We get the narrative through the "lens" of the narrator's own thoughts and memories. She's a fairly passive and unflappable, even in the face of things that you would expect to upset her a lot. For example, when David and Anna, her supposed friends, decide to mock her mercilessly (and pretty nastily) for not succumbing to David's "charms," she doesn't react at all.
That said, don't be fooled into thinking that her ability to rise above conflict means she's some kind of super-positive goody-goody—quite the opposite, in fact. Overall, it seems like the narrator thinks that things kind of stink, but she feels powerless to change them. A good example of her attitude can be found early in the novel, when she describes the bar where she and her friends stop for a beer before heading to her family's cabin:
It's an imitation of other places, more southern ones, which are themselves imitations, the original someone's distorted memory of a nineteenth century English gentleman's shooting lodge, the kind with trophy heads and furniture made from deer antlers, Queen Victoria had a set like that. But if this is what succeeds why shouldn't they do it? (3.14)
As you can see here, she paints kind of an ugly picture of the place, and her use of words like "distorted" and "imitation" hint at a certain amount of disdain for the place. However, she steps back from really passing judgment, basically throwing her hands up and saying, "Well, if they like it…" If you've ever heard someone use that phrase to describe someone's wedding dress or other outfit choice, you know it's faint praise indeed—and that kind of half-hearted, half-disdainful "positivity" is the best we get out of the narrator most of the time.
Surfacing is kind of hard to pinpoint genre-wise. It starts out with some elements of detective fiction—since the search for the narrator's missing father initially drives the action—but then it becomes much more about the psychological acrobatics and relationship twists and turns that the four main characters become involved in.
The search for the narrator's father quickly takes a backseat to the narrator's own pursuit of self-knowledge, as she digs deep into her past and confronts some truths she had tried to "sink" some time ago. Alongside all that, there's a lot going on in terms of the characters' relationships—for example, between the narrator and her boyfriend, Joe; between David and Anna; and between Joe and the narrator and David and Anna.
Like what, you ask? Well, Joe wants to marry the narrator, but she's not super-sure about that idea, so there's quite a bit of friction there. And then there are David and Anna, who initially appear like the perfect couple (to the narrator, at least), but they soon make the narrator (and us, right along with her) privy to a lot of drama and even abusiveness and nastiness in their relationship. Case in point: David spends half the novel hitting on the narrator in front of his wife, seemingly with the specific intention of bothering her. So, yeah, they don't really seem like the perfect couple—and that veneer just crumbles more and more as the novel goes on.
On account of the mind games and intense focus on psychological self-discovery, we'd say this novel fits the "Psychological Thriller" genre better than any other.
As we already discussed in "Symbols," the title has a lot to do with the heavy use of water imagery and symbolism in chronicling the narrator's journey toward self-discovery, which involves allowing some painful truths and memories of the past to come up to the "surface." Just to make absolutely sure the metaphor isn't lost on us, the narrator has her big epiphany about some memories she had suppressed while she's diving in a lake, at which she surfaces to deal with everything she's just unearthed in her own memories and psyche—see how that works?
If you were hoping for lots of answers and resolution, this ending might be a wee bit disappointing for you. When the end arrives, we're still reeling from the narrator's attempts to somehow connect with her deceased parents by rejecting the trappings of modern life and going full-on "animal." As the novel winds to a close, she's just now getting her clothes back on and weighing a return to "the city." Then Joe shows up, ostensibly to retrieve her, and she has to figure out whether to go back with him or not. We don't know what she decides, but we do know she has decided she feels love for Joe—so we guess that's something?
We're not sure what's in store for her, but the narrator's newfound ability to feel and acknowledge love suggests that she has achieved some kind of progress or increased self-knowledge throughout the story.
