Surfacing Surfacing discussion

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message 1: by Sherry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 02:17PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Sherry Discussion to start on the 1st of June, 2008.

Dottie Can't wait!

message 3: by Ricki (last edited May 29, 2008 07:33AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ricki A bit of biographical information about Atwood for those of you who aren't familiar with her -

from - a bit I found particularly relevant to this book -

Margared Atwood was born in Ottawa, Canada, the second of three children. He father, Carl Atwood, was a forest entomologist, and her mother, Margaret Killam, a nutritionist. Part of her early years Atwood spent in the bush of northern Quebec, where her father undertook research. Later these childhood experiences gave material to her metaphorical use of the wilderness and its animals in WILDERNESS TIPS (1991).

And further, from the same site - While working as an editor at the Toronto publishing house Anansi in the early 1970s, Atwood published her controversial study SURVIVAL: A THEMATIC GUIDE TO CANADIAN LITERATURE (1972). For scholars Atwood's tongue-in-cheek humour was hard to swallow, especially when she asserted that Canadian literature has remained blighted by subservient, colonial mentality. Later she returned to the theme in STRANGE THINGS: THE MALEVOLENT NORTH IN CANADIAN LITERATURE (1995). Atwood searched for the "fabled Canadian identity", stating that "Canadians are fond of a good disaster, especially if it has ice, water, or snow in it. You thought the national flag was about a leaf, didn't you? Look harder. It's where someone got axed in the snow."

As for Surfacing itself -

Margaret Atwood's second novel, Surfacing, earned critical and popular acclaim in Canada and the United States after its publication in 1972. Surfacing is structured around the point of view of a young woman who travels with her boyfriend and two married friends to a remote island on a lake in Northern Quebec, where she spent much of her childhood, to search for her missing father. Accompanied by her lover and another young couple, she becomes caught up in her past and in questioning her future. This psychological mystery tale presents a compelling study of a woman who is also searching for herself. Readers praise the novel's style, characterizations, and themes. Critic Patricia F. Goldblatt comments in her essay on Atwood's protagonists that in her construction of the main character in Surfacing, Atwood proves:

to her and to us that we all possess the talent and the strength to revitalize our lives and reject society's well-trodden paths that suppress the human spirit. She has shown us that we can be vicariously empowered by our surrogate, who not only now smiles but winks back at us, daring us to reclaim our own female identities.

and from -

'Surfacing' demonstrates the complex question of identity for an English-speaking Canadian female. Identity, for the protagonist has become problematic because of her role as a victim of colonial forces. She has been colonized by men in the patriarchal society in which she grew up, by Americans and their cultural imperialism, or neo-colonialism as it has come to be known as, and the Euro-centric legacy that remains in her country although the physical presence of English and French rulers have gone. This collective colonial experience of the protagonist, and the analogous nature of imperial and feminist discourses, is succinctly described by Coral Ann Howells, quoted by Eleanora Rao in 'Strategies for Identity',

'Women's experience of the power politics of gender and their problematic relation to patriarchal traditions of authority have affinities with the Canadian attitudes to the cultural imperialism of the United States as well as its ambivalence towards its European inheritors.' (P.xxiv)

Beyond these few quotes to get you going I'm only going to start on the beginning part of the book - a part which I found filled with insight about the 'going home after a long absence' experience. The way Atwood described the landmarks that she knew, that were a part of her entire experience of place and that in some cases were no longer there was, I felt, filled with almost a poetic sensitivity of experience. Having been away from past homes for years and then revisitng them I felt that her description brought back those journeys to me.

One aspect of the book I found odd, although perhaps telling about her personality, was the fact that she considered Anna, a woman whom she had known for only 2 months, as her best friend. In fact her relationships with all three seemed at the beginning to be almost completely emotionally detached from herself. Atwood gave a clue through this to the way in which the protagonist needed to deal both emotionally and intellectually with this detachment throughout the book.

And what did you all make of the attempt to create a me that smacked of the flower power 60's - the let it flow generation (and before anyone thinks I am merely being negative about this, let me explain, that was me back then, too)

If you have time to read the rest of the article at
please have a go - it's quite interesting and is helpful in reflecting on this book.

In the meantime if I manage to get to a computer over the hols I'll be looking forward to reading what you all think of not only the beginning but ofthe rest of the book. See you all sometime after the 10th.

