Surfacing | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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Surfacing | Symbols



The title of the novel, Surfacing, suggests itself as an overall metaphor for the emotional journey of the narrator. She dives into her subconscious, into her memories, into her grief, and into her delusions. She surfaces again having put the parts of her whole self together. The dive she takes to the bottom of the lake symbolically represents the emotional work she must do to face her feelings about her abortion and about her parents' lives and deaths. So the water, and in particular the lake, function as an important symbol of the narrator's subconscious, in which she has buried or submerged painful memories and into which she must go to find healing.

Dead Heron

On the way to find one of the rock paintings, the narrator sees a dead heron hanging by its feet from a tree. She knows herons are not good for food, so there is no good reason to kill one. She assumes Americans killed it since they are known to kill without reason. However, the men who killed the heron turn out to be Canadians, which shocks the narrator. She is disturbed by her inability to tell the difference between Canadians and Americans, and she worries the American influence will end up being too strong for Canadian culture to resist. Thus the dead heron comes to symbolizes both the passive victimhood of Canadian culture and the destructive American influence.

Barometer Couple

The wooden barometer couple—a quaint husband and wife—seen in Paul and Madame's home becomes a symbol of the forces that keep relationships together. At first they seem to represent Paul and Madame; the narrator remarks on how Paul and Madame are just like carvings. As the novel progresses they come to symbolize all the reasons couples stay together. As the narrator comes to realize, there are a variety of different bonds between couples, and love is not necessarily the only one or even the strongest one. David and Anna's relationship seems based on mutual hate, or at least a mutual struggle for power. Her own parents seemed to share a bond they found in rejecting society together. Until the final moments of the story, her relationship with Joe seems stable only as long as it doesn't stray into the realm of emotion and simply remains a convenient sexual outlet for both. The barometer couple is, ultimately, any couple that is bound together for any reason.

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