Study Guide

Surfacing Themes

By Margaret Atwood

  • Death

    The premise of Surfacing is that the narrator and her friends are returning to the narrator's childhood home to search for her missing father. Given that mission—and the fact that no one really seems to think the narrator will find her father alive—death is kind of looming over the novel from the outset. The fact that Anna is constantly reading murder mysteries further adds to the kind of sinister, "death is nigh!" mood.

    As the story progresses, the narrator struggles with the barriers that death imposes, but she ultimately comes to believe she can cross the line between the living and the dead to communicate with her deceased parents (yes, her dad's body is found toward the end). Through some nature-focused rituals, the narrator believes she achieves this communion, which fortifies her for returning to everyday life.

    All in all—at least in the novel's universe—death doesn't end up being as scary or final a force as we might have guessed. In fact, the narrator's friends are actually a lot scarier.

    Questions About Death

    1. Anna spends most of the trip plowing through murder mystery novels. Beyond just bringing our attention back to death, what is the significance of her reading habits?
    2. How does the narrator's perspective on death evolve throughout the story?
    3. The narrator remembers her brother as pretty violence-death-war obsessed. What is his role in the story and its treatment of death?
    4. What do you make of the novel's supernatural and-or spiritual elements? Is the narrator's communion with her deceased parents portrayed as a spiritual episode, or a psychological one?

    Chew on This

    Although she starts out fearing death, the narrator ultimately comes to believe that life and death actually aren't so different—and being able to communicate across that great "divide" helps her move on with her life.

    Not so fast there—the narrator's supposed communication with the dead isn't so much a spiritual connection as a psychological episode, albeit one that allows her to work out her issues and get ready to move on with her life.

  • Memory

    Try as she might, the narrator cannot keep her memories at bay; being at home seems to make those pesky thoughts of the old days even more persistent and intrusive. However, don't be too eager to believe all the memories that thread their way into Surfacing, since we learn pretty quickly that her recall isn't exactly the best, or most honest. It seems that the narrator has some things in her past that she'd just as soon forget, so her mind has done a little reshuffling, some touch-up painting to make them a bit easier to swallow. However, by the end of the story, she's been forced to confront the reality (?) of her past, which seems to help her figure out a way to move forward in her present.

    Questions About Memory

    1. At one point, the narrator suggests that other people have the power to shape her memories. How does her passivity in this regard, her willingness to give control over something like that to other people, shape your perception of her character?
    2. Before she outright admits that she's been lying to herself (and us) about some of her memories, what are some early clues that the narrator isn't the most reliable?
    3. The narrator ultimately comes clean about some flaws in her recall about certain events (e.g., her marriage and baby). Do you think we can trust her recall of the "true" story, or is her narrative-memory just entirely in doubt by the end of the novel?

    Chew on This

    The narrator's efforts to cut herself off from her friends and boyfriend at the end of the novel is the only thing that will allow her truly to confront her past; she needs to be outside of their influence and truly active in engaging with her memories to ensure they aren't "tampered with."

    Actually, even after the narrator's epiphany, her memories are never portrayed as wholly reliable; memory itself is always plastic and shaped by factors that have zip to do with "the truth."

  • Foreignness

    Even though the narrator of Surfacing grew up in the region where she's searching for her father, she feels like a foreigner there (particularly after all the time that's passed). Even apart from that, there's a decent amount of culture clash between English- and French-speaking inhabitants of the region (this was a time when both Canadian nationalism and Quebecois separatism were on the rise), which means that even long-time residents of the region—for example, "Madame" and the narrator's mother—experienced dealing with "foreignness" as part of their everyday lives. Then, of course, there's the fact that Americans are increasingly a presence in the region, which does not please the Canadian characters, it seems. (Historically, the result was a tremendous amount of suspicion regarding the values and changes the American presence was bringing with it.) The narrator seems to turn to nature to find refuge from all these social, cultural, and political clashes.

