Discussion of Chapter One
I think the best place to start a discussion of this chapter is probably with the setting: border territory. The idea of ‘borders’ is going to play a crucial role in the novel, in the sense that all sorts of borders/boundaries are going to be examined and transgressed between now and the end. The Narrator’s awareness of borders therefore – both consciously and subconsciously – shows us a great deal about her psychology and character; it is an interesting feature of the novel that it begins in the transient lands of ‘border territory’, launching quickly into its subject. From the very outset, the Narrator and her story are somehow ‘unhinged’, ill at ease with the world at hand.
We might think of the Narrator at this point as a destabilized, liminal character: she is traveling through terrain which is at once familiar and uncomfortable for her, littered with the signs of settlements which are curiously unsettled, such as one might find in a place where two different cultures collide. Her friends are from the city, which presents a special tension as the narrator knows they will never quite understand the place she comes from. David and Joe are shooting an amateur movie as they go along and missing most of the importance of what they’re looking at; Anna is present as David’s girlfriend and (in theory) as the narrator’s ‘best woman friend’, though they seem to be completely different people.
Inevitably, the situation and the signs add to the feeling of instability that the Narrator herself feels, and so become metaphors along her journey through this border territory. These are worth investigating further. There are perhaps three areas for which an understanding of ‘borders’ will be useful. These areas are memory, identity and sanity. We must start to see ‘borders’ or ‘boundaries’ as sets of socially imposed rules. People set up boundaries to preserve order, to protect themselves from disorder, uncertainty, insanity – any of which can happen if the rules or certainties by which they live are systematically broken. ‘Boundaries’ are psychological as well as physical.
Memory is rather a slippery entity, and becomes especially so in the case of this story. One might argue that a reasonably ‘healthy’ mind should not be able to help what it remembers, but it should be able to rationalize its memories. In other words memories, in their raw form, need not be governed by social rules, they need not have ‘borders’ applied to them until after they have been remembered. Now, memory weaves in and out of the narrative in this chapter to provide insights into the Narrator which an otherwise ‘first person present’ narrative would miss. But it is also deceiving: we will come to see later that the Narrator is not remembering things properly. “Anaesthesia,” she remarks, two thirds of the way through this chapter, “that’s one technique: if it hurts invent a different pain.” (7) She is suppressing painful memories, and this refusal, or inability, to rationalise her memories will get her into visible trouble later.
One comes to suspect that when she notices, or is involved with, something that has borders, there is an implied comment on social rules and sanity. In this chapter, it comes when they get out of the car to examine the “bottle villa”:
a preposterous monument to some quirkish person exiled or perhaps a voluntary recluse like my father, choosing this swamp because it was the only place in which he could fulfill his lifelong dream of living in a house of bottles. Inside the wall is an attempted lawn and a border with orange mattress-tuft marigolds. (5)
This is not the first time in literature that landscape has been used as a metaphor for either its owner’s, or its observer’s, state of mind – and it is not the last time it will be used in this novel, either. We can detect the ironic humour of the narrator in this passage, dimly sending up the sort of person who would live here and playfully implicating her father’s odd character. But it must also be reflective of her insecurity: isn’t “preposterous monument” rather a strong phrase to use? She is covering something up, a fear of the land she is in, perhaps. And the “attempted lawn” is metaphorically an attempted story of the person behind the bottle house, ragged and ill-remembered. The point is that this monument – this thing of memory – is forgetting itself; its lawn, which ordinarily would be a centrepiece of the garden, is now only an attempt. It is becoming hazy – and so might be the Narrator.
Linked to memory as a theme is identity, and this also requires some recognition of ‘borders’. Typically in life, we identify ourselves in relation to, or in opposition to, the things around us. This is how we reach an understanding of who we are – and it can be how we explain ourselves to other people. It means including in our lives things (and people) with which we identify, and excluding things (and people) with which we do not identify. Thus we create borders of sorts around ourselves. At the start of Surfacing, Atwood is using the idea of ‘border territory’ to unfix the firm ideas her characters and readers might have about necessary, distinct identities. The great overall opposition being tested is that of Canada versus the United States , but this is just a physical battle ground on which the Narrator plays out her own growing crisis – the question of where she, as a highly individual woman in her time, belongs. Is it in the wilderness of Canada where she grew up, or the ‘civilisation’ of the United States which she grew toward?
Among the indications that these oppositions are collapsing around the Narrator there is the border sign, “that says BIENVENUE on one side and WELCOME on the other. The sign has bullet holes in it…” (5); the “company town, neatly planned with public flowerbeds and an eighteenth century fountain in the middle” (6); David continually swearing at the presence of the Americans in this territory; and the garish petrol station, populated with moose models of the perfect American family.
