Metamorphosis of the Body into Wilderness in Margaret Atwood¶s Surfacing

Margaret Atwood is a great Canadian writer that her name has become synonymous with the cultural flowering that took place in Canada during the last few decades of the twentieth century. She focuses on various themes like Canadian national identity, Canada¶s relationship with the United States and Europe, human rights issues, environmental issues, the Canadian wilderness, the social myths of femininity, and representation of women¶s body in art, women¶s social and economic exploitation as well as women¶s relationship with each other and with man. A writer¶s responsibility, according to Atwood, is to expose the convention by which we invent convenient versions of ourselves. She sees modern man as being prey to continual invasions of fear and paranoia from the subliminal mind yet committed to an anachronic belief in civilized order that is patiently contrasted by the barbarism of this century. The rational mind must be integrated with the dark side of the psyche that has been represented by humanistic ideas of order. To enter the wilderness of the self is thus then Atwood¶s major concern. This paper attempts to trace the metamorphoses the protagonist in Surfacing undergoes after entering the wilderness. Margaret Atwood¶s emblematic novel Surfacing (1972), explores the process of µbecoming¶ of the self into the wilderness: a transmutation in which the mindscape becomes one with the landscape. The dark recesses of the human mind find their parallel equivalent in the contours of the geography of the locale or the very continent itself. The woman narrator (protagonist) tries to decipher the wild by divesting herself of the trapping of the µcivilized¶ or µmodern¶ life. Exploring her own personal history on the land, she seeks a language with which to conceptualize her being in it. This psychological mystery tale presents a compelling study of a woman who is also searching for herself.


The novel, Surfacing begins with the journey of the protagonist from the city to a remote lake in northern Quebec in search of her father. The µjourney¶ is not merely a crossing a considerable distance or a boundary but also the journey of the self to liberate itself from the intricate meshes of the modern world in which it is caught. The protagonist and her companions Joe, David and Anna bring home to the readers many aspects of the contemporary Canadian urban culture, especially the values pertaining to love, marriage and sex which are integral part of that culture. The difference between the urban and rural cultures portrayed in the novel has universal implications; they can be of any country and the incidents or events that happen in the narrator¶s life- marriage, divorce, love etc can be true of any accommodating society anywhere in the world. And as anywhere the rural population cannot acquiesce with these so called liberal practices. The novel sketches the physical landscape, geographical locales, social structures and familial relationship which set the background of the novel¶s action and also the interior mindscape of the narrator and protagonist. Atwood has beautifully traced the metamorphosis of the human body into landscape in Surfacing; a transformation course that is presented before the readers sheathed in other issues like identity crisis, human relationships, urban-rural lives, Americanization, colonization etc. One of the major themes in the novel is identity. The psychologist Erik Erikson defined identity as a subjective sense as well as an observable quality of personal sameness and continuity, paired with some belief in the sameness and continuity of some shared world image. It keeps changing like a flux without coming to a static point which is well explored in this novel. Each character passes through an identity crisis which they are neither to understand nor able to resolve. The problems pertaining to identity is conspicuous in the case of the protagonist. The protagonist¶s name is not revealed in the novel, in a manner her identity also remains under a mask. She having stayed out of Quebec for considerably long time cannot utter the native tongue in the correct accent and she gets embarrassed when the shopkeeper grins at her language. Suddenly she feels to have acted as an American to save her face: ³I see I¶ve make a mistake, I should have pretended to be an American´ (28). The tendency of concealing identity as a strategy to get respect or concession in a society is evident here.


