Critical Appreciation of Margaret Atwood’s novel “Surfacing”

“Part detective novel, part psychological thriller, Surfacing is the story of a talented woman artist who goes in search of her missing father on a remote island in northern Quebec. Setting out with lover and another young couple, she soon finds herself captivated by the isolated settings, where a marriage begins to fall apart, violence and death lurk just beneath the surface, sex becomes a catalyst for conflict and dangerous choices. Surfacing is a work permeated with an aura of suspense, complex with layered meanings, and written in brilliant, diamond-sharp prose.”

Surfacing takes place in Quebec. Itis the only Canadian province populated by residents of French (rather than British) descent. Atwood wrote Surfacing at a time when the cultural differences between Quebec and the rest of Canada were manifesting themselves in terms of rising Quebec nationalism. The 1960s saw the Quiet Revolution in Quebec: a series of economic and educational reforms coupled with the secularization of society. The Quiet Revolution afforded Quebec greater political and economic autonomy, giving Quebec’s French citizens a sense of nationalism and a desire to separate from Canada. Atwood shows this political change in Surfacing.

Surfacing is also a postcolonial novel, though not in the traditional sense. Most postcolonial novels are written by authors from countries that have gained bloody independence from empires such as Britain, France, or America. These novels usually mark the effects of upheaval and bloody revolution, documenting a search for an independent national identity coupled with a reaction to the political scarring left by imperialism. Since Canadian independence from Britain occurred very gradually, Surfacing does not fall into the traditional postcolonial categorization. Surfacing does, however, explore an emerging Canadian national identity. Atwood includes a passage about the Canadian national flag, which had only been adopted in 1965. More important, Surfacing exists as a postcolonial novel in its consideration of Americans and the way that America exerts its cultural influence over Canada. Atwood claims that America’s subtle cultural infiltration of Canada is a form of colonialism.

In this novel, Surfacing, Atwood questions a woman’s conventional social and sexual role. Surfacing touches on the health risks associated with hormonal contraception, the idea of contraception as a male invention, the power inherent in pregnancy, the social implications of makeup, the potentially false ideal of marriage, the notion of a natural woman, and the psychological mechanisms that men use to exert control over women. Atwood creates a narrator who feels alienated by social pressures that cast her in a specific gender role. Even the narrator’s response to those pressures is complete withdrawal. As such, Atwood presents a frank condemnation of the sexual and social norms forced upon women. Surfacing can, therefore, be seen as a proto-feminist novel.

Surfacing also gives an account of a social period of growing secularization and of widening generational gaps. Atwood deems religion as more of a social regulatory force than a truth. For example, the town priest abuses his religious authority in the village by enforcing a strict dress code for women. The narrator also labels Christianity as a social control mechanism that is learned at a young age and stays potent throughout adulthood. Religion in Surfacing becomes a false ideal, and Atwood’s condemnation of Christianity marks a larger social tendency toward secularization. At the same time, Atwood explores a growing rift between generations. The narrator of the book casts the older generation as crippled by a rigid sense of morality. In this way, Atwood documents a split between the conservative older generation and the liberal younger generation.

A minor undercurrent in Surfacing is the novel’s existence as a post–World War II novel. The narrator recalls growing up in the wake of World War II and expresses the small effects of the war on her childhood. She believes that the war served as an outlet for men’s inherent violence. She tries to trace the effects of pent-up violence in a society devoid of war. The narrator sees the American infiltration of Canada as a direct result of American restlessness during the post-war period. Surfacing examines the ambiguous moral landscape left in the wake of World War II. The narrator’s childhood recollection of Hitler as the embodiment of all evil depicts World War II-era as morally simplistic. The post-war world is more ambiguous, and the narrator challenges herself to discover the roots of evil now that humans no longer have a single scapegoat.

Surfacing predates the environmentalist movement, but the narrator’s reverence for the Canadian wilderness is a pro-environmentalist one. The unnamed narrator feels protective of nature and reacts with hostility to the American tourists who overfish, kill for sport, and litter the ground. Surfacing is full of tourists, urban outgrowth, and technology that directly trespass upon the unspoiled land. These environmental concerns still re-echo today given continuing trends toward overconsumption and the spread of technology that relies upon natural resources.