Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Language As Connection to Society
Throughout Surfacing, the narrator’s feeling of powerlessness is coupled with an inability to use language. When she goes mad, she cannot understand David’s words or speak out against his advances. Similarly, when the search party comes for her, she cannot understand their speech, and her only defense from them is flight. Words betray her, as it is by yelling that the search party discovers her. The narrator maintains the false hope that she can reject human language just as she imagines she can reject human society. She admires how animals know the types of plants without naming them. When she goes mad, she vows not to teach her child language—yet eventually she conquers her alienation by embracing language.
The Total Alienation of Women
Atwood uses the narrator’s near-constant feeling of alienation to comment on the alienation of all women. The narrator feels abandoned by her parents because of the disappearance of her father and the detachment of her mother. She finds men especially alienating because of the way they control women through religion, marriage, birth control, sex, language, and birth. She depicts the way that men view relationships as a war, with women as the spoils. The narrator also describes her alienation as systematic, highlighting the way that children learn gender roles early on in life. The result of the narrator’s alienation is madness and complete withdrawal. The narrator remains unnamed, making her a universal figure and suggesting that all women are in some way alienated.
Atwood packs Surfacing with images of Americans invading and ruining Canada. The Americans install missile silos, pepper the village with tourist cabins, leave trash everywhere, and kill for sport. David even goes so far as to theorize an American invasion of Canada for Canadian fresh water. Atwood depicts American expansion as a result of psychological and cultural infiltration. The narrator calls Americans a brain disease, linking American identity to behaviors rather than nationality. To the narrator, an American is anyone who commits senseless violence, loves technology, or over-consumes. David claims he hates Americans, yet he loves baseball and imitates Woody Woodpecker. Atwood depicts American expansion as destructive and a corruptive psychological influence.
The narrator mentions power several times before going mad and actively seeking “the power.” In Chapter 4, she remembers thinking that seeds from a certain plant will make her all-powerful. In Chapter 9, she says that doctors pretend childbirth is their power and not the mother’s. In Chapter 15, she remembers alternately pretending to be a helpless animal and an animal with power. The narrator’s later quest for “the power” emphasizes her response to alienation. Ever since childhood, she has been isolated and emotionally numb, crippled by unsuitable religious ideals and gender roles. The narrator’s psychotic search for “the power” represents the false hope that by withdrawing from society she can regain her humanity. Ultimately, the narrator gains power by resolving not to be powerless. She acknowledges that in order to function in society, she must learn to love and communicate. The narrator’s quest for “the power” is similar to her anxiety over social alienation.
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 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 ideal 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 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.
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