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Surfacing

Margaret Atwood

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Plot Overview

Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa, Canada. She went on to study at Victoria College at the University of Toronto and eventually received a master’s degree from Radcliffe College. Surfacing is Margaret Atwood’s second novel, which was published in 1972, only three years after her first novel The Edible Woman was published. Though one of Atwood’s early novels, Surfacing is not one of Atwood’s earliest publications. By the time Surfacing was published, she had already published several books of poetry. Atwood’s writing has been published in more than thirty languages.

Surfacing takes place in Quebec, and the unique identity of Quebec’s population comes into play in the novel. Quebec is 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 a 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 marks this political change in Surfacing.

Surfacing is 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, Spain, 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 so 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 actually a form of colonialism.

Through 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, and 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 marks 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 on 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 documents small effects of the war on her childhood. She believes that the war served as an outlet for men’s inherent violence, and 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 the 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 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 encroach upon the unspoiled land. These environmental concerns still resonate today given continuing trends toward overconsumption and the prevalence of technology that relies upon natural resources.

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