The opening lines to the novel put the setting front and center, ensuring that the readers are prepared for the remoteness and wildness of the place we'll be spending over the next 27 chapters: "I can't believe I'm on this road again, twisting along past the lake here the white birches are dying, the disease is spreading up from the south, and I notice they now have sea-planes for hire. But this is still near the city limits; we didn't go through, it's swelled enough to have a bypass, that's success" (1.1). This passage quickly clues us into the fact that we're not exactly headed to a buzzing metropolis, if getting a bypass counts as big news for the city referenced.
Of course, the narrator's family cabin—where most of the novel's action takes place—isn't even in, or particularly near, this city; in fact, to get there, you need take a boat out to the tiny island in the region's lake where it's located. So, yeah—the setting is very remote and isolated.
But don't go thinking that all this isolation brings tranquility and peace—far from it. There are clear tensions between the French- and English-speaking natives of the region, and there's also a lot of talk about Americans and their values and habits—and how they are sneaking their way into Canada. In fact, that first sentence's reference to a "disease spreading up from the south" might be a clever little metaphor for the infusion of Americans and American values into the region, which is a recurrent topic in the novel.
With all of its isolation and the pervasive mood of imminent invasion, the setting is pretty perfect for all the psychological drama that the narrator and her friends are wrapped up in. The narrator seems to feel like she's been invaded, encroached upon in pretty major ways in her life—for example, she claims her ex-boyfriend called the shots regarding her abortion. So the repeated references to culture clash and the encroachment of Americans on Canada are a nice mirror to the narrator's feelings of having her physical space, as well as her being, violated.
It's easy enough to figure out what's going on for most of the novel, but the waters get progressively murkier as we get further in. For example, partway through the book, we learn that a great deal of what the narrator has been telling us about her past (like her marriage and child) is totally false. Then, toward the end, the lines between hard reality, spiritual vision, and pure hallucination get really blurry. So, yeah, the book can be kind of a tough climb (or, to stick with its fondness for water metaphors, a deep wade), but getting to explore the way Atwood plays with memory and the blurring of realism and surrealism makes it well worth the plunge.
Don't try this at home, kids. If you used comma splices as frequently and liberally as this narrator, you'd have some serious trouble in English class. But don't think Atwood doesn't know her mechanics; rather, she breaks the rules to create a stream-of-consciousness style. The narrative's style reflects the movements of the mind, where thoughts aren't always logical and sequential and don't fit easily into little boxes (or onto either side of a semicolon). Just as thoughts sometimes appear unexpectedly, popping up after an unrelated thought or intruding within a totally separate train of thought, so they pour out in a bit of a jumble in the narrator's narration.
Take, for example, the narrator's thoughts about the first time she met Joe: "Perhaps that was what he liked about me, there must have been something though I can't reconstruct our first meeting, now I can: it was in a store, I was buying some new brushes and a spray tin of fixative" (3.17). This moment gives us her whole thought process as it develops—she goes straight from saying she can't remember something to remembering it, and the use of a comma (rather than a semicolon or a period, which are more "final") highlights the fluidity of that thought process. Neat, no?
Given its title and the fact that the novel is set largely on, near, and in a lake, we were expecting some pretty good water imagery and symbolism—and we were not disappointed. This notion of "surfacing," which clearly references water, is absolutely central to the novel.
When we first crack the book, for example, we are led to believe that the story is going to be about bringing the truth of what happened to the narrator's dad to the "surface"—and that metaphor gets a literal counterpoint when a fisherman accidentally discovers and drags his body out of the lake.
However, the novel ends up being a lot more focused on the narrator's own journey of self-discovery, which involves getting to a place (mentally, that is) where the truth of her past bubbles up to the (yes, you guessed it) surface.
Just to make sure the metaphor of "surfacing" isn't lost on you, the pivotal moment in that journey occurs when she's swimming around in the lake. After apparently seeing a vision in the water below, she realizes that some of the memories she's been indulging in and sharing with readers have been fictions her mind built up to protect her from some of the harsher truths in her past.
