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

     Spiritual Journey

       The journey the narrator undertakes is in two forms, physical and metaphorical. The novel opens with an ‘on the road’ sequence, in which we are moving with the narrator toward, “the past… and not much of that either.” (3) This may not sound like a very hopeful or specific quest, but remember that ostensibly the only goal for this journey is finding her father. As the imagery becomes more and more confused, however, we see a crossover in her concerns: search for her lost father [home], escape from her ‘husband’, search for her lost child, the move toward a state of nature. Thus, in Chapter Nineteen, when the boat eventually comes to report that they have found her father, it is no surprise that her reaction is down-played (149-153): the location of her father is no longer her central concern. In fact the idea that her quest may be resolved excites aggression in her toward those bearing the news. Earlier, when she herself encounters her father's body (136), the image is blurred by the same watery-type references that have been used in descriptions of the aborted child.
       The physical journey is, as you might expect, a kick-start for the spiritual/metaphorical journey. A moment of synthesis between the two is reached in Chapter Three where she finds herself in the boat in the middle of the lake. See the separate discussion for more on this. From that moment on, the spiritual journey is the most important concern of the novel.

       Unpacking Some Examples:

“I can’t believe I’m on this road again, twisting along past the lake where the white birches are dying, the disease is spreading up from the south, and I notice they still have sea-planes for hire.” (1)
       An interesting first line. The initial awareness of a journey is created here, and we are involved in a metaphor about spiritual death. The verb “twisting” produces overtones of awkwardness, discomfort. “the disease is spreading up from the south” forms the middle section of a three-part metaphor contrasting nature with tourism. The disease is, of course, both canker spreading up from the trees’ bases, and human life impinging on the wilderness from ‘the bottom of the map’ upwards. All of which illustrates an acute dislike on the part of the narrator for people intruding on her territory. So the spiritual journey away from them begins.

“But they’ve cheated, we’re here too soon… the first view of the lake, which we can see now, blue and cool as redemption, should be through tears and a haze of vomit.” (9)
       The paragraph begins abruptly with a conjunction, and with an accusatory tone. This soon mellows as the narrator becomes aware of her surroundings: “redemption” is key here, as it sets up the initial idea of her spiritual journey (NB this is the end of the first chapter). The lake is associated with religious cleansing – “blue and cool”, note assonant reinforcement. The “haze of vomit” idea is another matter: on one level, it shows the narrator’s expectation of suffering, and thus links back thematically to “twisting” in the first line. But the writer is also confused. It ought to be a “haze of tears” – note therefore that the stream of consciousness often muddles word orders. This paragraph is a back-reference to childhood experiences.

“The lake is quiet, the trees surround me, asking and giving nothing.” (186)
       It is quite possible that the lake has been a symbol of her conscience from the start. This final sentence is thus a particularly effective summary: her father (haunting her since the beginning) has been removed from its depths. The imbalance in her mind has been redressed – she can now, and will, exist in a symbiotic state with Nature, as especially reflected by “surround” and “asking and giving nothing”.

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.