Literature Study GuidesSurfacingPart 2 Chapter 17 Summary

Surfacing | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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Surfacing | Part 2, Chapter 17 | Summary



The narrator paddles toward a cliff marking the location of the submerged painted rock she seeks. She thinks about the heron, suffering and dying, and likens it to Christ—something that has died instead of us. When she reaches the cliff, she stands up in the canoe and looks down at the water, where she sees her own image. She repeatedly dives down and surfaces, searching for the painted rock. After several attempts, exhausted, she finally sees something. But it isn't a painting on a rock. It is "a dark oval trailing limbs ... something I knew about, a dead thing." Panicking, she looks up at the bottom of the canoe and sees another canoe there. She surfaces and hauls herself into her canoe. The other one is Joe's—he's come looking for her. As she rests she realizes what she saw in the lake was a vision of her own aborted fetus. The fact of her abortion comes back to her now, along with all the invented memories she'd layered on top of it to avoid seeing the truth—like a fake scrapbook or photo album. She realizes all the memories of her "wedding day" are fraudulent. She had actually come out of the abortion clinic, and the father of the child—who was not her husband—had picked her up.

As Joe waits, baffled, she begins to imagine her father had marked some places on his map not because there were rock paintings there but because he knew these were places you could learn the truth, places where you could have "true vision ... after the failure of logic." She paddles to shore and leaves her sweatshirt as an offering to the gods that were there and who had given this place their power. Joe follows, wanting to know what's wrong, wanting sex. She refuses him, and he goes away, angry.


This pivotal chapter provides the revelation both the narrator and readers have been anticipating. Instead of going to a hospital to have a child, she had gone to an abortion clinic to have an abortion. The true memory is painful: "I killed it. It wasn't a child but it could have been one, I didn't allow it." Many of the disturbing details related previously in the novel now make far more sense, heightening the impression of puzzle pieces fitting into place. This is a powerful moment in which the artificial reality falls away, revealing reality. It is the beginning of bringing the parts of herself, which have been separated, back together—the beginning of wholeness.

Her painful memories of her abortion experience also develop the theme of power. Like the animals in the jars she decided not to save, the pregnancy—not a child but the possibility of one—was given up passively. Someone else wanted it, and she agreed to go along. But rather than allowing her to relinquish responsibility, her lack of action has made her complicit: "He made me do it ... I could have said No but I didn't; that made me one of them too, a killer." This is essential to the narrator's developing sense of her own agency. Power and responsibility are part of the human condition. Inaction is still a kind of action. To be human, she will have to accept both power and its consequences.

This dual self is reflected in the imagery of the chapter. The narrator sees her image on the surface of the water and observes it as being almost another self: "My other shape was in the water, not my reflection but my shadow." The twinning imagery is repeated when the narrator looks up from below the surface of the water and sees not one but two canoes: "The canoe had twinned or I was seeing double." The second canoe is a real one, but the narrator correctly perceives her own "double vision."

Among other questions, the mystery of the fountain with the dolphins and cherub is cleared up here. Now she realizes the real fountain is the one from her town, which her mind had inserted into the constructed, fictional memory to give it a touch of authenticity.

The novel's title, Surfacing, has a metaphorical meaning that is concretely illustrated in this chapter. The title references how the narrator's submerged memories come to the surface of her consciousness. In this chapter her literal dive into the deep water can be seen as a symbolic dive into her subconscious, where her repressed memory is stored. She encounters this memory and, as she swims upward and surfaces, she brings the memory up with her. The water becomes a symbol of her subconscious mind, and the dive represents the emotional work she does to bring the painful memory into the light and begin to heal.

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