Water's powers of reflection also have some symbolic heft in the novel. The narrator seems to be fascinated by dualities, and she suggests that she herself is split (or doubled?) into two separate beings. For example, when things get a little surreal late in the novel, she reports finding two sets of her own footprints side-by-side. It could just be two sets of her footprints from different points in time, but she also seems to suggest that there simply could be two of her walking around.
We're not sure just how that's possible, but the notion that there are somehow two versions of the narrator comes up more than once. When she's out on the water just before her big epiphany, for example, she refers to having an "other shape" that's more a separate being than a mere copy of herself: "I bent my knees and straightened, the canoe teetered like a springboard. My other shape was in the water, not my reflection but my shadow, foreshortened, outline blurred, rays streaming out from around the head" (17.3). What she means by this "other shape" is up for interpretation, of course, but perhaps it's significant that she comes to recognize this separate (spiritual?) form of her self around the time of her pivotal realizations about her past, when she's forced to come to terms with certain unpleasant memories and evaluate her current emotional state and relationships to other people.
All in all, water metaphors do some heavy lifting in Surfacing, bringing attention to the rhythms and movements that the narrative uses to "flow" toward big moments and discoveries.
The line between human and animal gets pretty blurry toward the end of the book, when the narrator decides (as part of her effort to connect with the spirits of her departed parents) to shed all the trappings of modern life and live like an animal.
Even before that, though, we get the sense that the novel wants to take human beings down a peg and remind them that they're not really so different or that much better than animals. Being like an animal is a supremely good thing in this novel's universe. For example, the narrator loves her boyfriend's furriness and more "vestigial" qualities:
I remember the hair on Joe's back, vestigial, like appendices and little toes: soon we'll evolve into total baldness. I like the hair though, and the heavy teeth, thick shoulders, unexpectedly slight hips, hands whose texture I can still feel on my skin, roughened and leathery from the clay. Everything I value about him seems to be physical: the rest is either unknown, disagreeable or ridiculous (6.24).
Joe's physicality might seem even more desirable to the narrator just then because it serves as a stark counterpoint to the empty intellectualism and psychobabble that David spouts (and uses to hide the fact that he's not very nice).
In the novel, animals are often discussed or used to highlight the stakes of violence and evil. When the narrator and her friends come across a murdered heron while they're hiking, it's one of the biggest, most emotional moments for the narrator—bigger, even, than the discovery of her father's body. Even after they've moved on in the hike, the narrator remains preoccupied with the evil act of killing a bird and stringing it up to rot "just because"—that is, not for food but just because you can.
The narrator seems to have inherited her respect and even reverence for animals and the natural world, and a sense of the delicate balance of human-animal relations, from her dad. Like her, he almost seemed to prefer animals: "He didn't dislike people, he merely found them irrational; animals, he said, were more consistent, their behavior at least as predictable. To him that's what Hitler exemplified: not the triumph of evil but the failure of reason" (6.37). Although being "animalistic" is often perceived as being one and the same with being irrational, in Surfacing it's more a sign of being disconnected from a perverted form of "humanity" that is anything but humane.
For a novel with essentially no children in it, it's kind of striking how often the twin topics of children and childbearing come up. The novel seems pretty preoccupied with (and ambivalent about) the power of the female body to conceive a child within it.
In certain cases, this power is presented as a burden, something to be protected against—and the protections themselves can be pretty dangerous, too, in the novel's world. For example, when the narrator and Anna are discussing birth control pills (which were a relatively new thing then), they trade stories about the horrific side effects that the Pill had had for them, including blurry vision and blood clots.
Anna seems angry and resentful at being expected to take on these risks to avoid pregnancy—and, too, at her husband's casual attitude about those risks (hey, it's not his health on the line):
"Bastards," she said, "they're so smart, you think they'd be able to come up with something that'd work without killing you. David wants me to go back on, he says it's no worse for you than aspirin, but next time it could be the heart or something. I mean, I'm not taking those kinds of chances" (9.23).
The narrator, for her part, envisions the Pill turning her into a "chemical slot machine" (9.24)—not exactly an appealing thought.
