Introduction to Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing: To the students
I first read Surfacing when I was at Exeter studying for a Modern Fiction module, and remember understanding almost none of it. Now I understand rather more, but only having read it a few more times. Learn from my experience, and have some patience with this novel. It's very rewarding when you know what’s going on, and I hope you will come to really enjoy it.
Now, to business: You might have read interviews with Margaret Atwood, or you might now feel moved to read them in the future, in which case you will have divined that she is partly a genius and partly bonkers.
Atwood has a reputation for savaging her interviewers, who usually make some general comment about her fitting into the Western feminist canon, and end up looking like muddy primary school children.
It seems to me that to avoid this we should stay on the safe side of the fence, and assume that Atwood is bonkers. Her narrator in Surfacing quite clearly is, and the narrative voice derives from a trait of Atwood’s – that while she is writing, she is completely immersed in her own world. So it is bonkers, but I think you’ve got to respect that.
The book is short. It is disengaged in tone. However, this does not mean it is straightforward to study because it is also, in effect, prose poetry. And if there’s one thing we should know about poetic language it’s that there are always layers of meaning.
Thus the novel itself is multi-layered. An exploration of its language should turn up ideas about womanhood, religion, landscape, birth, animals and modern society, and many other themes, all together. What we’ve got to decipher is exactly how the language is conveying these things. If you’re inquisitive – and work off your own back, rather than just mine – you’ll get a lot of fun out of it. I promise.
Who Should Read This?: Surfacing turns up on A-Level courses and university courses internationally. In the latter cases, usually in the second and third years of undergraduate literature, although Masters' degrees also focus on the novel. Anyone studying at any of these levels should read this, if only to disagree...
Amongst other things, I am keen on a balance between broadly 'thematic' criticism and deeper 'technical', or 'practical' criticism - too much of essay writing relies on the former, and that is only half of how good literature should be explored. So this 'blog'-style set of notes is supposed to do something like that.
To the students
2. The Techniques
Parataxis as Metaphor
3. The Tensions
Language as theme
Garden vs. Wilderness
4. Chapter Discussions
5. The Other Characters
6. Wider Reading
Copyright © Richard Cheadle, 2004-2006. All rights reserved.
Richard Cheadle, Hemsted House, Benenden School, Nr. Cranbrook, Kent. TN17 4AA.