Kenneth P. "And what did you all make of the attempt to create a me that smacked of the flower power 60's - the let it flow generation'

By trying to make a film David becomes a symbolic American (a Hollywood dude). Throughout the novel he behaves like a "Yank" with his idiotic little laughs that mimic Woody Woodpecker, Goofy and numerous Disney cartoon characters. His love of baseball betrays an American cultural slavery. And his rants about American pigs is borrowed from the American counter culture of the 60's and 70's. David is a cartoon, an American cartoon-- yet he's Canadian. Of course he's a sexist and an abuser of women. He's in his thirties, balding and acts like a teenager who isn't very bright.

What are we to make of this guy? More importantly, what are we to make of Ms. Atwood's use of this shallow character?

Happyreader Surfacing seems all about surfaces. Everyone is shallow and superficial. Opinions expressed are black and white and stereotypical for the times. Relationships aren't deep and lack connection. There's a lot of masking (with makeup, for example, and animals in human skins in the folktales) leading eventually to a skedding of skins.

I think that's why the book has such a disturbing feel. Since everything is so superficial, you have no sense of what's beneath the surface except probably a lot of unaired pain and bitterness. No one recognizes anyone else, like the Canadian campers not recognizing their fellow Canadians. The insanity seems connected to a need for something more. It can't be just this. There must be some deeper meaning, the narrator theorizes. Not surprising that such a surface existance leads to a break from reality.

Sherry I almost feel like the book should be titled Delving instead of Surfacing. She certainly delved into insanity there for a while. Do any of you think the "transformation" did the protagonist any good? We don't get to see the outcome, really.

I think Atwood nailed the personality types here. One of the classic examples is the woman who woke up early to put on her makeup, but thought her husband would "kill" her if he realized she needed it. Then when she forgot to take her makeup on the camping trip he didn't even notice.

Happy, you made some very astute observations--especially about the masks and skins and disconnections.


When I first read this book ages ago, it really confused me. An older woman whose opinion I highly regarded recommended it to me. I remember telling her I liked it, but I also remember being very confused. I don't think I understood the madness of the girl--I was taking it literally. I don't remember that her "child" had really been aborted and that her "husband" had really been her married professor/lover. So she was masking reality from herself as well as from others. Do any of you think that madness helps to uncover truth?

message 7: by Happyreader (last edited Jun 01, 2008 09:24AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Happyreader SPOILER!!!

Sherry, I was just as confused as you. She talks about her little girl and not being able to see her and she talks about her husband and her parents not being able to handle the divorce and she tells Joe she has a baby. That's a good question about who was she hiding the truth from.

Considering she has a psychotic break after recalling her abortion, I think she must have been lying to herself. An affair with a married professor and an abortion would have been kept secret from everyone. She wouldn't have to make up stories about a husband and child.

Which makes me wonder about the other lies the women told themselves to essentially keep themselves locked in more traditional roles. Anna with her supposed fears about makeup and her cheating husband. The narrator, the supposed runaway wife and mother and reluctant artist. I wonder if part of that is driven by the fear of what women's lib actually meant for them. The narrator says a number of times, like when killing the fish, that she's used to someone doing this for her. And the comment she makes about how "men are supposed to be superior." When she says that no one hears her actual words, I assumed she meant men are supposed to be superior but are falling down on the job, leaving her to fend for herself. Greater self-autonomy can be scary if that isn't what you were raised to be or socially acceptable. It's so much easier just to say or think that your man and/or family won't like it.

The political opinions and language make the book so 70s but the fears and the lies we tell ourselves make the book more contemporary. People still tell themselves that they "have" to live a certain way because it's expected, when no one really cares, rather than admit it's easier than making riskier life choices.

Ruth Finished this yesterday, and I really don't know what to make of it. The writing is smooth and readable, if not exciting.


I was totally into the story until she started really slipping over the edge. And I'd like someone to explain to me what they made of the psychotic episode accomplished. I can't see that it accomplished anything except getting Atwood out of the corner into which she'd painted herself.

Happyreader SPOILER

I'm one of the kids of Atwood's generation. My mom and most of my school friends' moms are the same age as Atwood. I was shocked by how many of my friends' moms had nervous breakdowns or were alcoholics in the early 1970s. I think the disconnect between what their lives were and what they needed them to be was too much and they snapped. To me, this is what happened to the narrator. She was dead to her life. Stuff had accumulated to the point that she broke. What happens to her afterwards is what we're left to ponder. I can remember a couple of neighborhood moms who just seemed broken.

Sherry I think she had to become unglued before she could start to reassemble herself. She became an animal, broke down barriers that she had set up for herself (like the self-lies about the "baby" and "husband").

Or maybe she just ate some bad mushrooms.

Happyreader Ha!!! I like the bad mushrooms option. Who knows what she really plucked out of that overgrown garden.

