full title Surfacing
author Margaret Atwood
type of work Novel
genre Psychological thriller; mystery; feminist tract; postcolonial novel; environmental tract
time and place written 1972, Canada
date of first publication 1972
publisher McClelland & Stewart
narrator The unnamed narrator of the novel is also its chief protagonist. She is an artist who goes in search of her missing father. The novel is written entirely from the narrator’s perspective, detailing events as they occur while flashing back to events past.
point of view Atwood re-creates the narrator’s raw, unfiltered psychology by including the narrator’s observations and memories as they occur. The narrator speaks in the first person and does not address a specific audience. Her voice is objective in that it only relates what the other characters say and do, but it is subjective in that she interprets the psychology behind other characters’ actions. The narrator is unreliable because she relates memories only to change or deny them.
tone The narrator has an anxious, tense tone. She is also paranoid, introverted, wise, educated, and cynically humorous.
tense The narrator writes in the present tense, but events in the present trigger past memories.
setting (time) The present (1970s)
setting (place) A remote island in Quebec
protagonist The narrator
major conflict The narrator reexamines her place in society, feeling alienated by ideals of marriage and religion that fail to suit her.
rising action The narrator’s search for her father, memories of her mother, confrontation of her past, observations of her companions, and reaction to American encroachments on the wilderness all promote in her an emotional numbness.
climax While diving, the narrator experiences a vision of her aborted baby that releases several repressed memories.
falling action The narrator abandons her friends and undergoes a psychological madness in which she regresses to a childlike state and literally lives like an animal.
themes Language as power; the total alienation of women
motifs American expansion; the power
symbols The barometer; frogs; the hanged heron; makeup; the ring
foreshadowing Joe’s fiddling with the narrator’s ring foreshadows his later demand for marriage. The narrator’s belief that her brother must have had visions after drowning foreshadows her own vision when she nearly drowns. The narrator imagines her father hiding from a search party and ends up hiding in exactly the way she had imagined. The narrator’s constant ruminations on language foreshadow her later search for a primal language.