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The narrator, in Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, embarks on a journey in search of her missing father. The journey leads her back to the desolate island where she spent her childhood. As the search progresses the narrator’s thoughts shift from discovering the truth about what happened to her father to discovering the truth about her own past. The narrator is accompanied by her three companions from city. Equally important on her journey are memories she carries with her of individuals from her past. The narrator’s relationships with the other characters contribute to the themes of alienation, isolation and the fragility of human existence. As the novel unfolds the narrator’s alienation from those around her, and from reality itself, grows until she becomes completely isolated. It is in the midst of absolute isolation her true self-discovery occurs.

In chapter one as the narrator describes her companions, Joe, Anna and David, a closeness seems to be missing. In the car she refers to her lover as, “this one, Joe, is sitting beside me…” (8). She calls Anna her best friend, although she has only known her for two months. The narrator is unable to discuss the search for her father, and remains secretive regarding her past. The lack of emotional connection indicates the narrator’s inability to make emotional investments in others, suggesting she was hurt in the past.

Perhaps the narrator subconsciously chooses to be with Joe because the relationship does not require her to become emotionally involved. She expresses her feelings for Joe as fondness, and views the fact that he doesn’t talk much an advantage (4). The relationship poses no risk. The fear of losing someone she emotionally invested in is absent because she refuses to become involved in that way. The narrator alienates herself from anyone with whom she has such a relationship. Later, when Joe proposes marriage she is unable to accept and finds herself without feelings.

I realized I didn’t feel much of anything, I hadn’t for a long time. Perhaps

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I’d been like that all my life, just as some babies are born deaf or without

a sense of touch; but if that was true I wouldn’t have noticed the absence.


At this point the narrator consciously diverts the search for her father to a search for inner peace. The realization of her inability to feel anything for Joe, or anyone else, drives her to discover the truth that lies in her past.

The truth is revealed when the relationship with the man she had convinced herself was her husband surfaces. The marriage the narrator believed to have taken place never occurred. Instead, it had replaced the repressed memories of the abortion of her unborn child, and her affair with a married man. As the memories surface and the relationship with this man transforms in the narrator’s mind, she herself begins a transformation; she begins to slip away from reality. She attributes the emergence of the memories to “the gods”, which she believes her father led her to. She is convinced her mother must also have left her a “gift” that will contribute to the wholeness she is searching for. Her growing alienation from reality, along with the ability of her mind to alter the past, express the fragility of the human psyche.

The narrator begins to see the human beings as destructive and becomes disenchanted with the human race. She views them as powerless, which may have transpired from her own powerlessness to save her baby. As the narrator recalls the abortion her loss of power is sensed, “I could have said no but I didn’t; that made me one of them too, a killer” (145). More and more the narrator needs to escape from her newly discovered reality, which is in her mind humans cannot be saved. She sees in her companions the problems with man. At one point she describes Anna and David as metamorphosing into machines, “…the others are already turning to metal, skins galvanizing, heads congealing to brass knobs, components and intricate wires ripening inside” (15). She no longer desires to be a part of this civilization.

By forcing herself into isolation when the others leave the island the narrator feels she can remove herself from the human race. She severs the ties with the others by destroying the videotape they made on the journey. Through this action she destroys what she views as exploitation. It symbolizes her dislike for what humans have become. Once her companions depart the island the narrator descends into complete madness. By becoming “animal-like” she believes she is saving herself. After destroying the contents of the cabin, an act to rid her of the past, she goes out to live as a wild animal. She bathes in the lake, removing her clothes, as if to be cleansed of sin. She waits for the transformation, believing animals are untainted as humans have been.

As suddenly as “the gods” encapsulate her they release her, signifying her inner struggle is coming to an end. With the release comes the realization of her own power, “I have to recant, give up the old belief that I am powerless and because of it nothing I can do will ever hurt anyone” (11). In the course of her journey, and through self-discovery she finds the will to be human and gains the ability to trust. In the end it is the sight of Joe standing on the dock that brings her back. He, like the others, was a part of her journey.

What begins as a search for the narrator’s father, ends in the narrator’s self-discovery. She starts her journey somewhat detached and alienated from her companions. The alienation eventually leads to isolation and madness, ultimately leading to the discovery of herself and her own power. The process requires the presence of the other characters. The narrator’s relationships reveal her inner feelings and show the delicate nature of the mind. Without the others, the narrator’s growing alienation and isolation would not be apparent.

Work Cited

Atwood, Margaret. Surfacing. Toronto, Ontrario McClelland and Stewart, 14.

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