Atwood avoids naming the narrator of Surfacing in order to emphasize the universality of the narrator’s feeling of alienation from society. The causes and effects of the narrator’s psychological transformation remain somewhat mysterious. The narrator feels emotionally numb, isolated by the numerous roles she is supposed to play in her life. Part of the cause is grief, and part of it is due to spending too much time in the wilderness. But the narrator’s madness also stems in large part from systematic social alienation. Atwood explores a woman’s place in all of its facets: as a human, a wife, a religious person, a mother, and a sexual being. The narrator’s madness seems to arise from her anger at all of the standard roles forced upon women. Her response to this alienation is to become an animal. She sees animals not as beasts without reason, but as graceful creatures that are better than humans at peacefully coexisting with nature. The result of the narrator’s transformation is a greater understanding of her place in society. This understanding comes out of necessity, because the narrator realizes that complete withdrawal from society will result in her death. However, the narrator also reaches new conclusions about how she will cope with society’s ills. She resolves to rejoin society without succumbing to the pressures that once subdued her.
At first, the narrator depicts Joe as simple-minded and agreeable, but as Surfacing progresses, Joe’s personality undergoes changes. Where once he seemed content, he becomes irritable and sullen when the narrator refuses his marriage proposal. Also, Joe’s actions become less predictable. His proposal is unexpected, and the narrator becomes less able to discern Joe’s intentions. When David asks Anna to be filmed naked and Joe defends her, the narrator has trouble discerning whether Joe is helping a friend or seeking a way to become sexually aroused. The narrator shows herself to be unreliable in depicting Joe objectively. For example, she keeps bracing herself for a hit from Joe that never comes.
As her impressions of Joe fluctuate, the narrator’s impression of their love also shifts. Initially, the narrator downplays Joe’s love for her. She believes that Joe wants to marry her out of a conceptual ideal and not out of affection. The narrator also downplays her love for Joe, claiming she only enjoys Joe for his physical qualities. However, Surfacing ends with legitimate love between the two, and Joe displays his sincere affection for the narrator when he searches for her on the island. Despite this love, the narrator filters Joe’s actions through her own biases, making his true character unknowable.
David is the model of male dominance in Surfacing. David initially appears to be an ideal husband, as he jokes and flirts with Anna. However, Atwood twists her portrayal of David by revealing the cruelty that underscores his jokes and the emptiness of his flirtation. Under the guise of joking, David constantly tries to control Anna’s behavior. As the week progresses, he becomes overtly antagonistic toward her, calling her fat and snubbing her ideas, and eventually uses psychological cruelty to dominate her. He also objectifies Anna by referring to her body in front of Joe. The narrator recognizes that David’s flirtation serves as a display. She calls his banter with Anna a “skit,” noticing that both David and Anna drop their flirtation once they lose their audience.
David spews generic anti-American sentiment, calling the Americans pigs and proposing that they be thrown out of Canada. However, these anti-American politics lack substance. The best justification that David can muster for hating Americans is a ridiculous prediction of an American invasion of Canada. David possesses nearly all of the despicable characteristics the narrator comes to associate with Americans. Additionally, his own life seems at odds with his anti-American sentiments. David loves the distinctly American pastime of baseball, and he constantly laughs like the American cartoon character Woody Woodpecker. David’s political standing illustrates that Americans are marked by behaviors and not by nationality.
Anna’s primary role in Surfacing is to crystallize the narrator’s opinions about love, sex, and marriage. Anna’s constant chatter helps the narrator to better understand relationships. She asks whether the narrator takes birth control, mentioning the blood clot she developed in her leg as a result of taking the pill. Anna’s frankness about contraception allows the narrator to identify contraception as a male invention that puts females at risk. When the narrator asks Anna about marriage, Anna’s comparison of marriage to skiing blindly down a hill helps solidify the narrator’s fear of marriage. Also, Anna’s admission that David either withholds sex or hurts her during sex helps the narrator to see the way men use sex as a weapon.
The narrator also observes the psychological cruelty that men inflict on women through the way that Anna crumbles in the face of David’s cruel jokes. The degradation of Anna’s marriage confirms the narrator’s suspicions about marriage in general. At first, the narrator seems to envy Anna’s love for her husband, and she marvels at the way Anna keeps her marriage together. However, the narrator eventually comes to understand Anna’s marriage as one balanced by hate rather than love, and David’s cynicism allows her to reject marriage altogether. Anna’s life as a whole becomes a cautionary tale for the narrator. The narrator learns through Anna the pitfalls of unhappy marriage, empty sex, and fractured love.