Melissa Protocol question: in these book discussions hidden away from the main board, where we have to take several clicks to even find the comments, wouldn't people expect this to be a place for people who have read the book in question? So why do we need spoiler alerts here? Couldn't we just have a generic warning at the top of the discussion and then talk more freely here (as opposed to in the topic posted on the main discussion board, where I see the point of alerts).

In any case, I will endeavor to to be polite and follow custom.

Melissa SPOILERS!!!

I found this book completely engrossing. Ricki's comments above about the opening scene of approaching the childhood home ring very true to me, as well as the oddity of the narrator's best friends being virtual strangers to her in many ways. I think the protagonist could perhaps not have had her breakthrough in the company of people who actually knew her well. Even her boyfriend Joe was unknown to her and unable to know her.

I also like Sherry's comment about 'delving' as opposed to 'surfacing.' The 'diving' in the story was certainly significant.

Happyreader's comments about lying to oneself and others are spot on too, I think. I found the narrator to be unreliable not just to me the reader but even more to herself.

As for all those confusions about reality/unreality of baby, husband, etc., I felt a similar disorientation, so my solution was to stop and go back for my second read of the book before even finishing the first one! That second time through was even richer and more disturbing.

Happyreader I hear what you're saying about spoilers when you're in a book discussion and I'm open to new protocol. One potential issue is that your comments turn up on your friends home pages so what if they're in the middle of the book or intended to read it in the future. I don't know.

I also don't know why anyone would shack up with Joe. My God, what a lump of a man. When he says she doesn't love him because he's a loser who makes bad art, I figured that was the truth and at least he knew it. Poor Joe.

Melissa Based in part on what Sherry said above (#10) about slipping in and out of animal states, it occurs to me that the narrator in part likes Joe precisely in his animal character - all those refs to his furry skin, inarticulate nature, and so on.

And I do see the point about feeds of our comments ... ah well

Melissa Happy's comment about the 70s politics and enduring themes at the end of #7 above touch on an interest of mine as well: To what extent are the 'topical' aspects of fiction like this incidental -- presumably not to its first readers, but potentially to those who find the work some decades later -- and to what extent are they essential to the power of the work?

Personally I find the personal and relationship aspects of the novel much more resonant and intriguing than the themes of American neo-colonialism (as summarized in Ricki's opening comment) or even the overtly gender/feminist aspects (though these to my mind are more integral to the character arcs).

Or is it merely that as an American man and husband I prefer to consider those as political topicality rather than essential to the art of the story??

Happyreader That's a good question. The topicality is definately important in terms of understanding the context for the dynamics. When David starts talking about the narrator's ass and she's kind of OK with it, you're thinking what the h*ll is with them? And even though relationship dynamics have similar qualities, the expectations and politics have definately changed.

At the core, though, you're right. If the story is really strong, the essentials remain the same. Human nature is human nature.

I agree about Joe too. She loved him when he was her unknown animal. She loved his furriness and his physicality. She had no use for his moods, his personality, or his neediness.

message 18: by Kenneth P. (last edited Jun 01, 2008 09:00PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kenneth P. Since Ms. Atwood is a documented feminist and a two-fisted advocate of a Canada free of American influence, it's likely that we have a straight forward allegory here-- a two-pronged allegory. The protagonist represents modern woman and the nation of Canada. Her identity crisis and neurosis represent not only the subservient state of women to men (1972) but of Canada to the USA. In the first sentence of the book we read that the disease is spreading up from the south... Her apparent descent into madness may well be, as Sherry says, a woman (and a nation?) coming unglued before reassembling.

I was around in these times (not in Canada but in the US). The Vietnam war was raging. Far from being an American puppet, Canada stood tall, refusing to assist the war effort in any way. It was extremely vocal and it provided sanctuary for American deserters and draft resistors, much to the dismay of American administrations-- hardly the behavior of a nation afflicted with the "disease from the south."

Strangely, the only talk of war in this novel seems to be about WW2 and Hitler.

message 19: by Happyreader (last edited Jun 01, 2008 10:13PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Happyreader What's odd is that the biggest political issue at the time was the threat of Quebec succeeding. The story takes place in Northern Quebec and that conflict is only hinted at. At that time, the real invaders would have been the narrator and her English-speaking Canadian friends. This was the time, after all, of English flight from Montreal. I kept wondering if the city they lived in was Toronto or Montreal. I'm guessing Toronto.

