On: Margaret Atwood's Surfacing Academic blogs:
Atwood's Surfacing
Coetzee's Disgrace
T. S. Eliot's Prufrock


       The first physical description we have of Anna is her fashion sense:

She’s wearing a purple tunic and white bellbottoms, they have a smear on them already, grease from the car. I told her she should wear jeans or something but she said she looks fat in them. (4-5)
       In this little description, two things are captured about Anna. First, she is trendy, as we see from her contemporary bellbottoms, or flairs. Second, she is not strictly practical in the way that the Narrator is. Anna is more concerned with her bodily appearance than with wearing clothes suited to a mucky journey. She is a ‘girly girl’. The feminist movement of the previous decade has probably for the most part passed her by. If it hadn’t, she would not still be married to David.
       Anna is Atwood’s observation of the way in which women are objectified by, and subject to, the wills of domineering men. In fact, she is the most likely reason for seeing Surfacing as a feminist novel. Anna does not say a great deal that suggests she is in conflict with the status quo. In fact she often conforms to what David expects of her (David, then, should be read as an archetype of the masculine hegemony): there are a number of surprising instances of Anna falling into line, when the growing impulse of women at the time might be to object to the situation:

Her eyes flicked from him to me. “That was pure of you,” she said. I’d made a mistake, she resented me because I hadn’t given in, it commented on her. (148)
       Here, the Narrator has told Anna in front of the others that she did not respond to David’s advances in the forest. Anna, however, has just had sex with Joe. The result is an uneasy few moments for the group where Anna’s sexuality has control of the men, and excludes the Narrator, who is supposed to be her “best woman friend”. A more sympathetic perspective on Anna is presented the morning after their first night camping. She is talking about her make-up:

Anna says in a low voice, “He doesn’t like to see me without it,” and then, contradicting herself, “He doesn’t know I wear it.” (38)
       This may be clever writing. Although Anna does appear to contradict herself, and for this reason might be seen as unaware of her objectified position, the emphasis in the sentence is on the word “He” – David – and so it is “He” that is being blamed for the situation. This emphasis is achieved through the sentence structure:

    S     P             C                         A

    He | doesn’t | like to see me | without it.

    S     P              C         A

    He | doesn’t | know | I wear it.

       Emphasis is given to “He [doesn’t]” simply because the S & P elements of the sentence are identical, while the composition of the C & A elements differ. Add to this that the overall ordering of the four elements is identical between the sentences, and it detracts further from the sense of a contradiction: whatever the precise sense, David is to blame.
       The issue of ‘contradiction’ is an important one when looking at Anna. She has two sides, and the Narrator is uncertain of which she should believe in. There is always the hope in the text that Anna will gather the strength to become a ‘natural’ woman, leaving behind all the male values that keep her locked up like a ‘doll’, force her to wear make-up, marry her to David, and put her on the pill.
       When we first encounter Anna she is at a point where, given the right encouragement, she might leave David. She is capable of occasional sharp outbursts:

Anna was furious now, goaded, her voice rose. “Fuck off, you want bloody everything don’t you, you can’t use that stuff on me.” (129)
       But David nonetheless manages to get the better of her. Her promising flares of temper never last long.
       It is in fact what Anna does not directly say that hints at awareness of her imprisoned state. Throughout their stay, she reads detective novels. Because these sorts of book are essentially ‘trash’ literature, it is unsurprising to find Anna reading them; however, they may also symbolise a deeper quest, a search for truth, which indicates her unresolved inner state. The presence of these detective novels also parallels in the text the Narrator’s gathering of clues about her life and father.
       On close inspection, Atwood seems to have been careful to relegate Anna’s true feelings to subconscious expressions, and this requires some intertextual analysis. Notice the folk songs that she sings:

House of the Rising Sun (3)

Lili Marlene (3)

St Louis Blues (4)

Mockingbird Hill (29)

The Big Rock Candy Mountain (41)
       With the exception of the last of these, David overrides her tunes with the radio, or with his own whistling. This is interesting and – hopefully – self-explanatory, as they are all concerned with life as a broken wretch, or lost love, or loving the wrong person.3 ‘The Big Rock Candy Mountain’, however, is about a quest to find a sugar-coated place, far away, where nothing bad happens. Tellingly, David is not around while she is “humming snatches” of it. If he was, he would almost certainly try to suppress it.
       Anna invariably disappoints the Narrator. In her need to hide her natural state from David, Anna “blends and mutes herself so well he may not notice” (38), an interesting camouflage reference that doubles as a reference to her voice – muted. They are ‘best friend’ to one another, though the Narrator has known her only a couple of months. Anna is actually the person who has got closest to deciphering the Narrator’s life, albeit accidentally:
Everyone can do a little magic, she reads hands at parties, she says it’s a substitute for conversation. When she did mine she said “Do you know you have a twin?” I said No. “Are you positive,” she said, “because some of your lines are double.” Her index finger traced me: “You had a good childhood and then there’s this funny break.” (2)
       As we later find out, the Narrator does have another person to whom she was at one stage attached – her unborn baby – making this a remarkable piece of detective work by Anna.

1. Introduction
       To the students
2. The Techniques
       Narrative Position
       Narrative Structure
       Parataxis as Metaphor
3. The Tensions
       [Spiritual] Journey
       Language as theme
       Garden vs. Wilderness
4. Chapter Discussions
       Chapter One
       Chapter Two
       Chapter Three
       Chapter Four
5. The Other Characters

6. Wider Reading
       Academic books

Copyright © Richard Cheadle, 2004-2006. All rights reserved.

Richard Cheadle, Hemsted House, Benenden School, Nr. Cranbrook, Kent. TN17 4AA.