The protagonist¶s psyche could never accommodate the sense of being tied up to


relationship which she realises but cannot reason for it. She has broken all relations with her parents who lived in Quebec, in a way; the parents could not comply with her µmodernity¶: «they never forgave me, they didn¶t understand the divorce; I don¶t think they even understood the marriage«. What upset them was the way I did it, so suddenly, and then running off and leaving my husband and child«. Leaving my child, that was the unpardonable sin: it was no use trying to explain to them why it wasn¶t mine«. (31) Even the relationship between her and her child is not very intimate. She never acknowledges her own child to be hers. The pronoun µit¶ could never take over the phrase ³my child´. She is not only detached from the relationships but also from her Self. The protagonist who has left her child out of her own wish shares entirely different experience of motherhood: ...there aren¶t any pictures of it peering out from a crib or a window or through bars of a playpen in my bureau drawer or my billfold where he (Joe) could stumble across them and act astonished or outraged or sad. I have to behave as though it doesn¶t exist, because for me, it can¶t, it was taken away from me, exported, deported. A section of my own life, sliced from me like a Siamese twin, my own flesh cancelled. Lapse, relapse, I have to forget (52). The reader gets to see altogether a different kind of mother- daughter relationship in Atwood¶s The Handmaid¶s Tale where the protagonist, called Offred who is separated from her husband and child after the formation of the Republic of Gilead and is part of the first generation of Gilead's women is tortured by thoughts of her daughter. Communication between them is impossible. She feels she has been erased: I close my eyes, and she¶s there with me....She comes back to me at different ages. This is how I know she¶s not really a ghost. If she were a ghost she would be the same age always (59). ....


She fades, I can¶t keep her here with me, she¶s gone now.... I remember the pictures of us I had once, me holding her, standard poses, mother and baby, locked in a frame, safety (60). Along with picture ³locked in a frame´, her memories have been framed which torments her day and night. She longs to be with her which is impossible in her present situation: ³I want everything back, the way it was. But there is no point to it, this wanting´ (116). Even though she is torn between brutality and helplessness, she hopes to find them. However in Surfacing, the protagonist is consciously or unconsciously in the process of breaking all ties with human beings as a whole. The mother-child relationship that is hailed as the ever-lasting, divine and the strongest kind in the universe is subverted in the novel. This subversion supports the transformation that the protagonist will undergo in the due course. The human bonds are not strong as the roots of the trees or deep as the water of the lake.She does not know why she walked out of the marriage: My bitterness about him surprises me: I was what¶s known as the offending party, the one who left, he didn¶t do anything to me. He wanted a child, that¶s normal, he wanted us to be married. (51).

....For me it hadn¶t been like skiing, it was more like jumping off a cliff, that was the feeling I had all the time I was married :in the air, going down, wanting for the smash at the bottom. (52). At the same time she feels that she has lost something ± indescribable; there is a feel of incompleteness in her even though she has found a companion in Joe: I am fond of him, I¶d rather have him around than not; though it would be nice if he meant something more to me. The fact that he doesn¶t make me sad: no one has since my husband. A divorce is like an amputation, you survive but there¶s less of you. (46).


The relationship between them is fragile, it lacks depth. Body gains prominence over soul, there is no love in its purest form. David and Anna share a yet more artificial kind of life. These glass-like relations break in the end and the narrator is detached from the human relationships that set the base for her evolution as a living being and identification with nature. Her return to her native place figuratively suggests her search for roots. The rootlessness in her drives her to an uncommon sort of fixing herself to the vast landscape. The opening lines of the novel explicit a sense of µre-entering¶ the wilderness: I can¶t believe I¶m on this road again, twisting along past the lake where the white birches are dying«. (7). The µdying¶ birches imply a natural phenomenon, a decaying process from which no living being has ever escaped. An analogy can be drawn between the dying birches and that of the deteriorating culture and moral values as hinted in the novel. The basic reason for the cultural decay is colonization: the colonizers altered the traditional heritage of the lands they conquered. It was the white man¶s burden to civilize the barbarians or the savage natives of the colonies. The civilization procedure actually creolized the pristine culture thus leaving the natives crippled of their ethnicity. Colonialism is not only political and economic exploitation of the colonized ± it is also the psychological and cultural exploitation of the colonized. Fanon, in justifying his thesis that colonialism is µviolence in its natural state¶ points to the psychological violence exercised on the colonized. Psychological violence is the injury or harm done to the human psyche of the colonized to decrease their sense of self-worth and integrity (Fanon, 44). The impact of colonization had been severe, though the colonies got freed from the shackles of oppression; the minds of the people in the once colonized lands have not been able to come out of it. As Stuart Hall stated, there is no meaning in a return to the past for the past culture and tradition has been lost in the course of colonization (233). The new generations cannot go back to their cultural history nor can they adopt the culture of the colonizers. In the gradual time they will try to imitate the west in their manners and mannerisms which throws light on the disappointing fact that colonization is still on the run.


