Study Guide


By Margaret Atwood

Surfacing Introduction

Margaret Atwood's 1972 novel might be called Surfacing, but it's really about digging stuff up—you know, from beneath the surface. Sure, we get to read about superficial or "surface" aspects of life—like social niceties and women's makeup—but Atwood is also interested in digging underneath all that to get at the hidden emotions or dynamics underpinning the characters' interactions with each other.

For example, the narrative digs deep into the thoughts and reactions of its unnamed narrator, with lots of plunges back into her memories from childhood (and beyond). We get all this as she embarks on a trip home to Northern Quebec to try to locate her missing father. She brings her boyfriend, Joe, and two other friends (Anna and David, a married couple) to help her out with this scheme (good times).

In trying to figure out the dad situation—all while navigating some pretty wacky relationship and social dynamics that Joe, Anna, and David bring to the table—the narrator ends up exploring (and sometimes revising) her thoughts about family, nature, love, and identity (both personally and politically). Really, as she's searching for her dad, she's getting in touch with herself and her feelings-thoughts-memories, sorting all that out from other "noise" that social expectations or relationships seem to have imposed on her. With that all in mind, we guess the title makes sense, since the novel basically shows us the process by which the narrator "surfaces" identity-wise.

The novel is often billed as a detective novel, but don't be expecting Sherlock Holmes-style twists or a butler-did-it mystery. As you're reading, you should definitely be thinking about why it has that reputation… but we'll save that spiel for the "Million Dollar Questions." We know—the suspense is killing you.

What is Surfacing About and Why Should I Care?

You may not have experienced leaving home yet, but trust us: coming back after you've flown the coop is always an interesting experience. You know that expression "You can't go home again"? Well, there's a reason for it.

Sure, most often you can literally go back to at least the general location where you grew up, but places like that are always going to feel different once you've left and returned. Local stores have disappeared and been replaced with others, your parents now keep a TV in the kitchen (even if that was totally forbidden when you were a kid)—that kind of stuff.

Even the small changes can seem pretty disorienting when they happen in a place that used to be home. If you're in high school and preparing to leave for college or other adventures, you'll know what we're talking about soon enough—and if you've already left and returned, you probably already do.

The narrator is definitely immersed all the wacky feelings and dynamics that "homecoming" entails. Her arrival back in her old stomping grounds touches off a pretty extended exploration of her identity and feelings about everything, from marriage to environmentalism—as if searching for your possibly deceased father isn't intense enough. While you probably (hopefully) can't relate to the latter, the former will probably hit home for you, sooner or later.

Surfacing Resources


Online Atwood
In addition to Twitter, you can keep up with Atwood on her Web site.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Canadian Literature in One Book
Well, probably not, but Atwood wrote one of the fundamental texts theorizing Canadian literature.


Surfacing the Movie
In 3-D! Nope, just kidding. There is a movie version, though.


Another Take
Author Jill Dawson offers her perspectives on Surfacing and its legacy 30 years after it was written.

Joyce Carol Oates on Atwood in The New York Review of Books
Read Oates's take on Surfacing and other Atwood novels.


Atwood's a Poet—Did you Know It?
In addition to writing novels, literary criticism, and an opera, she's also a poet. Watch her read some of her stuff for the CBC as a young author.

Atwood Wants You To Express Yourself (Hey, Hey)
Atwood was once President of PEN Canada, an organization devoted to writers' rights to free expression.


Margaret Atwood, Literary Theorist
Listen to Margaret Atwood discuss her theories about Canadian Literature with the CBC.

"The Quiet Mata Hari" (can we get that nickname?) talks about the distinction between poetry and prose.

Graeme Gibson, Atwood's Future Partner, Interviews Her (We're Sure That Wasn't Awkward…)
Listen as fellow author Graeme Gibson interviews Atwood about writing in an old CBC piece.


Margaret Atwood with Her Father
In Northern Quebec (where the novel is set), Atwood (as a child) watches her father build a fire.

Margaret Atwood with Siblings
Another blast from the past: A young Atwood hangs out in a cabin with her siblings.

Atwood in 2013
Here's the author today(ish).