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After establishing herself as one of the leading 20th century poets in Canada, the publication of Surfacing in 1972 instantly confirmed Margaret Atwood’s status as one the country’s most important novelists. Atwood’s unnamed heroine literally goes into the woods on a search for her missing father who may be mad and mad still be alive. The woods represent an entry into her own psychic past as issues of environmentalism, American imperialism and sexism are manifested in both literal and figurative imagery.
Surfacing also connected strongly with the burgeoning feminist movement, but the novel really elevated Atwood to the level of caretaker of postcolonial concerns. The novel’s direct concern is with thematic elements related to the identity of Quebec within the framework of outside influences of non-French Canada around it and America to the south. Gender conventions and expectations are realized though narrative progression and symbolic interjection, but the alienation experienced by the narrator expands well beyond the constrictions of mere sexual identity.
The distinct anti-American sentiment expressed by characters throughout the novel served to create one of the most ironic casting decisions in film adaptation history when two American actors were chosen to play the two main characters in the 1981 film version of Surfacing. Further irony resulted from giving top billing to the male actor despite the character played by the second-billed American clearly being the protagonist of the story.
Atwood’s unstable and less-than-trustworthy narrator undermines the security of the plot but causes readers to focus instead on her mental state and interpretations. The events that she reports are not as important as how she sees them. Because of her scrambled and deliberately evasive memories, the narrator provides an example of a mind unable to accept modern civilization and a psychological study of a woman attempting to cope.
Atwood’s didacticism and moral message are especially evident in the conflict between civilization and nature. She questions whether the so-called progress of culture is only an illusion. Canadian nationalism also figures in the story, as David and the narrator rail against Americans or people with Americanized attitudes who kill animals for fun and pollute the environment. The narrator becomes increasingly alienated from civilization, yet David and Anna are securely anchored in modern technological society. Joe remains on the border—his silence shows that he has not been completely coopted by modern existence. At the end of the story, he is described as an ambassador or mediator between civilization and wilderness.
After she has surfaced to the knowledge about her delusions and past lies, the narrator needs to reject the trappings of modern life. Her destruction of the film is one aspect of this, as is her abandonment of her clothing in the lake—a baptism or ritual cleansing. She is attempting to become part of nature because her years of trying to become civilized were unsuccessful. When searchers return to the island for her, she is afraid that the natural woman she is becoming will be treated like an animal— brutally killed or put on display.
The question “What is natural?” is also raised in the love relationships in Surfacing. The narrator feels...
(The entire section is 751 words.)