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

     Discussion of Chapter Three

       Although it isn’t obvious, I suspect that if one had to identify an overall theme to this chapter it would probably be ‘separation’ or ‘detachment’. There are other things happening too, like occasional references to magic or ceremony, and some new information on the other characters, but these do not occur in so many forms as the idea of ‘separation’ does. Before we reach any definite conclusions about the significance of this theme we should investigate some evidence.
       I’d like to start with the moment in the chapter which requires most depth of perspective: the Narrator’s look back from Evans’s boat:

I wait until we’re into the middle of the lake. At the right moment I look over my shoulder as I always did and there is the village, suddenly distanced and clear, the houses receding and grouping, the white church startling against the dark trees. The feeling I expected before but failed to have comes now, homesickness… (24)
       The Narrator has hitherto found it difficult returning to the place in which she grew up. She visits various people, making a fool of herself in the local store and feeling frustrated at her inability to tell the people that she originates from these parts. ‘This is border country,’ she reminds us (20). The territory is still uncertain. In Evans’s boat, however, she finds she has distance from the discomfort of that place. It is not just physical distance, of course, it’s psychological as well. It may be a coincidence that she is in the middle of the lake when she feels this homesickness, the same kind of situation from which she has her first memories (Chapter Two); it is less of a coincidence that she particularly waits to be in ‘the middle of the lake’. She is positioning herself, finding a space from which she can put everything else in perspective, as the saying goes. It is at this moment that we appreciate just what a vast space the lake and surrounding wilderness is, and the Narrator sees how small her experiences on land are in relation to the size and power of the wilderness.
       After this she decides that she doesn’t trust Evans to navigate, even though she has previously acknowledged that, ‘all the older guides know every house on the lake.’ (24) In her mind she takes over the responsibility for orientating them amidst the complex, ever-changing landscape. In this action we see her beginning to remember where she belongs, whereas previously she was confused by the eradication of the old road and the failure of the logging industry to support its community. With the growing confidence of the Narrator-as-navigator, we arrive at the next point in the Separation argument, which is that she tries to keep her friends separated from local reality, ostensibly because she fears they will be ‘misinterpreted’, but in fact because she is already beginning to regard them as intruders on this scene. David, for instance, is trying his hardest to fit in and enjoy himself, asking Evans if the fishing is good; the Narrator’s response to this kind of behaviour is always negative: ‘he thinks this is reality’.
       We might question the Narrator’s motives in this light when she is considering whether or not to use Evans as their transport to her father’s house. She remarks:

Paul would take us for nothing, he offered, but I wouldn’t feel right about it; also I’m sure he would misinterpret Joe’s amorphous beard and David’s moustache and Three Musketeers hair. They’re just a style now, like crew cuts, but Paul might feel they are dangerous, they mean riots.’ (23)
       Is she simply being considerate of Paul’s feelings? There is perhaps something more – a deeper concern with control. The clue is in her slightly patronising view of Paul, and the tone she adopts to describe her male companions. Even though Paul lives near a tourist community, she feels he would not be used to the type of men accompanying her; and these men have hair which is ‘amorphous’ (really a description of Joe himself) and like the ‘Three Musketeers’ (really a reflection of David’s reckless bantering). So in fact, the Narrator ‘wouldn’t feel right about it’ because she is embarrassed by how each of these things reflect on her. Paul (and Madame), as key representatives of the ‘old ways’ here, heighten her awareness of how gaudy her companions must be. She separates them, naturally I think, for the same reasons that motivate her disapproval of David questioning Evans – and she feels that it keeps her, as translator, in control.
       What else can be separated, in the view of our narrator? Among her memories of the freakish things that inhabit border country, she includes an old woman who used to run the other store, and had only one hand (21). It’s a slightly important passage because it includes another swipe at organised religion and also starts a part of this theme that will become more important as the novel progresses: the idea of the separation of body parts from their original source. The woman under scrutiny here appears as just another of the Narrator’s ghouls, an unfortunate character subjected to the imagination of a timorous child. But by the end of the passage the woman’s condition has – in the stream of consciousness style – been connected to ‘art history’ and the sacrifices made by early Christians. The gruesome images of separated body parts become symbols of spirit, and power; it may now be worth keeping an eye out for other mentions of body parts in the narrative – to see how this idea develops.
       It is possible that this early experience, and its development through her art history courses, now influences the way she sees ‘separateness’. We see her identify ‘separateness’ with power, and we see her separate things in order to keep control. Her attitude to separateness is summed up in her retelling of the time she and Joe first met:

What impressed him that time, he even mentioned it later, cool he called it, was the way I took off my clothes and put them on again later very smoothly as if I were feeling no emotion. But I really wasn’t. (22)
       She values the detachment, is almost proud of it, which is why she reports the incident here. Fortunately, she comes to reject ‘separation’ as a mode of life later on in the novel – but with rather surprising consequences.
       Also in this chapter we discover that David is a teacher of Communications at a night school, where Joe also works. David was also once training to be a priest, used to be a radio announcer, and later, in the Sixties, ‘became political’. It is unclear whether his life has developed any clear ‘direction’, but it would seem from evidence presented so far that it hasn’t.
       The final thing we hear in this chapter is that the Narrator’s brother drowned. Coming at the end of the chapter it seems something of an afterthought, and for this reason perhaps it has all the more impact. She mentions the enclosure in which her brother was usually kept for safety – borders again – and then she says a curious thing: ‘It was before I was born but I can remember it as clearly as if I saw it, and perhaps I did see it: I believe that an unborn baby has its eyes open and can look out through the walls of the mother’s stomach, like a frog in a jar.’ (26)
       This thought ends the chapter, so it would be worth looking into. The chances are that it will be significant later, perhaps as part of a general ‘pro-life’ argument. But why the frog? Why the jar?
       In the first instance it might be something to do with the anatomy of the frog. From outside, a frog seems to have a simple body, undeveloped. This would relate it to that of a foetus. There will also, however, be a reference to helplessness: presumably the frog got into the jar because a small boy (yes, or girl…) trapped it in there. It didn’t have a choice in the matter, and now its life is in someone else’s hands. The same is true of a baby, which risks being aborted. At any rate, in a chapter dedicated in many ways to the idea of separation, we now have another thought: babies. And with this comes Motherhood, and with that combined with separation comes a whole raft of other issues…

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.