Canada being a multicultural country incorporates the problems of cultural pluralism, hybridity, acculturation, assimilation, transculturalism and so on. According to the Canadians, the major threat to their identity is posed by the United States of America and its µAmericanization¶. This issue is referred to in Atwood¶s Surfacing wherein the Americans are shown in a darker light as exploiting the Canadian resources for the sake of entertainment; the endless killing of herons for sport substantiates it: ³Senseless killing, it was a game: after the war they had been bored´ (131). David¶s remark on Americans can be seen in the same colour, he says: ³It wouldn¶t be a bad country if only we could kick out the fucking pig Americans, eh? Then we could have some peace´ (96). Though Surfacing is set in the Canadian society, its implications are more than that of problems of cultural pluralism, the theme is much deeper. The protagonist moves from culture to nature where human codes of conduct have no role to play as such. The refined protocols of an urban society fail to provide the human spirit with contentions and peace. However man being a biological being manages to fix him in the natural framework, which again is not an easy process. Being brought up in a societal structure, it becomes metaphorically impossible for a human being to enter the biosphere. The protagonist defies the structural system called society and steps into the wilderness.
The most powerful agent in the novel is the wilderness: it is a psychological space that is un-mitigatingly terrifying. Nature is in total opposition to culture and holds no possibility except unrest. The landscape of Quebec brings in the protagonist subtle changes; she comes in close proximity with her past. Her childhood memories are inextricably bound to the landscape, yet she dislikes reviewing her past for she believes it would make one insane: ³To have the past but not the present, that means you¶re going senile´ (79). The notion of space and time enters the mindscape

via the landscape: Around us the illusion of infinite space or of no space, ourselves and the obscure shore which it seems we could touch, the water between an absence. The canoe¶s reflection


floats with us, the paddles twin in the lake. It¶s like moving on air, nothing beneath us holding us up; suspended, we drift home (72). The temporal and spatial dimensions become indiscernible. The sense of time synchronizes with the space. The watch is taken by David leaving the protagonist completely devoid of the mechanical time, at the same time enabling her to comprehend the natural concept of time, speeding up the evolution of her inner self. The space condenses in her human body and she starts identifying herself with the forests, animals, birds, lake. The
wilderness is like a spider¶s web from which there is no psychological escape, and it prevents a holistic view of life providing only a constricted picture of the space pertaining to oneself:

On a map or in an aerial photograph the water pattern radiates like a spider, but in a boat you can see only a small part of it, the part that you¶re in (34). Until it is civilized, the wilderness is the enemy. The reason being the virgin wilderness seems to negate man¶s perception of his own value. Susanna Moodie has caught this fact in her famous Roughing It in the Bush. She has understood that it is not just that life in the Canadian bush is hard, or even dangerous. It is more devastating than that. In the wilderness, which seems to be symbolically co-extensive with the dark side of the mind, the unconscious, an understanding is buried. One flees from it because it is terrifying; at the same time one is hypnotized by it and returns to its puzzle. The narrator in Surfacing in searching for clues as to the whereabouts of her missing father finds his sketches of Indian rock paintings. Following his map, she retraces his archaeological explorations, overwhelmed that her scientific, rationalist father seems to have been hunting for another code of meaning. It is while diving in the lake, looking for the underwater rock paintings, that she finds her father¶s bloated corpse. Drifting in its watery element, the corpse reminds her of another dead thing, the foetus she aborted. The shock dispels the amnesiac fog she has hidden in, exploding her carefully contrived rationalizations. For the first time she acknowledges her responsibility for the dead of something that was living. The waterscape (lake) is a fluid, silent world. It seems to her that her father has offered her a message. He has led her towards a vision bestowed by gods unacknowledged or