Although one could argue that a woman's control over pregnancy and its prevention is empowering, in Surfacing it's portrayed as potentially burdensome and even dangerous, placing lopsided responsibilities and risks on women.
Then, there's the novel's presentation of actually being pregnant and giving birth. Although we later learn that the narrator never actually had a baby, her "memories" of birth say a lot about how she initially views motherhood and maternity and the power it confers on women—or, rather, doesn't:
After the first I didn't ever want to have another child, it was too much to go through for nothing, they shut you into a hospital, they shave the hair off you and tie your hands down and they don't let you see, they don't want you to understand, they want you to believe it's their power, not yours. They stick needles into you so you won't hear anything, you might as well be a dead pig, your legs are up in a metal frame, they bend over you, technicians, mechanics, butchers, students clumsy or sniggering practising on your body, they take the baby out with a fork like a pickle out of a pickle jar. After that they fill your veins up with red plastic, I saw it running down through the tube. I won't let them do that to me ever again. (9.24)
So, yeah, in the narrator's view, pregnancy and birth are horrific, invasive processes.
We later learn, of course, that the pregnancy she remembers throughout the book actually ended with an abortion rather than a birth. Just as she associated her false memories of birth with being victimized and not in control, the narrator recalls not having the reins in her decision to abort, claiming it was her boyfriend's idea: "He said I should do it, he made me do it; he talked about it as though it was legal, simple, like getting a wart removed" (17.24). Then, "he expected gratitude because he arranged it for me, fixed me so I was good as new; others, he said, wouldn't have bothered" (17.24). The narrator's profound passivity in the whole matter is pretty striking—it's clear that she feels like she is completely powerless to control the situation, even though her body was the "battleground" for everything that was happening.
The novel refers frequently to the narrator's passivity and feelings of powerlessness, and the story of her abortion really highlights those qualities in a big way. Also, the narrator's references to maternity, birth, and abortion seem to draw attention to some potential funkiness and asymmetry in the sexual politics of the time, which may have played into her feelings of powerlessness…
The unnamed protagonist is the central narrator of the novel, so everything gets filtered through her perspective and memories. That deep embedded-ness in her mind ends up being a bit problematic in terms our efforts as readers to piece together the story's "reality," because we ultimately realize that her memories are often distorted or outright false.
Take, for example, when the narrator is gazing at Anna lolling around on the dock:
Except for the bikini and the colour of her hair she could be me at sixteen, sulking on the dock, resentful at being away from the city and the boyfriend I'd proved my normality by obtaining; I wore his ring, too big for any of my fingers, around my neck on a chain, like a crucifix or a military decoration. (6.3)
In that moment, we think we're getting deep insight into the narrator's sullen teenage years, but later we realize that there are some holes and distortions in her recall here. It turns out that her "boyfriend" was actually a married man, and they used the ring sometimes to make getting a hotel room together easier. So, not exactly the picture of teen "normality" she had initially painted, right?
Her most obvious and flagrant distortion, though, is her claim to having had a child. She honestly believes this to be true for about three quarters of the novel, until she suddenly realizes that she had actually had an abortion at the prodding of her married boyfriend (whom she had mistakenly remembered as being her ex-husband and father of her living child).
In short, the unnamed narrator isn't really the most reliable source we've ever come across. That said, her ability to acknowledge the holes in her memory suggests that she has evolved throughout the course of the novel; she is now willing to confront the past head-on—which is an important step in shaking off the passivity and "victim" status that it seems she embraced before she takes that dip in the lake.
The narrator is returning to the area of Northern Quebec where she grew up. It's not exactly a warm and fuzzy homecoming, as she's coming back (after a long absence, apparently) because her father is missing. She brings her boyfriend, Joe, and another couple (David and Anna) to help (and also to drive—it's David car that brings them into town).
Upon arrival, the narrator discovers that her father hasn't turned up yet, and the family cabin doesn't appear to have been touched by a human presence for quite a while. The narrator does a little searching, but she soon realizes it would be really difficult to find her father on the island without a lot more people to help. So, they hang out, eat, and fish while the narrator considers what could have happened to her father and tries to figure out what comes next.
