Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing

“Through the trees the sun glances; the swamp around me smoulders, energy of decay turning to growth, green fire. I remember the heron; by now it will be insects, frogs, fish, other herons. My body also changes, the creature in me, plant-animal, sends out filaments in me; I ferry it secure between death and life, I multiply.”

Surfacing (page 162)1Margaret Atwood, Surfacing. Virago, 1979.

For a number of personal reasons, it is challenging for me to read a book about motherhood, about a woman’s body as the giver of life. Yet Surfacing has quickly become one of my favourite books, and definitely one of the best I have read this year. In what follows, I will try to put into words why that is, and what it is about Atwood’s book that speaks to me — a childless woman — so much.

Being primarily a book about a traumatised female body, Surfacing manages to steer clear of what I would consider feminist clichés (overt victimisation, in-your-face patriarchy, objectification narratives, and so on) by presenting feminist issues in a subtle yet powerful way, in the context of the Canadian wilderness. The novel encourages reflection on a number of feminist and environmental issues related to power, commodification, identity and trauma that sadly are still relevant today as they were in 1972.

The comparisons between the protagonist’s body and nature reminded me of many other eco-feminist writings, but particularly of Atwood’s compatriot Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, where the writer’s inability to have children is compared to the Gulf of Mexico’s barrenness due to an oil spill. Atwood’s first-person narrator is not barren, quite the opposite, but has been deprived of her motherhood by a man who, being just a ghostly presence in the book, convinced (or forced?) her to undertake an abortion. Not a typically feminist theme at a time when abortion rights were at the centre of international debate, I would say. But I don’t think the book is a comment on abortion. Rather, I see it as a powerful analysis of women’s agency when it comes to defining their own terms regarding their bodies, and particularly their reproductive parts.

Atwood’s most striking touch in my opinion is describing the abortion experience presenting it to the reader as if it were a birth, through the traumatised voice of the nameless narrator, creating a disturbing and at first reading incomprehensible image of suffering, coldness, and violation I could not stop thinking about for days after. “They want you to believe it’s their power, not yours” is the protagonist’s comment to what is happening, as if to underline how, through the forced procedure, the woman is deprived of the only power patriarchal societies (cannot but) allow her to have: the power of giving life.

In this particular scene, the woman’s body is silenced through medical procedures that see it as a machine, as a “dead pig” to stick needles in and experiment with. This chillingly reminded me of the one and only visit I paid to a fertility clinic. Nothing particularly devastating happened in that 10-minute meeting with a specialised doctor, but I came out sobbing and could not stop crying for some time later. At the time, I could not justify my reaction: nobody had been rude or disrespectful to me, so why the tears? I later realised — and Atwood’s words helped me articulate — the way in which my body had been treated as a broken baby-making machine that needed to be fixed, and the quickness with which invasive medical procedures were recommended without even looking at my personal medical history, or taking into account my feelings about such procedures. Since then, I have refused to see myself as a broken machine, and decided to move on.

One more point that struck me in the book is the key role water (in the form of a lake) plays in Surfacing. It might be because I am reading and studying Moby-Dick, but I nevertheless found the use of this element particularly fitting — and another link to Klein’s book mentioned above. It is the place where the narrator is re-born, so to speak, where she finally realises what she needs to do to move past her trauma and re-start the creative process of becoming a mother, this time on her own terms. Despite the obvious connotations and links to motherhood, water seems an appropriate setting where to stage a story of re-definition and re-appropriation, thanks to its ‘smooth’ essence2“The smooth is the continuous variation, continuous development of form; it is the fusion of harmony and melody in favour of the production of properly rhythmic values, the pure act of the drawing of a diagonal across the vertical and the horizontal.” (From A Thousand Plateaus) (in Deleuze and Guattari’s terms3Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, University of Minnesota Press, 1980.) of being an element marked by variation, change, defying strict definitions and categorisations. It is here a liberating space for a 1970s woman trying to break free of the conventions of a society that sees as her only possible identity that of the perfect, magazine-cover wife and mother.

Atwood is generally well-known for another kind of fiction, namely her best-selling The Handmaid’s Tale, but I cherish and will always be grateful to this Atwood too, for her sharp and thought-provoking exploration of womanhood through the “smoothing” filter of the Canadian wilderness.


  • 1
    Margaret Atwood, Surfacing. Virago, 1979.
  • 2
    “The smooth is the continuous variation, continuous development of form; it is the fusion of harmony and melody in favour of the production of properly rhythmic values, the pure act of the drawing of a diagonal across the vertical and the horizontal.” (From A Thousand Plateaus)
  • 3
    Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, University of Minnesota Press, 1980.

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