Surfacing | Study Guide

Margaret Atwood

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Surfacing | Themes


Separation versus Wholeness

The driving force of the novel is the narrator's quest for wholeness and connectedness. From the beginning she feels separate from other characters, both in her present and in her past. She is with her lover and two other friends, but she hardly knows anything about their lives. Although Joe is falling ever more deeply in love with her, she isn't sure she loves him or even wants to. Her flashbacks to childhood focus on her sense of separation from other children and families in the small town where she grew up. She speaks English while most of the other children speak French. She is from a nonreligious family while most of the other children are churchgoing. She is the daughter of parents who, for their own private reasons, chose to live on an island literally separated by water from the mainland of the town. These private reasons also separate her from her parents, as do other life circumstances and, ultimately, her parents' deaths. Furthermore, the various parts of her identity are separated from each other. She feels her head is separate from her emotions. She feels separate from her own past self because of gaps and disruptions in her memories.

To find wholeness, the narrator must first connect the parts of herself, then connect with her parents and come to terms with their humanity and deaths, and finally connect back to other people in her life, such as Joe. As she performs this difficult emotional work, she accepts the reality and importance of change and accepts herself as a whole human being.


The narrator's emotional journey takes her from feeling powerless and victimized to feeling powerful. Her childhood memories and more recent memories (both real and imagined) of marriage, pregnancy, and childbearing are filled with a sense of powerlessness and victimization. She is bullied by other children. She gives birth and has an abortion under pressure from her husband, at the mercy of medical personnel. As a woman she has less systemic power, even in a society that is supposed to be working for women's equality.

Yet even in areas where she does have power, for the majority of the novel she does not want to acknowledge it. She makes up a wishful scenario about fishing in which the fish chooses to be caught rather than admit her power over the fish. This is exacerbated by world events that show abuses of power. In a reference to Hitler and World War II, she thinks about attaining power: "If I'd turned out like the others with power I would have been evil."

When, at the end of the novel, the narrator accepts her humanity and adulthood, she is accepting her power, her agency. She has the power to give life and to take it. She has the power to build a relationship or break it.

Natural versus Artificial

The theme of natural versus artificial appears in several ways throughout the novel. It is often woven into descriptions of how women are viewed and objectified in society. For example, the narrator's friend Anna puts on her makeup each morning without fail, and she is terrified when, on one short canoe trip, she forgets to bring it along. She says (perhaps untruthfully) David doesn't know she wears it—he thinks it is her natural face. She believes David would be angry if she went without it. This suggests that for women, looking young or beautiful is part of their responsibility in romantic relationships. Toward the end of the novel, the narrator begins to see mirrors—in front of which women work to make themselves acceptable—as objects that can trap a woman's soul. To society, the artificial woman is preferable. This is why the narrator's view of herself as a "natural" woman at the conclusion of the novel is so important. She has rejected the artificial woman in favor of the natural one.

This theme is also explored as it pertains to the author's own narrative of self—her memories. For much of the novel, she prefers an artificial reality to the real one. In her fictional narrative, she had a child, and when she divorced she left the child with the father. The truth is that she had an affair and an abortion. The fictional failed marriage, though an unhappy story, is preferable to the truth, and so, for a time, it protects her from the reality she finds so painful. She says often in the early part of the novel that not knowing is simpler or more peaceful than knowing. If you don't know about a war, you may feel like the world is at peace. If you don't know about Hitler, you may feel like people are basically good. The narrator's father had retreated from the world to the island to "sustain his illusions of reason and benevolent order." She seems to choose a different path—one that faces the existence of suffering and evil and doesn't shy away from them.

Canadian versus American Identity

The theme of Canadian identity is present throughout the novel. It is mildly related to the theme of separation versus wholeness: the narrator is Canadian and from a part of Canada in which two distinct cultures coexist. The narrator's identity is wrapped up in Canadian identity, which is itself somewhat difficult to nail down. There is an ongoing sense that Canadian identity is seen in contrast to the more aggressive American identity, which is threatening to overtake and drown out Canadian culture. The tree disease from the south, mentioned in the opening paragraph of the novel, can be seen as a metaphor for American culture, which spreads like a disease. Americans are described as invaders and exploiters. The dead heron becomes a symbol of the insidious spread of Americanism because it was killed by Canadians in a violent and senseless way, behavior the narrator generally attributes to Americans.

This theme is also tied, in some ways, to the theme of power, since the narrator's sense of being without agency in her own life decisions—such as having a child or not—seems to parallel the narrator's sense that American culture is taking over a more passive Canadian culture. Canadian culture seems powerless in the face of the spreading disease of American violence and exploitation, placing Canada in the role of victim.

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Questions for Themes

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