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.
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.
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