Kenneth P. Possibly Vietnam and Quebec secession did not fit the author's thematic purpose. It's a novel after all. She has certain inalienable rights.

message 21: by Stephen (new)

Stephen David, Anna, and Joe are three of the most repulsive fictional characters that I have run across lately.

message 22: by Kenneth P. (last edited Jun 02, 2008 08:01PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Kenneth P. There certainly is not much to be said about them in a positive light. For me they may be almost too shallow (and stupid) to be repulsive. And I'm not sure if I'd lump Joe in with the other two. He's dumb as dirt but may have a good heart.

Happyreader Steve, I completely agree. At the same time, a trip to the Canadian north with nice people probably would have ended differently. Oddly, as anti-American as David was, his behavior was so American.

If Atwood ever writes a sequel tracking everyone 30 years later, David probably emigrated a year later to NYC and is an embittered skirt-chasing professor. I'm not sure where Anna, Joe, and the narrator are now. Perhaps Joe, the narrator, and the baby settled in the cabin and the baby is now an environmentalist in British Columbia. Anna, now on her fifth marriage, is now doing makeup infomercials on CTV?

message 24: by Stephen (last edited Jun 03, 2008 11:59AM) (new)

Stephen This book projects a sense of anger. I don’t know about the allegory theory, but for me this anger has the same feel as the anger of second wave feminists prominent in the era of this book’s publication. That sort of anger could be most destructive when directed at other women. That tendency manifests itself here in the portrayal of Anna. Obviously, David is despicable, but I find Anna’s portrayal to be very unsympathetic, too, particularly when she cooperates in her own humiliation.

No, Joe should not be lumped in with those other two. Joe is just a sex toy without the annoying buzz.

message 25: by Ruth (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ruth Joe raised the ick factor for me. Agree with you about the anger, Steve. I didn't like anyone in the book either, including the protagonist. For 3/4 of the book I was interested, the last 1/4 I just kept thinking lets get the thing over with and put these 4 characters out of their misery.

Happyreader Atwood’s anger is akin to firmly grabbing ahold of someone and saying “Wake Up Already!!!!!” I think she’s skilled in showing that people are sleep walking and need a good swift kick to see the reality around them.

I don’t think Atwood is any nastier to Anna than she is to David. David is the nastiest of all the characters. He comes very close to raping the narrator for revenge. Anna is a seducer, not a rapist. Anna you want to slap upside the head to knock some sense into her. In the right environment, she may shape up. David is too firmly attached to his worldview to evolve for the better. And I agree with Ruth. Joe is just icky and the most unappealing sex toy. The narrator was obviously depressed and needy when she hooked up with Joe.

Kenneth P. "Wake up already" to whom? These cardboard characters are not capable of waking up.... well it's possible that the narrator goes through an awakening. But are these people symbolic? What's the point of a story filled with empty vessels unless they stand for something? That's why, for me, the allegory theory is the only one that makes sense.

Not that it salvages the book for me. Steve makes a good point about anger. Anger makes the book hard to wade through.

Kenneth P. The narrator's descent into a state of nature (in this post I won't call it madness) was so drawn out, so incredibly long and impossible to deal with that it stands to reason that the author is messing with us-- she wants to punish us, to put us through the pain of the disenfranchised (it could be any group but in this case women). So she labors the issue (not unlike the long version of Faulkner's "The Bear") until we grind our teeth for a solution.

Thank you Ginnie. Multiple readings of your post has helped me. It's a bitch of a book but I think you get it. Give us some more.

message 29: by Barbara (last edited Jun 08, 2008 01:18PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Barbara Finished this during a period of insomnia last night with a thunderstorm raging outside, the perfect environment for Surfacing. Ricki, I really appreciated your biographical information about Atwood in the introductory note. I thought I knew more about her than I did. My favorite parts of the book were little bits about the wilderness, the house, taking care of themselves, the hikes, portaging the canoes, the animals and plants, etc. I kept wondering how accurate this all was, but after reading her background, I realized that she probably knew exactly what she was talking about.

Like many of us, I was around during this period too. And, some of the qualities of the characters rang true. I knew a guy in college in 1966 who reminded me a lot of David. He said the most despicable things about women but no one challenged him. It was all seen as somewhat laughable and part of his artistic, outrageous personality. I can't imagine even staying in the same room with him now. And, I certainly remember women who had some of Anna's characteristics. Joe doesn't resonate with me at all. The problem is that all 3 of them are so entirely one-dimensional. If that is OK because it is an allegory, then I don't think I like allegories.


The mystery of the narrator's character was somewhat compelling to me. I had a difficult time sorting out the birth/abortion stories, wondering if both had happened for a while. It was interesting that she was so capable and yet thought she was so dependent. That certainly speaks to many women in that period of time.

