The Margaret Atwood Project – Surfacing

As with my breakdown/review of The Edible Woman, this post will contain spoilers. I hope you read this and the book, still.

So, here I am with book number two of Project Atwood – Surfacing, which was originally published in 1972. Here, Margaret Atwood further explores feminist themes which would go on to be a feature of her career but she also breaks from the humour found in The Edible Woman and branches off into a slightly more surreal world.

Surfacing features a female central protagonist with no name (for ease of writing this, I will refer to her as X). We never find out her name and I believe that Atwood used this idea so that the reader can easily project themselves into her mind. Whereas with her first book Atwood relied quite heavily on metaphor, Surfacing is a little more upfront about its theme and ideas – of which there are many, especially for such a short book (at under 200 pages).

To lay out the plot briefly, X sets off to her birthplace in search of her father who has gone missing. She takes with her, her best friend of two months, Anna and her husband David and also X’s current boyfriend Joe. They set out to stay in the lodge on an island in a lake where X grew up and we see her reflect on her past as she searches for her dad.

One of the themes that takes centre stage is nationalism and how Canadians looked at their American neighbours at the time. We see that David is very anti-American and his views are that they are destroying Canada while plotting a future war. This tension is felt throughout as the group meet random Americans who are out fishing on the surrounding lake and Atwood builds the antagonism wonderfully. With perhaps a brilliant slant she soon resolves the tension with a confrontation between two supposed Americans and the group which eventually teaches a lesson on how we must take pride in our country while respecting others.

This theme weaves its way in and out of the most prominent theme of women – how they are viewed by society, what is expected of them and how they must hide their true feelings. This is magnified from The Edible Woman greatly as we watch the two central females in the story cope with their femininity and the oppression of their male counterparts.

This is particularly explored with Anna who is the subject of ridicule and torment by her own husband. David is particularly aggressive with Anna and views her to be ugly to the point of anger when she doesn’t wear makeup. He also forces her to strip naked for an art movie that he and Joe are making, which causes her great amounts of upset. He sleeps around and boasts to her believing that he has that right. While this may seem a grotesque observation, it is one we all know is routed in truth. Men like this did exist in the 60’s and 70’s and, sadly, still do today.

This is the sheer brilliance of Atwood’s work in that she was so forward thinking and brave. She doesn’t shy away from any subject and writes about it with enough venom to make her point known. But bear in mind she wrote this in 1972 when feminism was on the rise, but many of her thoughts and ideas are applicable to today’s world.

Also very apparent is the abortion that X felt she had to undergo while in a relationship with her former partner who was a married man and, seemingly, pushed her into falling pregnant in the first place. We learn that her previous relationship was one where she was pushed into a corner and told what to do rather than asked. We see that the role of a woman was difficult for many and the relationship and subsequent abortion leads to the characters change in personality as the novel progresses.

X starts out rather optimistic about her life, if a little scared of what her return home will be like. She paints a picture that she ran away after her mother passed on and never told anyone about how her affair broke down and how she aborted her child. As she explores her home, she delves back into these memories and the sheer weight of emotion begins to send her spiralling into a pit of depression and ultimately, madness.

It seems as if her adoration of her mother and her death set X’s adult life on quite a rocky path. She is angry that her mother died, because she loved her so much. So now, we explore how bereavement can cause the mind to break as well as the heart. In such a state we make the wrong decisions – which we can see with the affair with a married man – and now those decisions are destroying her.

This constant pressure leads into a total loss of humanity as she soon begins to snub everyone around her – including boyfriend, Joe – and becomes one with nature. In the final handful of pages the woman we met at the beginning no longer exists and we see someone who believes she is no more than an animal. She scavenges for food, roams naked and actively abandons her past life in order to feel whole again. It’s a rather scattered ending that, for me, marred an otherwise tremendous book. However, where else could Atwood go? The protagonist was surely always destined for madness from the opening page.

The novel wanders aimlessly and for me, it’s this that appeals. The narration is left to X as her mind rises and falls. It builds naturally and again nods to the talent of Margaret Atwood. She places you directly in these thoughts. It isn’t a novel of traditional structure but Atwood still uses the tropes of heroes and villains. The male members of the cast are such an oppressive force that the reader begins to root for the women as if this were a battle, which I suppose with Anna and David, it is.

It’s clear that this is Margaret Atwood finding her voice. With Edible Woman she toyed with what could be created and with Surfacing she cements herself as both a strong literary voice and brave feminist speaker. I’m very excited to read Lady Oracle next month.

*It’s worth noting that everything above is my own perception of the metaphor and plot, and is of course very basic (I am no expert in any field and am just an everyday reader). If you want to read more about the book and ideas within then please check out the following essays and links*

5 thoughts on “The Margaret Atwood Project – Surfacing

  1. Heather

    Great review. I would add here (in case you missed it–if you didn’t, then disregard this) that X wasn’t married before. She was having an affair with a married man, and he made her have the abortion because he didn’t want to deal with another baby when he already had a family. She finally “comes to term” with the real story (as opposed to the one she’s been telling herself and us) when she goes diving. This is why she wants Joe to give her another baby, even though she doesn’t want him. She wants to make up for the one she was seemingly forced to abort.

    1. Dog Ear Post author

      Gah! Yes, of course! I completely forgot about that, if I remember correctly Atwood only brings it up in just a small paragraph. Will add a note to the piece!

      Thanks Heather 🙂

      1. Heather

        Yes–it’s brought up stream-of-consciousness style when she’s done trying to make us (herself) think her abortion was really a marriage taking place in a post office. It’s a rather brief section.

  2. savidgereads

    Great review of this Dan. I have been a fan of Atwoods for ages and so am a big fan of your Project Atwood plan, however so far two of the three you have read so I haven’t commented on them as I know they have spoilers and I know I will be reading them at some point. Anyway… I was impressed with this book, sometimes the wandering nature of it, and all the wandering nature, lost me a teeny weeny bit but I thought it was a really interesting novel of hers for the stance she takes and the fact that there is this slight bitter edge to it. Something I think she uses ever more so in Cat’s Eye, but more on that in the future when you get to it!

    1. Dog Ear Post author

      I’m glad you like the project. I’ve just started her first book of short stories and it’s interesting to see how she tweaks her fiction to a short format. I’m glad I’ve done this as she’s a brilliant author and I’d have been missing out!


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