Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

Surfacing by Margaret Atwood


“Surfacing” is a compelling novel written by Margaret Atwood, first published in 1972. Set in the rugged wilderness of northern Quebec, the novel follows the journey of an unnamed protagonist as she returns to her childhood home to search for her missing father. Through a blend of vivid imagery, psychological depth, and haunting symbolism, Atwood explores themes of identity, memory, alienation, and the impact of human exploitation on the natural world. “Surfacing” is a powerful and thought-provoking exploration of the human psyche and the complexities of modern life.

Plot Summary:

The novel begins with the protagonist, a woman in her thirties, traveling with her lover Joe and another couple, David and Anna, to her family’s remote cabin in the Quebec wilderness. As they embark on their journey, tensions simmer beneath the surface, reflecting the underlying conflicts and unresolved traumas of the protagonist’s past. Upon arriving at the cabin, the protagonist learns that her father, who had been living there alone, has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Determined to uncover the truth, she sets out on a quest to find him, accompanied by her dog and haunted by memories of her troubled childhood.

As the protagonist delves deeper into the wilderness, she becomes increasingly disconnected from reality, descending into a state of primal instinct and hallucination. As she grapples with the ghosts of her past and confronts the harsh realities of her present, she must also confront the destructive forces of industrialization and environmental degradation that threaten to destroy the natural beauty of the landscape she loves. Ultimately, “Surfacing” is a journey of self-discovery and redemption, as the protagonist comes to terms with her own identity and finds a sense of liberation in embracing her connection to the land and the creatures that inhabit it.


  1. Identity and Self-Discovery: At its core, “Surfacing” is a novel about the search for identity and meaning in a world that often seems fragmented and alienating. Through the protagonist’s journey of self-discovery, Atwood explores the complexities of human consciousness and the ways in which our past experiences shape who we are and how we perceive the world around us.
  2. Memory and Trauma: The novel is haunted by the ghosts of the protagonist’s past, as she grapples with memories of her troubled childhood and the trauma of her parents’ failed marriage. Through the protagonist’s fragmented recollections and hallucinatory visions, Atwood examines the ways in which memory can both illuminate and distort our understanding of reality, and the ways in which trauma can linger in the unconscious mind, shaping our thoughts and actions in profound and often unpredictable ways.
  3. Nature and Wilderness: Set against the backdrop of the rugged Quebec wilderness, “Surfacing” is a novel that celebrates the beauty and power of the natural world. Through vivid descriptions of the landscape and its inhabitants, Atwood captures the awe-inspiring majesty of the wilderness and the profound sense of connection that it evokes in the protagonist. At the same time, she also highlights the destructive impact of human exploitation and industrialization on the environment, offering a stark warning about the consequences of our disregard for the natural world.
  4. Alienation and Estrangement: Throughout the novel, the protagonist grapples with feelings of alienation and estrangement from both society and herself. As she retreats deeper into the wilderness, she becomes increasingly disconnected from the conventions and expectations of modern life, embracing instead a primal and instinctual mode of existence. Through the protagonist’s journey, Atwood explores the ways in which alienation and estrangement can lead to a profound sense of dislocation and isolation, and the ways in which reconnecting with the natural world can offer a path towards healing and reconciliation.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does Atwood use symbolism and imagery to convey the protagonist’s psychological state and emotional journey throughout the novel?
  2. Discuss the significance of the protagonist’s return to her childhood home and the impact that her memories of the past have on her present-day experiences.
  3. How does Atwood explore the themes of gender and sexuality in “Surfacing,” particularly in relation to the protagonist’s relationships with men and her own sense of self?
  4. In what ways does the novel critique the destructive forces of industrialization and environmental exploitation, and what lessons can be drawn from its portrayal of the relationship between humanity and the natural world?
  5. Consider the novel’s ambiguous ending. What do you think Atwood is suggesting about the protagonist’s ultimate fate and the possibility of redemption and renewal?


“Surfacing” is a haunting and evocative novel that explores the complexities of human consciousness, the beauty and power of the natural world, and the enduring impact of trauma and memory. Through its vivid imagery, psychological depth, and haunting symbolism, Margaret Atwood crafts a narrative that is at once deeply personal and universally resonant, inviting readers to reflect on their own relationships with identity, memory, and the environment. As we follow the protagonist on her journey of self-discovery and redemption, we are reminded of the profound interconnectedness of humanity and the natural world, and the importance of embracing our connection to both in order to find meaning and fulfillment in our lives.