Perhaps the best thing about reading this book has been the discussion here!

message 30: by Jen (new) - rated it 2 stars


I think this book MUST be read as an allegory to work. To talk about it as one woman's story seems inconsistent with the information (or lack thereof) that Atwood gives us about the narrator. Despite all the detail about natural surroundings we are given, we still don't know exactly where the characters are driving from. We don't know the main character's name, and the only concrete piece of information we have about her for 2/3 of the novel (that she became estranged from her family after a divorce from the father of her also-estranged child) turns out to be false.

Perhaps it's because I missed the 60s and 70s, but I could not connect to this book. One of the write-ups that Ricki linked to while introducing the novel says that readers have praised the "characterization" in Surfacing. I couldn't disagree with these readers more. The lack of convincing characterization was actually one of my problems with the book. I felt like the characters moved and acted in service of Atwood's moralizing, and not out of organic motives.

Sherry This may be one of those novels that served a great purpose for a certain time, but the novel has remained the same, and we have moved on.

message 32: by Ruth (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ruth I agree with you both, Jen and Sherry.

Dottie I think we are all correct. Think it over.

The characters are very real in their time setting. The characters stand for a larger population -- some part of a universal. The characters seem cardboard and one-dimensional in another time and place (now, as we read the book). The characters and their story reveal that time and place to a degree which calls forth the word anger to such a degree that more than one person here has felt and spoken to the point. Sherry, points out that time and circumstances have changed. Some of us lived through that period and through the change from anger to what is it now? It's still there. It's better. It's just not war and anger now.

Though the NYT times and a few other papers printed artciles saying the inequalities in education of males and females have now been completely eliminated on the very day the AAUW released the annual Where the Girls are Report which says otherwise, I say it's because people now believe there are no innate differences between the genders -- it's all hogwash Mars and Venus and so forth and as long as everyone can join every organization and everyone can take any and all classes...but I digress. Unless awareness levels are held high, we could all be back there fighting the same issues again. And yes, sometimes there's still some anger hanging around these issues -- I have only to think of the Bush administration's Supreme Court and shenanigins surrounding Roe v Wade to feel a trace of anger brush through. Well. My point there was that IT is still an issue however evolved or mutated it may be now.

I think each post here could be addressed and incorporated. And I'm in agreement that the best of it has been this discussion which in sorting and sifting through it we could touch on so many seen and unseen issues and talk about them. And people ask what do you get out of talking about books? And they say I had enough of dissecting books in school. And yes, I might agree to some extent with that second one BUT if one doesn't learn to do some level of that dissecting -- then how would one sharpen one's mind to take part in these wonderful exchanges out here in the ether?

Kenneth P. I think Sherry's comment about the book remaining the same while we have moved on is terrific. In other words, the piece is dated. It would explain the excellent reviews in the 1970's. What may doom the book as one for the ages may be its anger. Steve's right. It's extremely angry and I doubt if a book can be entirely successful with anger as it's vehicle.

Dottie: when you say that it's not just war and anger now I disagree. There's plenty of war. Just not enough anger. I also digress.

message 35: by Stephen (last edited Jun 10, 2008 08:23AM) (new)

Stephen Nope, not a lot of laughs in this one, Kenneth.

I, too, applaud Sherry's observations.

Dottie Kenneth -- I wasn't clear on my war and anger remark -- I was referring to the feminist movement generally speaking -- the "war" being the movement itself and over and above the actual war which was going on and the "ager" being the anger of the feminists to a great degree -- remember the ERA did NOT get ratified. I think one must read a book with the historical timeframe FIRMLY in mind and not blame a book for being "dated" when history marches on and things change including the people of that time.

No, not a lot of laughs for sure -- but then -- given a lover who announces he's married when she became pregnant and sends her off to get an abortion which in that time was still most likely a back alley sleaze parlor quack -- is it any wonder she split herself into two beings? Is it any wonder that she hoped her father was just "out there" in the wilderness and she would find him and return to a familial loving place and find comfort? Is it any wonder thatwhen it all falls into the reality for her that there is anger and a lapse into the visceral and animal anger which she should have felt and expressed back when the affair ended with the abortion?

I thought this book held up fine in regard to its timeframe -- what I found difficult was the emoptional journey which our protagonist had to take -- and facing the death of a parent having the search for that parent trigger the long hidden grief for a lost child -- what pain -- and certainly much obvious and necessary anger.