    Questions About Foreignness

    1. Do you think there's anywhere the narrator truly feels at home? Or do you think she pretty much always feels "foreign" wherever she goes? Why do you think so?
    2. What does being "American" really mean to the narrator? Is it about actually being from the United States, or is it something else? How does her notion of being "American" differ from David's?
    3. In her musings about feeling, or being, out of place, the narrator often references language as the problem, the thing that always ends up putting up a barrier between her and other people (even in her own language). What do you make of that? What is the alternative?

    Chew on This

    Nature is the only place where there is no such thing as foreignness, which is why the narrator treats it as sacred; the natural world is the only common ground one can find.

    Despite being Canadian, David is actually the most "American" character in the book by the narrator's definition, since he's brash, bullying, invasive, and disrespectful of his natural surroundings. Way to go, dude.

  • Religion

    Surfacing seems pretty preoccupied with religious figures, particularly Catholic ones, but it's not exactly the most reverent take on Christianity. Rather than subscribing fully to the Catholicism, the narrator seems to have infused her own brand spirituality, which seems more focused on nature and animals, with Christian ideas and figures (her fish-themed reworking of the Lord's Prayer is a good example). The narrator struggles with notions of life and death and the afterlife throughout the novel, but her own personal brand of spirituality seems to help her emerge with a new sense of identity and purpose at the end of the novel.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Does the narrator ultimately reject Christianity and Catholicism in favor of her own brand of spiritualism, or do the two remain wedded somehow all the way to the end of the novel? How do we know?
    2. The narrator's father seemed to view organized religion (and particularly Catholicism) as somehow opposed to being rational. Does the narrator's own brand of spirituality escape that accusation? Why or why not, and does it matter?
    3. What things are "holy" or "evil" to the narrator? Do you find her choices in this regard surprising?

    Chew on This

    The narrator's moral code ends up being completely distinct from Christian morality; as we can tell from her reaction to the heron, abuse of the animal-natural world is the biggest sin in her mind (whereas she barely bats her eyes at more traditional Christian "evils" such as adultery, lying, or meanness).

    The narrator's spirituality definitely retains aspects of Christianity—for example, she still believes firmly in the concept of resurrection (she just, you know, limits its powers to plants).

  • Family/Marriage

    Family and marital relationships are at the core of Surfacing. That said, you'd be hard pressed to find one that gives you the warm and fuzzies. The story is littered with failed or ugly marriages, and even the other family relationships (for example, between the narrator and her brother) have a bit of a sinister undertone. The relationships between parents and children don't fare any better, apparently; according to the narrator, it's natural to disown your parents when you reach adulthood, and she claims to have disowned her own child as an infant. (It turns out, however, that she never had the baby she was remembering at all.) All told, people seem pretty isolated in the novel, unable to forge or retain the closest social bonds that exist—that is, the ones that typically occur between family members.

    Questions About Family/Marriage

    1. Are the related ideas of family and marriage completely rejected in the novel, or is there hope for those institutions and bonds? If so, where?
    2. According to the narrator, David and Anna did the supposedly normal thing and "disowned" their parents years ago. What do you think they mean by that? What does "disowning" one's parents mean to them? To the narrator?
    3. The narrator goes from talking about the process of childbirth as horrifying and disempowering to viewing it as somehow redemptive (which is why she wants Joe to impregnate her at the end of the novel). What do you think sparks that change?
    4. The novel brings up the narrator's brother a ton without letting us meet him—is that important? Why do you think Atwood made that choice? What does it achieve?

    Chew on This

    At the end of the novel, the narrator seems finally to embrace the family and marriage stuff because she's confronted both her past and herself—that's a key step to connection in Atwood's novel.

    The narrator pursues motherhood at the end because she has found a new way to relate to that role. Whereas before she felt totally powerless to control what happened to her body in that arena, at the mercy of birth control pills and the prodding of her partners, now she feels connected to pregnancy and motherhood as a natural and empowering process.

  • Time

    In Surfacing, the narrator's home region has a very kind of retro or "frozen in time" feel—after all, the local men still sport Elvis Presley haircuts, even though that was more of a 1950s thing. Naturally, the narrator feels pulled into the past visiting a place with so many memories and so much history for her, but she's also conscious of how much has changed—and it's not entirely a pleasant feeling.

