Discussion of Chapter Four
Identifying herself and her companions as the ‘new bourgeoisie’, our Narrator has arrived on the shore at her childhood home and unpacked. She takes on responsibility for hosting her friends and they end up on the dock, smoking pot and drinking, doing freely some of the things they would be restricted from doing in the city, and talking about political rebellion. It is a relaxed, familiar and surprisingly charming scene, one which the Narrator is enjoying despite herself – recognising that, ‘I’m glad they’re with me, I wouldn’t want to be here alone; at any moment the loss, vacancy, will overtake me, they ward it off.’ (33)
By the end of the chapter she is starting to settle and appreciate the place to which she has returned. She is, however, still just a tourist; she is appreciating it as one who has brought friends on a camping holiday and hasn’t “found” herself in quite the way she might have expected to. It’s starting to happen, but it is a little way off – as seen when she remarks on the disembodied voice of a bird: ‘the echoes deflect from all sides, surrounding us, here everything echoes.’ (34) The voice of the bird takes on the burden of her conscience, distant but inescapable. She has memories and feelings from her childhood but as yet she is finding it difficult to pin them down. It is telling that she can identify the name of the bird she hears; her friends almost certainly could not. And more telling still is that this particular bird is a diving bird, which points to a concern of the Narrator’s conscience with the lake and what lies beneath it. It should be possible to see this moment not only as symbolic of conscience, but as an indication (given the atmosphere of the place) of psychological change, and her growing self-awareness.
During the chapter we have learnt more about her child and the role of her husband, we have seen a more sympathetic view of the other characters, and we have learnt more about her father. It is as if the Narrator has found it in herself to give us more details of her life, her guard coming down as she orientates herself in less threatening surroundings.
Of her father, we hear the principles behind the building of the house, the length of time he seems to have been away from home, and his intellectual biography in the form of a shelf of books. This latter area is most interesting, as there is an opportunity for insights into his lifestyle: one would be that he, like David, has ideals of Renaissance manhood: ‘he believed with the proper guidebooks you could do everything yourself’ (32). The only significant difference is that David is a bourgeois idealist whereas her father is a genuine practitioner. Another insight comes from his choice of literary authors, Eighteenth and Nineteenth century writers known for their idealisation of the countryside were seen by him as achievers of a ‘golden mean’ – the best-fit existence, incorporating the most positive aspects of “respect for nature” and “self reliance”. Being brought up in this way the Narrator has had to see these writers (all men) as ‘paragons’, her father regarded them as ‘rationalists’, men who had beaten the curve of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Her father was attempting to follow this example, and the Narrator must have some sympathy with it; it is nevertheless important to her that her husband should later cut these ‘paragons’ down to size (‘…Burns was an alcoholic, Cowper a madman…’ (32)). She is relating these men back to her father, and it is good that her father’s authority has been undermined in this way – she can be less angry if she realises that he is only human after all.
On her husband and child we have a near-crucial passage, the end of which I shall cite here:
He measured everything he would let me eat, he was feeding it on me, he wanted a replica of himself; after it was born I was no use. I couldn’t prove it though, he was clever: he kept saying he loved me. (28)
The first thing to notice is the apparent contradiction in the Narrator’s attitudes to her husband. There is in this chapter a mixture of bitterness (as above) and of gratitude (for debunking her father’s ideals). Much of the point of Surfacing is the Narrator’s search for catharsis, even though by this point in the novel she hasn’t realised; this contradiction is perhaps to be expected as part of the confusion – she is still sorting out her attitudes to the men.
The second thing to notice is the equation of ‘love’ with mind control. This last line of the paragraph would be almost thrown away, but for the level of impact caused by such great self-chastisement. The Narrator is blaming herself deeply for the fate of her child, you can feel it behind her words and see it in the image: a woman in a supposed time of free love and liberation has found herself to be ‘like an incubator’, controlled by her husband’s ‘measuring’ of food and brain-washed by the idea of ‘love’. She has consequently always felt separated from her child, and ‘never identified it as mine’. This is overwhelmingly the most important image the Narrator has of her life experience so far, and is worth remembering for later in the book – especially when Joe tries to marry her, and when she wants to reject ‘language’ in favour of something more felicitous to nature.
After this key point it would seem rather an anticlimax to have to talk about the development of the other characters, but it must nevertheless be done, because Anna has another song.
‘Mockingbird Hill’ (29) is a folksy tune (recorded by Les Paul in 1951 on an early electric guitar, if there are any guitar enthusiasts reading…) whose words have just the light, countryside-idealising tendency one would expect of a character like Anna, but not of the Narrator’s more pragmatic father: “When the sun in the morning peeps over the hill and kisses the roses 'round my window sill…” It is a sign of what Anna is expecting of the experience of nature at this point in time, and in fact of what they are all feeling (the Narrator excepted, of course, who promptly reverts to thoughts of her dying mother). David tries to relate to the Narrator’s childhood isolation, ‘“Depends what you’re used to… I think it’s neat.”’ He is reconciling himself to the situation – being friendly, to his credit – but ‘neat’ is a too short, non-committal sort of word, used ironically by Atwood on some level as this place, the wilderness, is anything but actually neat. But these two characters have started to show some genuine sympathy toward the Narrator – setting themselves up for a fall, perhaps – Anna leaving the others in the house to check on her wellbeing while she’s in the garden. David and Anna are clearly getting comfortable; they dominate the later political banter.
This leaves Joe, who has as yet only asked one question, with no response from the Narrator. Instead she watches him, analyses him, and then answers Anna’s question. At the end of the chapter, again, the Narrator only gives us his actions to go on. ‘Joe puts his arm around me…’, ‘Joe is swaying back and forth, rocking, which may mean he’s happy.’ In both these instances Joe’s absence of speech is conspicuous against the ‘voice’ of the surrounding elements. What also seems to happen is that Joe’s voice gives way for the internal monologue of the Narrator. She is still not paying an awful lot of attention to him – a detached speculation only. Earlier in the chapter it was, ‘unusual for him to ask me anything about myself,’ and here he, ‘may’ be happy. This will also mean that later on, when he does speak, there is more emphasis on its importance, and it reinforces his animalistic nature, his non-reliance on ‘language’, which will be hopeful for the Narrator.
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