Surfacing | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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Surfacing | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Missing Parents

The story is told by an unnamed female narrator who grew up in a town near the border of Quebec. Before the action of the story begins, the narrator's mother has already passed away from disease. The narrator's memories of growing up, of her parents and brother, and of her young adult life emerge as flashbacks throughout the novel.

After the narrator's father disappears, her friends David and Anna, a married couple, drive her north to her childhood home. Joe, the narrator's boyfriend, accompanies her as well. Her friends intend to fish for a few days and take video footage for their movie, Random Samples, while she tries to find out what happened to her father. When they get to her hometown, David, Anna, and Joe have a few drinks at a bar while the narrator visits an older couple, Paul and Madame, who are the closest people her family had to friends. Paul is unable to provide any additional information, so the four friends hire Evans, a man from town, to take them by boat to her parents' cabin. The cabin sits on a small island in the middle of a large lake adjacent to the town.

The four arrive at the isolated cabin and unpack. The narrator takes the lead in gathering vegetables from the garden and making dinner. The next morning, the narrator rises early to find Anna putting on her makeup in front of an old mirror. They eat breakfast and go out to search for signs of the narrator's father. It quickly becomes apparent they are not going to find him by random searches. Later the narrator finds a stack of papers. Among them are strange drawings made by her father with what appear to be random words or letters scribbled on them. The narrator becomes worried her father might have gone insane.

Memories and Mystery

During the first hours of staying at the cabin, the narrator revisits memories. She thinks of her parents and brother, of her own failed marriage, and of her child who now lives with her ex. She also thinks about whether or not she loves Joe, and she realizes she doesn't feel love for him. She doesn't feel much emotion at all—a fact that worries her with increasing urgency. She knows she needs to find out why she can't seem to feel anything. So as she is solving the mystery of where her father is, she is also trying to solve the mystery of her own lack of emotion.

The next day Evans comes to retrieve them, but David has decided he'd like to stay a week and do some more fishing, and the others go along with this plan. It makes the narrator uneasy to have them stay. She thinks her father may be insane and still nearby. But staying gives the narrator an opportunity to look for clues to her father's disappearance, weed the garden, and try to resolve some of her personal relationship issues. Through flashbacks, the narrator reveals greater detail about her wedding and giving birth to her child. These details are unpleasant and disturbing, and they do not seem to quite fit together correctly. She recognizes there are gaps in her memories.

Living in close quarters with David and Anna gives the narrator a chance to examine their relationship. This observation reveals a dark side to the marriage. David does not treat Anna well, and he looks for excuses to humiliate her. He takes lovers and then boasts to Anna about them.

Below the Surface

One day when the narrator is looking through the stack of her father's papers again, she finds evidence that they are not insane drawings but tracings of ancient rock paintings he had been researching. She decides to visit the site of the paintings since this is the only lead she has. The four go by canoe to the place the rock painting is supposed to be, but they do not find one. After this failure the narrator decides to check another possible location. This one is underwater because of changes in water levels.

She canoes to the location and dives down, looking for the rock painting. Although she does not find one, she finds something else: a suppressed memory. She realizes her memory of giving birth was really a memory of having an abortion. Her "husband" was really just a man she'd had an affair with who convinced her to get the abortion. When these painful memories surface, the narrator spirals into a psychotic, delusional state.

When word comes that her father's dead body has been found by some fishermen, her state worsens. When it is time for them to leave the island, she hides, and the others must leave without her. After they leave the narrator lives as an animal for several days, sleeping in a lair outside and eating foraged food. She believes she can summon her parents back from the dead. She has delusions there are rules to obey and sacrifices to make in order for her parents to come back. She believes she is pregnant again, with Joe's baby, and the baby is a god. She hallucinates seeing her mother, then her father.

Even though she has broken from reality, she seems to be processing her grief over losing her parents and giving up a pregnancy. Eventually she emerges from this psychotic state, somewhat healed from her pain. She looks in the mirror and sees she is just herself, a natural woman. When Joe comes back to the island to look for her, she watches him from the woods. She realizes she trusts him, and she might even come to love him.

Surfacing Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 The narrator returns to her island childhood home.

Rising Action

2 She searches for clues to her father's disappearance.

3 She finds mysterious, nonsensical drawings her father made.

4 She is plagued by painful but disjointed memories.

5 Her boyfriend, Joe, proposes marriage, but she refuses.

6 She learns her father's drawings show old rock paintings.

7 She searches unsuccessfully for a rock painting.

8 She goes diving to find an underwater rock painting.


9 A painful suppressed memory suddenly surfaces in her mind.

Falling Action

10 She sinks into delusion. Her father's body is found.

11 She stays alone on the island, living as an animal.


12 She returns to sanity, ready to move on from her grief.

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