Although initially thinking that David and Anna are like the best couple ever, the narrator soon discovers that they have a weird, abusive, and adultery-fixated relationship. David spends a good portion of his time ogling the narrator and trying to get her to have sex with him, which the narrator doesn't particularly appreciate. Meanwhile, Joe seems interested in taking their relationship in directions that the narrator is not super-enthusiastic about (i.e., down the aisle). Ostensibly to punish her for being lukewarm about their future prospects as a couple, he sleeps with Anna. So, yeah, super-awkward times are had.
While all this sexual drama is going on, the narrator remains privately fixated on figuring out what is happening with her father.
Having found some crazy-looking drawings of her dad's, the narrator believes that her father might have disappeared because he'd gone insane. However, after finding some additional papers and letters, she realizes that he was probably tracing rock paintings to send to a scholar acquaintance who studied such things.
She wants to confirm this theory, so she goes out hunting for the locations of these paintings based on a map her dad had left behind. While she's diving down in the lake trying to find one on the side of the cliff, she has some kind of vision, or hallucination, of a fetus she aborted at some unspecified time in the past. She realizes that she's been remembering her past all wrong, covering up certain unpleasant aspects of it that she didn't want to confront.
Then, she goes back to the house and has to endure some serious awkwardness with David, Anna, and Joe. David and Anna harass the narrator for not giving into David's sexual advances, and Anna taunts her for not sleeping with Joe (with whom Anna has started sleeping, apparently).
To make matters worse, Paul comes by with the news that her father's body has been found—bummers all around.
In light of her epiphany in the lake, the narrator no longer wants to leave the cabin. So, she hides from the others on the day they were set to leave and lets them depart without her. The evening before that, though, she gets Joe to have sex with her, which she believes results in a pregnancy that will bring her unborn child back.
Once she's gotten the others out of her hair, she tries to figure out a way to see and connect with her parents (presumably in a spiritual sense, since they are dead). To do that, she basically sheds off the trappings of her human life (i.e., removes her clothes, trashes the objects inside her parents' cabin, etc.) and starts living outside in a "lair." So, yeah, she kind of starts acting like an animal, engaging in acts and rituals that she believes will bring her closer to wherever, or whatever, her parents are.
Once she believes she has seen them, she seems resigned to going back and resuming her "normal" life. She starts preparing for going back to that world—you know, by putting clothes back on, resuming eating, that kind of thing. In addition to whatever spiritual experience she's had, she's come to some conclusions about herself, her responsibilities toward others, and how she should be acting from now on.
Joe returns to the island to try to find her. The novel ends with him calling to her, and her listening and mulling over what to do. We don't know whether she decides to go back with him, but we do know she has determined that he's a good egg and she does in fact love him. Hmm…
When the story begins, an unnamed narrator is bringing her boyfriend and another couple to the region of Quebec where she grew up. The purpose of the trip is to try to find her father, who has apparently disappeared. Together, the quartet travels out to the island in the middle of a lake where her parents had had a cabin. In this remote and isolated location, things are going to get pretty cozy pretty quickly…
When they get there, they find that her father still hasn't turned up. The narrator is unsure of what to do next. In fact, she seems unsure about a lot of stuff—her relationships with her boyfriend and other friends are a big example. She wavers between thinking her father is dead and, after finding some drawings he did, believing that he might have gone crazy. She eventually realizes that the crazy sketches are actually tracings of rock drawings. So, she goes back to the theory that he's probably dead. Still, she decides it would be worthwhile to hunt down the actual rock drawings and confirm her theory that her father had been pursuing them as well.
Meanwhile, she and her boyfriend, Joe, are fighting because the narrator doesn't want to marry him, and David and Anna (the other couple) are also having drama. David flies his "jerk" flag pretty proudly; his favorite hobbies on the trip seem to include humiliating Anna and making unwelcome sexual advances toward the narrator (his less favorite hobbies include fishing and talking about how much he hates Americans). In short: relations within and between the couples get a little… difficult.