Wilhelmina Jenkins I can buy this book as an allegory; I have serious trouble viewing these characters as actual human beings. (Sorry for coming in so late - I just finished the book.) I agree with the comments Jen made, and I didn't miss the '60s and '70s. I just can't see the narrator's slip into madness as an appropriate or understandable reaction to even the most traumatic of abortions. I'm willing to bet that all of us who were around in the bad old days before Roe v. Wade knew girls (I use girls deliberately) who had ugly illegal abortions. Depression, sadness, loss - OK; running naked through the woods and returning to animalistic roots - I don't think so.

It's got to be an allegory. Or maybe, as mentioned earlier, funny mushrooms.

message 38: by Ruth (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ruth I just can't see the narrator's slip into madness as an appropriate or understandable reaction to even the most traumatic of abortions

I agree, Mina.

Ricki Have just 'surfaced' from my holiday and enjoyed reading your comments which then led me back to the book.

Like some of you I found the use nature in descriptions and plot beautifully done. However I have to disagree about the one-dimensional aspect of the characters as I don't find them so in the slightest. Perhaps they aren't the sort of characters or people that I would relate to in my daily life but I am quite sure that they still exist - I've worked with people in relationships resembling that of Anna and David where the expectations and roles of both are the same and I've seen women as traumatised as the narrator by past events and who have thereby been led to descents of their own into a madness of sorts.
It's in Atwood's perceptive descriptions of places and people that I think she excels.
I wonder whether her use of time in the story is important - the slow changing nature of the setting that she fears will be affected by 'Americans' but the rapid descent into madness. The father that she is searching for - good heavens what a traumatic experience that alone would be, yet when you think that it is combined with the unresolved issues around abortion - and the sense that all this is done in a wilderness (wildness) - I would imagine that the wilderness she is feeling inside is reflected by that of the setting - her only touchstones being the childhood memories of time and place. She mentions at some place that she didn't really fit into the community by the way - is this then the story of someone who is or has been always existing on the surface and who has to plumb the depths to bring her 'self' out into the light - if so, her view of others would be only superficial and if the story took this into account it would also lead to having us looking at the others through her eyes - in a sense I think that is just what Atwood has done.

Kenneth P. I just wrote a comment, clicked on "post," and it indicated that it was "saving" it. Then it just vanished. Has anyone else had this problem?

Ricki Hi Kenneth - yes and it's so frustrating that I usually just give up.

Melissa I am not so troubled by the transformative fantasy toward the end of the book. In fact I like this method of symbolizing the protagonist's experience more powerfully than could have been done by an 'objective' narration of her emotional turbulence. To my mind realism is not necessarily called for.

I agree with Dottie's remarks about historical context too. Once we have sufficient distance from the time of writing of a book like this, maybe we worry less about its details or perspective being either still 'relevant' or outdated.

Still, I guess I have to admit that contemporary concerns can push their way in and complicate our reactions even to older fiction. Consider the ill-informed condemnation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as 'racist,' based on statements made by particular characters, even though most people who have actually read the book consider Huck and Jim's 'journey' to be one of the more powerful indictments of slavery and racial prejudice to be offered from within the American experience.

message 43: by Ruth (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ruth I thought the description of the fantasy was very well done. I question, however, the logic of its being there, dropped out of the blue like a deus ex machina.

message 44: by Candy (new)

Candy HOLY COW!!!!!

(spoilers) (but philosophical ones...not plot or character...)

This is one of the most compelling sets of discussion I've seen and I am really blown away. I am a late comer, I want to tell you, Rikki, you did an outstanding job of introducing this novel. Really good, I loved your introduction. many of the comments were so incredible it's almost overwhelming.

I think everyone deserves a pat on the back for experiencing and reading beyond some of the details that may have been dated sounding...I was really affected by what I read and the ideas so far.

I think Surfacing is Atwoods best novel.

There are a few things that I want to try to process and respond to in the comments...Sherry I thought what you said about the novel being an alternative title like "Delving" was very good. I think that is what was happening...and yet...I have a small thesis for why it deserves to be called "Surfacing"...but in a moment.

I think that the question of her "closest friends" reflects the kind of personality that is young and/or has loose boundaries. Two months for friendships among young people is a fairly long time...and it might reflect also that her boundaries of trust were very broad. (i could talk about this longer...but am HA trying to keep this post short...)

This novel does have a voice of anger...and although that may not be becomming...I believe it also can be supported with a small thesis...and that maybe anger is part of the surfacing and transformation...but wait...I'll get to that too...

This novel is strongest as an allegory.

And the allegory is nameable and tangible...

It is Plato's allegory of the cave.

When understood as a form of Plato's cave...the kind of people and the characterizations and the anger begin to actually make sense.

