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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.