Trying to ignore all the crazy romance drama and focus on finding out what happened to her dad, the narrator goes out searching for one of the paintings, which she believes is located on the face of a cliff (submerged under water).
While she's diving down in the lake to try to see the painting, she believes she spies a kind of fish-like figure below, and the moment sparks an epiphany for her—and for the reader. Although it's never really quite clear what she "actually" saw down there, it makes her realize that some of the memories she's been indulging in throughout the trip (and relaying to the reader, of course) aren't exactly accurate. She tells the reader that the figure she sees swimming below her is the fetus of a baby she aborted some time ago. Previously, she had told us about an ex-husband and the child she left with him, but now we learn those memories were inaccurate; instead, they were fictions she had built up in her mind to protect herself from bad memories.
Once she's back on dry land, she comes to the conclusion that her father wasn't just tracking existing rock paintings; he was also finding new places that had spiritual power—that is, new sacred spots.
With her newfound knowledge and apparent connection to the spiritual world in hand, the narrator is not ready to leave the island cabin just yet. So, she hides from the others on the day that they were supposed to scoot. When they leave, she comes back out. At this point, her new mission appears to be to connect with the spirits of her deceased parents. (Oh yeah, we skipped over that part—Paul had come by the previous day to say they had found her father's body.)
To make that happen, she engages in a lot of ritualistic behavior in an apparent attempt to bring herself into harmony with the natural (i.e., non-human) world, stripping off her clothes and even making a lair for herself like an animal. She also goes on a tear, destroying all the clothes and other objects in the house. Eventually, she gets her wish and reports seeing both her mother and her father.
Having seen her parents, the narrator seems resigned to returning to the "real" world. While she's back inside getting dressed in her ripped clothes, Joe and Paul arrive. Joe calls out for her, and the narrator lets drop that she now knows she loves Joe and thinks she can trust him. We're not sure what happens from there, though, since Atwood leaves us with a… cliffhanger.
The narrator and her friends arrive in the area of Northern Quebec where the narrator grew up. They are on the hunt for the narrator's father, who has apparently disappeared. Holed up in the remote cabin that had belonged to the narrator's father, the four friends hang out and work out their bizarre relationship dynamics (short version: there's, er, tension—sexual and otherwise). The narrator finds some drawings of her father's that make her think he's gone mad, which could explain his disappearance, but she soon comes to believe that these drawings are simply tracings of area rock paintings. She goes searching for the original paintings to confirm her theory.
While diving underwater near a cliff face to try to find one of these paintings, the narrator seems to have a kind of vision—well, something happens, but we're not quite sure what. Beneath her in the water, she believes she sees a fetus she aborted some time ago. This fetus is apparently the same child she claimed she had given birth to and left with her ex-husband. It turns out that she's been filling her own mind (and, by extension, the narrative) with some false memories, and this moment underwater causes the real story to you, know… surface. So, she is forced to start dealing with the sad truths in her past that were responsible for driving her away from her hometown in the first place.
After this epiphany, she decides she wants to stay on at the cabin and try to connect with the spirits of her deceased parents. (Oh yeah, and by the way: the narrator's neighbor came by to say some fishermen had found her dad's body.) To ensure that she can execute that plan alone—since her friends are being all kinds of dramatic and unpleasant to her—she hides and they leave without her. Before Joe leaves, though, she gets him to have sex with her, apparently so she can get pregnant.
The narrator takes a variety of steps and engages in various rituals seemingly designed to get her closer to the spiritual world (where she can run into her parents, of course). As part of that effort, she becomes almost like an animal, stripping off her clothes, destroying objects in the house, and sleeping outside in a lair she made for herself.
After achieving her objective by seeing both her parents, she prepares herself to return to the human world. And it's just in time, since Joe shows up while she's getting dressed to retrieve her, and is calling for her when the book ends.