The character has been living in a illusion of what general society and status and life is...and is there any "rule" of what waking up and leaving Plato's cave "should look like"?

Anyone who has experienced a paradigm "aha moment" or rehab...or perhaps a lesson might also remember that anger is a kind of phase to recovery.

In stages of dying...there have been some stages identified for therapy and support purposes these are:


Angry that ones self had been "duped" or taught certain belief systems...angry one had been addicted to a behaviour (a substance...a class in society? a bad marriage?)

The fantasy that the protagonist goes through may seem drastic...but change can sometimes be drastic. In the phases of of the phases is anger...

In many ways what happens to our strange protagonist is she leaves the cave...she sees through the "maya" of existence and society...she does die in some ways.

In some ways I think it could be argued that the "breakdown" or return to scavenging or animalistic is relatable to "investigation" phase...or "formation" or "rebirth".

When it comes to Plato's Cave and applying it to life and learning there are these stages...


I believe the title of the novel refers to Plato's Cave...surfacing from the illusion that the people in the cave WERE the the learning and investigation that there is another experience of life out there.

And is there a formula to how one would act once one realized that they had been living in a limited universe, in a "false set of beliefs"?

What would "waking up" look like?

It might sometimes look messy.

I think part of this novel is an investigation to how painful and drastic...maybe even animalistic the experience of "learning" (SURFACING) might be to become an "enlightened" person...or a self examining person.

I am really sorry for such a long post...and I totally don't blame anyone if they didn't read it...I am sorry I came so late to the discussion and am wildly catching up...

Dottie Don't apologize. Interesting theories and thoughts. So -- will be looking for the "laters" you promised there. I think this discussion has been one of the better ones on CR for quite some time, actually. People are seeing this book from so many different places that it's amazing.

Kenneth P. Dottie's right. No apologies for posting here, especially for such a thoughtful post. Surfacing from the cave is a legitimate reading. I need to chew on it some more.

Recent comments by Ricki and Dottie have helped me to see the protagonist in a more favorable light. It's difficult to sympathize with a character when you don't particularly like her. At the outset of the book I didn't like her because she seemed weak and facile with thoughts that were childish and insensitive to say the least. I wonder if the author wanted her to be seen in a favorable light. She was entirely dependent upon her "friends". She was a follower. Once on the island, however, she became a leader, the Mom, assuming the role that circumstances (and yes her own adult behavior)had cruelly denied her.

Candy, these people aren't that young. David is in his early thirties, much too old to be acting like a 12 year old. The others are probably in their late 20's.

I think I get the return to the wilderness, get naked and get reborn, the so-called descent into madness. But for me it was protracted to the point of complete frustration. I had trouble getting through it. Of course this is what Atwood wanted, to make me really feel it.

I think the Canadian wilderness mirrors the protagonist's inner turmoil (much like the Congo in Heart of Darkness). Getting back to allegory, the protagonist's return to a state of nature, her re-birth (hopefully) as a whole being is more than a two-fisted feminist awakening. It's a call for Canadian nationalism.

Are there any Canadians present? Does this book, in 1972, betray a Canadian inferiority complex?

message 47: by Ricki (last edited Jun 13, 2008 01:41AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ricki Candy -
What an interesting post - I think that your analogy to Plato's cave really does give another understanding of the novel as does Kenneth's comparison to the Congo in Conrad.
Thanks for those insights and thank you Candy for what you said about the introduction - I particularly wanted to make it helpful since I knew I wouldn't be around for the first 10 days of the actual discussion. I'm glad you found it helpful.

Dottie Oh, Kenneth, I'm glad you made the Canadian comment. I kept wondering how that fit with the timeframe and all the young men who had gone there to avoid Vietnam service. There was some connection in the story but tenuous when one knows little other than what I just stated. I remember conversations with young men as to whether they'd serve or flee -- whether my own or second hand accounts. Candy may know something -- she's one of our Canadian folks though she is rather mobile a lot of the time.

I didn't feel the wildness was prolonged, I saw it as taking as long as it did to go back to the point in her psyche when she lost herself to the hidden aspects of her life and working back through the problem step by slow, painful step. I even saw it being hastened by the current blow which set it off -- the death of her father and the mystery surrounding it and finally the resolve.

message 49: by Candy (last edited Jun 14, 2008 09:11AM) (new)

Candy Hi guys...thanks for your patience with my long post. I have trouble communicating...and sometimes I get twisted up or longwinded.

I am also of the camp that believes many of the things that are important in life can not always be put into a soundbite.

