Literature Study GuidesSurfacingPart 3 Chapter 23 Summary

Surfacing | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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Surfacing | Part 3, Chapter 23 | Summary



The next morning as she begins to brush her hair, she feels a "surge of fear," like power, in her hand. She realizes brushing her hair and looking in the mirror are now forbidden activities. She turns the mirror toward the wall so her soul will not be trapped in it, and thinks about "Anna's soul closed in the gold compact." As she exits through the window, the fear suddenly lifts and she realizes there "must be rules: places I'm permitted to be, other places I'm not." She intends to pay attention to the signs so she can learn what is forbidden. Most enclosures are forbidden, as is the dock. She also believes sacrifices are required of her: her paintings, her fake wedding ring, scrapbooks, bedding, dishes, and the like. She burns or otherwise destroys all of these. She finds food and makes a lair out of leaves and sticks, where she curls up and sleeps.


The "wavery yellowish mirror" described in Chapter 5 has been an aspect of the narrator's daily life throughout the book. Each day she and Anna brush their hair in front of it; in Chapter 10 the narrator sweeps up a pile of dark and light hair from the floor. Each day Anna puts her makeup on in front of it so David will not see her natural face. The doubling of the self that occurs in the mirror is an image that helps develop the theme of separation versus wholeness. The mirror is also associated with the artificial image women feel they must present to the world: made up, suntanned, dressed or undressed depending on the viewer's desire, as in a magazine.

In her current state this artificial aspect of mirrors is expressed in more disturbing language. She feels mirrors trap women's souls and she must stop looking in them: "I look for the last time at my distorted glass face. ... Not to see myself but to see." Her rejection of the mirror is the rejection of the artificial self.

Yet the narrator takes this rejection to extremes, retreating from the artificial but also from the human self. She enters a feral state, living life as an animal—an innocent state. This retreat from her humanity is a descent into deep water. She will spend time in this deep water before her eventual surfacing.

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