Literature Study GuidesSurfacingPart 1 Chapter 6 Summary

Surfacing | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "Surfacing Study Guide." Course Hero. 8 Jan. 2018. Web. 12 Nov. 2018. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2018, January 8). Surfacing Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved November 12, 2018, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2018)



Course Hero. "Surfacing Study Guide." January 8, 2018. Accessed November 12, 2018.


Course Hero, "Surfacing Study Guide," January 8, 2018, accessed November 12, 2018,

Surfacing | Part 1, Chapter 6 | Summary



The narrator feels there is nothing to do but wait. She wants "to go back to where there is electricity and distraction." Joe and David are canoeing and Anna is reading a book. She observes how like her own younger self Anna looks, and how like her brother and father Joe and David look. She thinks this leaves her playing the role of her mother. But she's not her mother, who she remembers going on long walks in the woods and feeding the birds in the afternoons. The narrator is a commercial artist and currently illustrating a book of children's folk tales. She begins an illustration of a phoenix and a princess, briefly recalling making childhood drawings at this same table. After a few unsuccessful attempts at the illustrations, she gives up.

Anna comes inside and asks her, abruptly, what her father had been doing up here. She answers, "He was living." He'd enjoyed isolation, she thinks, and he was a pacifist. So he withdrew from human society to an island in "the most remote lake he could find." The narrator looks through a stack of papers left by her father and finds them to be unintelligible drawings with nonsense words on them. She realizes he might have gone insane. She puts the papers away as Joe and David return to the cabin.


Even though in the previous chapter the narrator made an attempt to find her father, it was a feeble attempt. Randomly searching the dense woods and brush on the island has little chance of success. She admits this: It is "like searching for a ring lost on a beach or in the snow: futile." Yet she feels "absolved from knowing" and is resigned: "There's no act I can perform except waiting." Her attitude engages the themes of power, as the narrator chooses to be passive and wait rather than take action. She willingly gives up her own agency and power.

The theme of natural versus artificial comes into play as her motivation for remaining passive is explained: she doesn't want to know what happened to her father. She's afraid to know, preferring the fiction of ignorance. This theme also emerges in her thoughts about being a commercial artist. She is conflicted about her career because she doesn't express her own authentic artistic sensibilities but only meets the expectations of her client. She has become an expert at imitation: "fake Walt Disney, Victorian etchings in sepia, Bavarian cookies, ersatz Eskimo for the home market."

The narrator's description of her art career leads to additional insight into the relationship between her and Joe. In contrast to her own commercial art endeavors, Joe's "artistic" expression is to mangle his own pottery in ways that render it useless. Her tone toward Joe is not flattering; his art seems petulant and petty: "Every time I sell a poster design or get a new commission he mangles another pot." She manages to make fun of Joe while also admiring his failure, which "has a kind of purity" compared with her willingness to compromise.

In keeping with this chapter's focus on art is the discovery of her father's drawings. They reveal the fearful possibility that her father went insane. At face value they seem to be strange drawings labeled with unintelligible words. The narrator puts them away, unprepared to fully face this possibility.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Surfacing? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!