I am Canadian...and I suppose I have something to say about that...but not yet. I am overloaded with projects today and can't spend too much more time online. I think confronting "colonization" is a metaphor for spiritual transformation or "learning". Plato's cave in the novel can be seen is the idea of cultural pressure from dominant nearby cultures and economies. The "cave" is belief systems...true?

I think the "cave" in the novel is the illusion that men dominate women, that women are lesser, that intelligence is associated with education, that United States has some kind of economic hold or cultural virus to other countries...the novel has managed to use all of those aspects to be a form of "control" or "imprisonment"

The anger in the novel can be seen in people who change...the Black Panthers were "angry", gays fighting for acceptance were "angry" punk rockers rejecting corporate rock production companies were "angry", people in the middle of a divorce are "angry".

So the anger in the book fits with some traditions of transformation coming about through violence or anger. The idea of "regeneration through violence".

I was thinking about the Plato's cave and how to look at this story Surfacing as compared to other stories with similar structures...themes and transformations or structure.

I am inspired by the mention of Heart of Darkness...and so love comparring stories that have similar structures and themes...So I just wanted to take a moment to list some other stories that might be relate-able to the plot of Surfacing:

The Game (movie starring Michael Douglas)
Great Expectations by Dickens
The Journey To The East by Hesse
The Glass Bead Game also by Hesse
Deliverance by James Dickey
Altered States by Paddy Chafesky (and the Ken Russel movie version)
The Magus by John Fowles (and he says it is his version of Great Expectations)
The Matrix (1st one in movie trilogy)
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Disgrace by Coetzee

I have to run...but just wanted to check in and make a small list...perhaps helping to understand what kind of "genre" a book of transformation or learning might be...????

message 50: by Candy (new)

Candy Hi, sheesh I wish we could post photos here.

I just talked to Sherry and it occurred t me that it might help to see a picture or soemthign about Plato's Cave.

Here is a picture link...

And here is Wikipedia's description of the allegory:

Imagine prisoners who have been chained since their childhood deep inside a cave: not only are their arms and legs unmovable because of chains; their heads are chained in one direction as well so that their gaze is fixed on a wall.

Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which puppets of various animals, plants, and other things are moved along. The puppets cast shadows on the wall, and the prisoners watch these shadows. Behind this cave there is a well-used road, and upon this road people are walking and talking and generally making noise. The prisoners, then, believe that these noises are coming directly from the shadows they are watching pass by on the cave wall.

The prisoners engage in what appears to us to be a game : naming the shapes as they come by. This, however, is the only reality that they know, even though they are seeing merely shadows of objects. They are thus conditioned to judge the quality of one another by their skill in quickly naming the shapes and dislike those who play poorly.[citation needed]

Suppose a prisoner's chains break, and he is able to get up and walk about (a process which takes some time, as he has never done it before). Eventually he will be compelled to explore; he walks up and out of the cave, whereby he is instantly blinded by the sun. He turns then to the shadows on the floor, in the lakes, slowly working his way out of his deluded mind, and he is eventually able to glimpse the sun. In time, he would learn to see it as the object that provides the seasons and the courses of the year, presides over all things in the visible region, and is in some way the cause of all these things that he has seen.

(This part of the allegory, incidentally, closely relates to Plato's metaphor of the sun which occurs near the end of The Republic, Book VI.)[1]

Once enlightened, so to speak, the freed prisoner would not want to return to the cave to free his fellow prisoners, but would be compelled to do so. Another problem lies in the other prisoners not wanting to be freed: descending back into the cave would require that the freed prisoner's eyes adjust again, and for a time, he would be one of the ones identifying shapes on the wall. His eyes would be swamped by the darkness, and would take time to become acclimated. He might stumble, Plato asserts, and the prisoners would conclude that his experience had ruined him. He would not be able to identify the shapes on the wall as well as the other prisoners, making it seem as if his being taken to the surface completely ruined his eyesight. (The Republic bk. VII, 516b-c; trans. Paul Shorey).[2]

A popular interpretation of this allegory follows...

Plato believed that truth was gained from looking at universals in order to gain understanding of experience Humans had to travel from the visible realm of image-making and objects of sense, to the intelligible, or invisible, realm of reasoning and understanding. "The Allegory of the Cave" symbolizes this trek and how it would look to those still in a lower realm. Plato is saying that humans are all prisoners and that the tangible world is our cave. The things which we perceive as real are actually just shadows on a wall. Just as the escaped prisoner ascends into the light of the sun, we amass knowledge and ascend into the light of true reality: where ideas in our minds can help us understand the form of 'The Good'.

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