The moose family in particular may be upsetting for the Narrator. The vulgarity of the tourist-trap aside, she is confronted with an inherently Canadian symbol, the moose, dressed for American consumption, posing as an ‘ideal’ nuclear family. It reinforces the underlying point that despite having what Anna, in her romanticised visions of rural life, might see as ‘a good childhood’ (12), the Narrator is at this moment neither American, nor Canadian, nor even the child of a normal family. Never has anyone needed a sense of identity quite so much! This, too, will have a profound visible effect later on.
Finally, the idea of sanity needs some questioning, and it must be approached in a different way from memory and identity, which are subjective things. A conception of sanity is objective, and it relies on an external culture for its definition. ‘Borders’ are useful as a metaphor in interpreting the Narrator’s mental health. A firm border indicates she is sure of what she is doing, she can identify herself within the culture she inhabits; fluctuating, weak or unstable boundaries indicate that she is losing control of the values of the culture which dominates in her mind.
It is just as important to look at the characters as they are presented here, if only to notice that very little is said of the Narrator herself. Judgement is really being reserved for the reader to make – in fact, the only insights we get into the Narrator is when she reports comments made by other characters. In this chapter, no comments are made; only that, ‘Anna’s head swivels round, my voice must sound odd.’ (7) It seems the Narrator is concerned with nothing beside what is in her head – important if we are trying to figure out where the focus of the novel should be!
On the other characters present she makes plenty of judgements; these can be implied or explicit, ironic at best, cynical at worst. David is a liar, he, ‘says they can’t afford a newer one, which probably isn’t true,’ (2) and he doesn’t give much thought to, or believe, what he says – ‘David says “Bloody fascist pig Yanks” as though he’s commenting on the weather.’ (3) Joe is a follower, frustrated and ignored. He is looked down upon by the Narrator, who calls him ‘Beautiful Joe’ with an air of pity; he has, ‘the defiant but insane look of a species once dominant, now threatened with extinction.’ (2) This is in stark contrast to the dominant, alpha-male style of David, to whom one suspects the Narrator relates most. It’s significant that David is the director of the movie, is in charge of the ideas, and that Joe is the manual labour following along behind. His hands are commented upon as a means of describing him (‘dependable but not sensitive’) and, moreover, we later learn that he is a potter – more manual labour. All of this should tell us, as the Narrator does when she notices his buffalo-like features, that Joe is more beast than man, more instinct than Reason. Our Narrator does not yet fully understand him, but she will do. At the moment, in her mixed-up state, she is more attracted to David, whose belief that he is a ‘new’ Renaissance Man (4) is reasonably exciting for someone unsure of herself. Ironically it is Anna, David’s actual girlfriend, who most aptly describes him. In referring to his movie project as ‘Random Pimples’ she is correctly aligning him with an adolescent boy, and the phrase deflates any admiration of his ego as though it were, indeed, acne exploded on a mirror. The Narrator, tellingly, passes no comment here. (4)
Anna is fascinating, as far as any of the ‘external’ characters are. She is presented through most of the book as a beach-Barbie, but in this chapter she has things about her given away. On the surface she is fashion conscious, wearing ‘white bellbottoms… I told her she should wear jeans or something but she said she looks fat in them.’ (4-5) So she is clad in weight conscious, late-Sixties fashion; but she is also an old-fashioned girl, rather out of David’s league in some ways, and this reflects in a non-verbal interchange between her and David:
Earlier she was singing, House of the Rising Sun and Lili Marlene, both of them several times, trying to make her voice go husky and deep; but it came out like a hoarse child’s. David turned on the radio, he couldn’t get anything, we were between stations. When she was in the middle of St. Louis Blues he began to whistle and she stopped. (3-4)
It would be worth a brief foray into the lyrics to these songs, but suffice it to say for now that they are about people in positions of estrangement. In the first, a man regrets his decline in a den of vice and gambling; in the second, a man longs for his lover who lingers in the street where he, a soldier, left her; and in the third, a woman longs for her husband, who is off cavorting with another woman. The tones of these songs are of sadness and regret about the world, not lamenting how unjust it is but certainly lamenting the fact that they hadn’t made some better choices. Anna’s renditions irritate David, probably embarrassing him, and he is compelled to create noise over the top of her – an assertion of his dominance which she morbidly accepts. It is significant here that with the attempt to make it ‘husky and deep’, Anna’s voice (read as: identity) comes out merely ‘like a hoarse child’s,’ which is clearly indicative of the fact that David’s presence stunts Anna’s development as a female.
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