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Surfacing

Margaret Atwood

Important Quotations Explained

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Key Facts

1. He’s enjoying himself, he thinks this is reality . . . He spent four years in New York and became political, he was studying something; it was during the sixties, I’m not sure when. My friends’ pasts are vague to me and to each other also, any one of us could have amnesia for a year and the others wouldn’t notice.

The narrator observes David and comments on his past just before taking her friends to the island in Chapter 3. The narrator’s disdain for David’s enjoyment of Greenwich Village reflects her intolerance for tourists who come to Quebec seeking an authentic outdoor experience. David is a city-dweller, and the narrator feels perturbed by his casual enjoyment of the trappings of outdoor life, such as fishing or chopping firewood. She inherits this disdain in part from her father, who used to size up men for their ability to live outdoors on their own. Another part of her resents the American tourists who seek out the wilderness only to spoil it.

The flippancy with which the narrator describes David’s political conscience is in fact justified. David knows politics only superficially, and his nondescript anti-American sentiment comes across as a weak substitute for true political knowledge. Also, his background in New York seems ironic given his anti-American leanings. The narrator continually juxtaposes David’s anti-American statements against his clear adoption of American culture. Though he says he hates America, David imitates American cartoons and loves baseball. David’s years in New York help build a picture of a hypocrite who claims to hate Americans and yet is dominated by American culture.

The narrator’s admission that she knows little about her friends’ backgrounds emphasizes the superficiality of nearly all of her relationships. The narrator remains unable to commit to people emotionally. She retains only insubstantial friendships, which she recognizes. The same message comes across when she comments that Anna is her best friend, and then admits they have known each other for only two months. The narrator’s withdrawal from her friends points to her role as a social outcast. An intensely private and introspective woman, this passage emphasizes the gap between the narrator’s thoughts and her outward appearance to the other characters.

2. I have to be more careful about my memories. I have to be sure they’re my own and not the memories of other people telling me what I felt, how I acted, what I said: if the events are wrong the feelings I remember about them will be wrong too, I’ll start inventing them . . . .

The narrator makes this statement in Chapter 8, when she holes herself up in an outhouse, waiting for David and Joe to explain to Evans that they want to stay on the island. While hiding in the outhouse, the narrator remembers facets of her childhood and contrasts the time she spent on the island with the time she spent in the city. She decides she has always felt safer in the wilderness than in the city. She then retracts that notion once she remembers all of the times she felt scared on the island. The narrator begins to worry here that her memories are unwittingly changing, and this quotation points out the frightening notion that memories are subjective. She panics at this realization, worrying that if she changes her memories she will have no way of checking herself. She worries she will act irrationally by relying on information that is not accurate.

Though here the narrator worries about others’ opinions affecting her memory, it is actually the narrator’s own subconscious that corrupts her memory. This passage foreshadows the narrator’s later exposure of a repressed memory. She recants the memory of her wedding, replacing it with the memory of having an affair with her art professor and aborting their baby. Interestingly, the false memory contains multiple true facts lifted from other sources. For example, she remembers a fountain from the company town near the village, but inserts the fountain into the memory of her wedding. She remembers what her lover said to her after the abortion, but instead remembers him saying it after her wedding. She even goes on to create a new false memory just as she exposes the repressed one. She remembers her brother keeping frogs in jars and inserts that memory into her abortion, falsely claiming that the doctors gave her the fetus in a jar. The narrator’s memories change themselves to fit with her desires and emotions, effectively erasing her abortion. Atwood’s audience becomes subject to the same difficulty as the narrator, unwittingly relying on false information.

3. It wasn’t the city that was wrong, the inquisitors in the schoolyard, we weren’t better than they were; we just had different victims. To become like a little child again, a barbarian, a vandal: it was in us too, it was innate. A thing closed in my head, hand, synapse, cutting off my escape . . .

In Chapter 15, the narrator compares the cruelty she exhibited toward animals on the island with the cruelty that school children inflicted upon her in the city. Her rumination on cruelty occurs after she sees the hanged heron at the portage. The narrator recalls throwing leeches into fires and also claims responsibility for killing the animals that her brother had kept in jars in his laboratory. She also recounts how she killed a doll, remembering how she pretended to be a swarm of bees and had ripped up the doll and thrown it into the lake. She calls the instance a killing because, as a child, the doll had been alive to her. By weighing her own cruelty against that of the schoolchildren who used to torment her, the narrator concludes that all children have an innate capacity for violence. For a while, she had entertained the hope that the island would be a haven for her. This passage disavows the narrator of that notion, because violence seems to follow humans regardless of environment.

4. Joe is not there. He appears then at the top of the sand cliff, running, halting. He yells my name, furiously: if he had a rock he would throw it.
   The canoe glides, carrying the two of us, around past the leaning trees . . . The direction is clear, I see I’ve been planning this, for how long I can’t tell.

The narrator’s description of Joe casts him as a caveman. The detail of throwing a rock paints him as a sort of frustrated and helpless primeval man. The narrator’s description contains a seed of truth, in that Joe’s simplicity repeatedly prevents him from grasping the narrator’s complex and sophisticated private world. Joe’s insistence on marriage and his one-sided conception of love fail to match the intricacies of the narrator’s conceptions of love and relationships. This passage contains specific words that reflect the narrator’s deepest concerns. She mentions that the canoe carries two people, which is a reference to her pregnancy. After remembering a past abortion, the narrator maintains constant awareness of her current pregnancy. Her new baby becomes a means for salvation from her guilt, and she thinks of the child as a potential solution to the social ailments she sees all around her. Her mention of the sand cliff points to her awareness that the island is eroding. The narrator remains concerned about the impermanence of the cabin, perhaps because she fears that the erosion of the island will erase her childhood. However, the narrator eventually embraces the erosion of the cabin because it signifies the triumph of nature over human development.

5. This above all, to refuse to be a victim. Unless I can do that I can do nothing. I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless and because of it nothing I can do will ever hurt anyone . . . withdrawing is no longer possible and the alternative is death.

The narrator makes this remark in Chapter 27, after coming out of her madness. The phrase punctuates her attempt to completely withdraw from society and live like a natural animal, and it contains her cathartic conclusion to rejoin society. When she refers to being a victim, she refers to mental stumbling blocks that had once made her believe she was being oppressed by forces beyond her control, including religion, men, and marital conventions. Here, the narrator decides not to be a victim. The narrator’s mention of powerlessness echoes her earlier search for “the power” during her madness. The narrator had searched for “the power” in her dead parents, the Indian gods, and in nature. Here, her resolution not to feel powerless marks the moment when she finally seeks refuge from her social isolation by internal (rather than external) means.

In this passage, the narrator comes to the conclusion that she possesses agency, and that her actions have consequences. Previously, emotional numbness had prevented her from believing that anything she did could affect others. She believed that her friends looked at her as a mirror of themselves, and that therefore she played no part in their lives. This opinion comes about when she asserts that Joe wants to marry an idea rather than a person. Here, the narrator concedes that because she will become an active member of society, her actions will have consequences. She relinquishes her emotional numbness by acknowledging that in possessing emotions, she will affect others’ emotions.

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