    The only thing scarier than having to confront the past, to the narrator, is the feeling that time is marching on without your permission—and she definitely butts up against that reality when she realizes she always kind of expected her parents to be around. And they're not. With her mother having passed away from illness some time ago and her father missing, she returns to her hometown to find everything the same… except, you know, for the two people she pictured as never changing, apparently.

    Questions About Time

    1. Why does the narration switch from the present to the past tense from Section 1 to Section 2, and then back again to the present in Section 3? What do these tense acrobatics achieve?
    2. Looking at the narrator and her journey, would you say that focusing on the past is good or bad? Is that crucial in order to know yourself, or is such awareness stunting?
    3. Do you think the narrator is ready to move back to the "present tense" at the end of the novel? Why or why not?
    4. Is time's passage portrayed as threatening or somehow natural? Or both?

    Chew on This

    The "retro" setting of the novel is a red herring. Atwood soon reveals that, even if one attempts to stay stuck in the past, change is constant and unavoidable. The past is something to be escaped.

    The "retro" setting of the novel is used to underscore the narrator's realization that you must maintain an awareness of and honesty regarding your past if you're to move forward.

  • War

    Even though Surfacing is not set in wartime, references to World War II (and war in general) pop up pretty frequently. In part, these references stem from the fact that the narrator and her brother were children when World War II was going on, even if they weren't immediately super-conscious of the conflict. The narrator finds her mind drawn frequently toward warfare and violence, even though she claims that it was always her brother who was more interested in that kind of stuff (by contrast, she tried to avoid thinking about such things). With characters like David claiming that a conflict between the U.S. and Canada was imminent and the narrator's own constant sense of being invaded (by memories, by questions about her feelings for Joe, etc.), it feels like war and conflict aren't really so far away from the novel's tranquil reality, ready to bubble up at any time.

    Questions About War

    1. Why does the novel make such frequent references to World War II and Hitler? What is the importance of that war for the narrator in the present?
    2. What do you make of David's idea that the U.S. and Canada could go to war? Is it presented as ridiculous, credible, or a little bit of both?
    3. What is the narrator's attitude toward war and violence? Does it change throughout the novel?

    Chew on This

    As the story progresses, the narrator's thoughts about war and violence evolve; she goes from thinking they should be avoided to acknowledging them as somehow a necessary part of "reality."

    Set in a kind of retro setting, the novel refers frequently to World War II to remind the reader that history, while over, is always waiting to repeat itself.

  • Love

    Love is definitely a four-letter word to the narrator of Surfacing (well, it's a four-letter word anyway, literally speaking, but you get the point). She spends the early part of the novel musing about the fact that she's never really been able to figure out what that feeling is supposed to be. She apparently dreads the moment in her relationships when the L-word finally becomes an issue, since she can't really come up with the goods her boyfriends are expecting. It's no wonder she's ambivalent about it, though, given the fact that she had a nasty ex who apparently used professions of love to convince her to do whatever he wanted (continue an affair even though he was married, get an abortion, etc.). By the end, she seems to recognize that she loves Joe, but it's unclear what that knowledge will translate into, in terms of their future relationship.

    Questions About Love

    1. In the narrator's view, is the concept of love flawed or does it end up being viable? How do we know?
    2. Are there some instances of "real" love in the novel—or, at least, the potential for real love? What are they?
    3. How does the narrator's chilly view with respect to love and human relationships color your view of her and the novel?
    4. What do you make of Anna and David's relationship—is there any love there at all? Does it matter? Why or why not?
    5. Are there alternatives to "love" that the narrator presents as preferable or more powerful? If so, what are they?

    Chew on This

    The novel suggests that "love" as a concept is, at best, meaningless, and at worst, dangerous (since it can be used as a tool to control and manipulate others).

    While Atwood and her narrator underplay it, the narrator's ability to feel love for Joe at the end of the novel is a huge step forward for her, signifying her willingness to move forward in her relationship and the present after confronting the truths of her past.