and dirty—good and bad—words is based on what people are afraid of: "The bad ones in French were the religious ones ... and in English it was the body." The implication is that fear causes (or is at least one cause of) separation and the related need to categorize and label. The question is, what creates wholeness, or connection?

The motif of severed body parts makes an appearance as the narrator compares divorce to an amputation: "A divorce is like an amputation, you survive but there's less of you." Like the one-handed shopkeeper, something has been separated from the narrator's self because of her experience of marriage and divorce.

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