Literature Study GuidesSurfacingPart 2 Chapter 18 Summary

Surfacing | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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Surfacing | Part 2, Chapter 18 | Summary



When the narrator returns to the cabin, it is empty and feels unfamiliar. She sits on a swing outside and thinks about the affair that led to her pregnancy. She is grateful her father left her the puzzle of his drawings and map markings to solve, for it was a gift that led her to the sacred place. But now she feels she will not be complete until she has found a gift from her mother. She walks along a trail, thinking about this, when David approaches her. He wants sex. He aggressively grabs her, and she twists away. Then he tells her Joe is having sex with Anna right now, so it would be retaliation for the two of them to do the same. She still refuses.

At dinner she realizes Anna had sex with Joe because it is her way of maintaining power in her marriage. Anna and David's marriage is like a competition they are locked into: "If she ever surrendered the balance of power would be broken and he would go elsewhere." The narrator reveals to Anna and Joe that David approached her for sex and she refused him. David accuses her of hating men, but she thinks, "It wasn't the men I hated, it was the Americans, the human beings, men and women both." She thinks it would be nice to make humans vanish so there would be more room for the animals. When she doesn't respond to David's accusation, Anna asks her mockingly if she's going to answer. She says no. "She really is inhuman," Anna says.


The narrator is in a precarious state. On the one hand she is beginning to regain wholeness. Her feeling that the cabin is unfamiliar, she explains, is because of the previous separation of herself into two halves. One half has been living in the cabin for a week, while the other hasn't been there in a long time: "The half of me that had begun to return was not yet used to it." These indications of returning wholeness are positive signs. But on the other hand, there is a great deal of emotional work to be done before the narrator is restored to sanity. She has developed new spiritual beliefs about the lake and delusions about her parents' intentions to leave her gifts that will guide her and make her "completed."

On top of the very personal issues she is facing—coping with painful memories and estranged family relationships—she also faces external challenges from her three companions. This internal/external parallelism is evident throughout the novel. For example, as she tries to solve the mystery of her father's disappearance, she is also solving the mystery of her fragmented memory and lack of emotion. Here sexual conflict and power games among the four companions provide the external struggle mirroring her internal struggle. She sees the bond between David and Anna as a balancing of power, and she needs to find a similar balance within herself. The logical mind and the part that goes beyond logic have to come into equilibrium.

The seeds of her next big challenge can be found in her internal response to David's accusation. While she doesn't say anything aloud, she does think about whether or not she hates men. Her conclusion is she hates Americans and also humans in general. This seems like two overlapping categories, but a closer look brings out the difference. "Americans" is a group she does not identify with, and furthermore it is representative of a culture she sees as being toxic to nature and to Canadian culture and identity. Americanness seems to spread like a disease, evident in the killing of the heron by the group of Canadians. However, humans are a group she does belong to. And to be fair the humans in the novel—past and present—have few redeeming qualities. Aside from Paul and Madame, they are mocking, violent, destructive, manipulative, unloving, and self-centered. Given this crowd of poor examples of humanity and the narrator's desire to avoid complicity in humanity's sins, perhaps it is not surprising she begins to identify with the animals. As Anna notes, she is "inhuman." To the narrator, this is a compliment. However, she is human, and to be fully whole she will need to reconcile herself to this identity.

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