The unnamed protagonist of Surfacing
. The narrator
is reverential toward nature, intensely private, anti-American, and
introspective. She works as a freelance artist. She searches for her missing
father on a remote island in Quebec along with her boyfriend, Joe, and her
friends, David and Anna. Socially alienated and distrustful of love, the
narrator suffers a debilitating emotional numbness that eventually fixes itself
through a grand psychological transformation. She eventually goes mad on the
island. For a time she lives like an animal, but she eventually emerges as a
more enlightened being. Surfacing
is composed entirely of the
narrator’s unfiltered thoughts and observations.
The quiet, shy, well-meaning boyfriend of the narrator. Joe is an
unsuccessful artist who makes ugly pottery and teaches pottery classes. Joe
remains too simple-minded to understand the narrator’s complexities. He insists
on marrying the narrator, which she resists. Joe is a good man, but he is also
in-depth analysis of Joe.
The psychologically abusive and womanizing husband of Anna. David is
a communications teacher who loves baseball. He is an amateur filmmaker
composing a film with Joe called Random Samples
constant joking and imitation of cartoon characters serves as a poor cover for
his selfish and sexist behavior, and the manner in which he communicates with
Anna is deeply cruel. David is staunchly anti-American, yet he possesses all of
the awful qualities that the narrator associates with Americans.
in-depth analysis of David.
The vulnerable yet sly wife of David. Anna puts on a veneer of
sweetness in order to please her husband. She constantly sings and applies
makeup. She believes her marriage is a war that she fights using her body; Anna
uses sex with her husband and with other men to curb David’s behavior. She is
more talkative and social than the narrator but far less introspective or
in-depth analysis of Anna.
The compassionate yet reserved best friend of the narrator’s father.
Paul is the first one to inform the narrator of her father’s disappearance. He
is a poor man who lives a modest life, and he operates by traditional morals and
codes of courtesy and provides as much help as he can in locating the narrator’s
father. Paul was the model of “the simple life” to the narrator’s father, though
the narrator observes that he is a model through financial necessity and not
The Narrator’s Mother
An aloof and secretive woman. The narrator’s mother died from a brain
tumor before the novel begins, and the narrator constantly tries to remember
her. Her mother serves as the narrator’s image of inner strength. The narrator
continually remembers the image of her mother in a leather jacket feeding blue
The Narrator’s Father
A stern man who disappears, forcing the narrator to search for him on
his island. The narrator’s father is an atheist and a fan of the
eighteenth-century rationalists. Self-reliant and rugged, he built the cabin on
his own and had used the island as respite from city life. He dies accidentally
on a trip researching local Indian wall paintings.
The Narrator’s Brother
A character who never appears in person. The narrator’s brother fled
from his parents years before the novel takes place. The narrator finds it
difficult to imagine him as an adult. He nearly drowned as a child, and the
narrator constantly reflects on the image of his drowning. He was loving toward
his sister, but he had a rather dark childhood. He kept a laboratory on the
island, running experiments on animals in jars.
The “Fake Husband”
The narrator’s ex-lover. The fake husband is eventually revealed to
be the narrator’s art professor, a married man with whom she had an affair. He
forced the narrator into having an abortion. He is emotionally callous in nature
and tries to avoid letting his affair with the narrator influence his
A shady and wealthy American whom the narrator immediately distrusts.
Malmstrom claims to be a representative of a Detroit-based wildlife preservation
agency. He offers to purchase the narrator’s father’s island. David suspects
that Malmstrom is an undercover C.I.A. operative.
Two Canadian campers whom the narrator initially mistakes for
American tourists. They are avid fishers, and they befriend David. They are also
responsible for killing and hanging a heron, and for their senseless violence
the narrator believes them to be Americans.
A young boy working at a generic bar attached to a new motel in the
village. Claude gives fishing licenses to David and to other tourists and also
guides American tourists on fishing expeditions. He speaks in a yokel
The seasoned American guide who takes the narrator, Joe, Anna, and
David to and from the narrator’s father’s island. Evans is gruff and minds his
own business; he is aware that the narrator’s father has disappeared, but he
never asks the narrator about it.
Paul’s wife. Madame is a French woman living in the village close to
the narrator’s father’s island. Simple and polite, she speaks only French.
Because they only speak English, the narrator and the narrator’s mother both
experience long, awkward conversations with Madame.
The Town Priest
The local priest whom the narrator remembers from childhood. The town
priest forbade women in the narrator’s village from wearing slacks. Instead, he
forced them to wear long, concealing skirts. The narrator reflects that he is
likely dead by now.
The Old Shopkeeper
One-armed French woman whom the narrator remembers simply as
“Madame.” The old shopkeeper operated from a storefront attached to her house.
The narrator remembers how the shopkeeper used to tie packages with her stump
arm and how she used to sell candies that the narrator was never allowed to
The New Shopkeeper
A French woman who works in a small village near the narrator’s
father’s island. The new shopkeeper is a rude, snide woman who humiliates the
narrator for speaking broken French. The shopkeeper wears slacks, which would
have been forbidden in the village years ago.