Use of Symbols in Margaret Atwood’s novel “Surfacing”

The Barometer

Paul’s wooden barometer, which features a wooden man and woman inside, becomes an unfortunately accurate emblem of marriage for the narrator. The narrator’s shifting assessment of the barometer traces her shifting attitudes toward marriage. Initially, the narrator views the barometer couple as representative of a simplistic and even empty marriage, and she compares them to Paul and Madame. She mentions how Paul and Madame even look wooden. The narrator later compares the barometer couple to Anna and David. She compares because in that the wooden couple, like Anna and David’s happiness, is not real. The narrator also thinks of the barometer in relation to her parents. She compares the image of the barometer with the image of her mother and father sawing a piece of birch. The image of the birch is evocative because the narrator associates birches with unspoiled nature. The implication is that the barometer represents an unattainable, unrealistic version of love, whereas her parents possess true love.

The Hanged Heron

The hanged heron at the portage represents the American destruction of nature. The narrator obsesses over the senselessness of its slaughter, especially that it was hanged and not buried. The heron’s death emphasizes that the narrator defines someone as American based on his or her actions. She condemns any act of senseless violence or waste as distinctly American. That the bird is killed with a bullet and hanged using a nylon rope emphasizes the subversion of nature to technology. Also, the narrator thinks of the hanged bird as a Christ-like sacrifice, which reflects Christian ideology. By using Christian ideas to describe nature, the narrator emphasizes her near-religious reverence for nature. The narrator also compares herself to the heron during her madness, when she worries that the search party will hang her by the feet. By associating the narrator with the hanged heron, Atwood associates the way Americans destroy nature with the way men control women.


Anna’s makeup, which David demands she wear at all times, represents the large-scale subjugation of women. The narrator compares Anna to a doll when she sees her putting on makeup because Anna becomes David’s sexual plaything. At the same time, makeup represents female deception. Anna uses makeup as a veneer of beauty, and the behavior is representative of the way she acts virtuous (but sleeps with other men) and happy (but feels miserable). Makeup goes completely against the narrator’s idea of a natural woman. The narrator calls herself a natural woman directly after her madness when she looks in a mirror and sees herself naked and completely disheveled. The narrator comments that Anna uses makeup to emulate a corrupt womanly ideal.

The Ring

The narrator’s ring symbolizes marriage and its entrapping effects. The narrator describes wearing both her boyfriend’s and her fake husband’s rings around her neck. She compares her rings to a crucifix or a military decoration. The crucifix suggests that marriage is not only a sacrifice but a sacrifice toward a false ideal. The image of a military decoration implies that marriage forces women into becoming the spoils of war. Atwood uses the narrator’s ring to foreshadow Joe’s demand for marriage, as she mentions in Chapter 1 that Joe fiddles with the narrator’s ring.