forgotten, shown her a way of seeing the world after the failure of logic. Rosemary Sullivan in her essay ³The Wilderness as a Symbol in Canadian Fiction´ comments on the mental evolution of the protagonist in Surfacing: Breaking with logic means being invaded by chaos and terror: ³Logic is a wall, I built it: on the other side is terror,´ she says. But if you survive the experience of psychic chaos, the gods of the underworld may admit you to their sacred order. The narrator prepares herself by destroying all the objects associated with her past: ³Everything from history must be eliminated.´ Her ritual preparation, whether by coincidence or intention, corresponds with the stages of shamanistic initiation outlined by Mircea Eliade in his study, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Shamanism, as described by Eliade, is a process of induction into the sacred. Whoever aspires to be a shaman must go through a period of psychic isolation in which the mind swings between extremes of ecstasy and madness and the aim of which is transformation of the human state. The prescribed ritual follows a precise psychological order: retreat to the bush to a kind of larval existence; prohibitions as to food, with certain objects and actions taboo; hypnotic sleeping; secret language; dismemberment or cleansing of the body in ritual death; spirit guides who assist the aspirant. These states Atwood follows precisely. The other side of the narrator¶s madness is a mystic initiation ritual that simulates the process of death and resurrection. The goal is perfect communion with the wilderness (120-1). Gradually the protagonist¶s body is translated into the biotic life. The subtle nuances in the environment are recognized by her body and she responds to those vibes: I¶m ice-clear, transparent, my bones and the child inside me showing through the green webs of my flesh, the ribs are shadows, the muscles jelly, the trees are like this too, they shimmer«(195). The reader reaches a crucial point where he/she has to read new meanings in the character of the narrator. Is she being translated into the wilderness or is the wilderness trapping her in its tangled webs? The novel is no simpler; it enters the protagonist¶s psyche


simultaneously as she enters the wilderness. Critic Patricia F. Goldblatt comments in her essay on Atwood's protagonists that in her construction of the main character in Surfacing, Atwood proves: «to her and to us that we all possess the talent and the strength to revitalize our lives and reject society's well-trodden paths that suppress the human spirit (275). She is no more a woman to be possessed, but an individual who can live as she wants.

She chooses to stay alone in the house when the others leave for the city. Even Joe cannot persuade her to go with him. She tries to imitate the animals to get accommodated in the natural system: ³To talk with them I must approach the condition they themselves have entered«.´ (194). In the beginning the protagonist could only hear the myriad voices in the nature like the murmuring of the forests leaves, the chirpings of the birds etc. after she reaches Quebec she is torn between her inner conflicts and the external world. This state of double voice is well presented in Atwood¶ s own poem, µThe Double Voice¶:

Two voices took turns using my eyes:

One had manners, painted in watercolours, used hushed tones when speaking of mountains or Niagara Falls, composed uplifting verse and expended sentiment upon the poor.

The other voice had other knowledge: that men sweat always and drink often,


that pigs are pigs but must be eaten anyway, that unborn babies fester like wounds in the body, that there is nothing to be done about mosquitoes;

One saw through my bleared and gradually bleaching eyes, red leaves, the rituals of seasons and rivers

The other found a dead dog jubilant with maggots half-buried among the sweet peas. But the external voice supersedes her inner voice thus encompassing her. The wild becomes contained in her; she realizes this change in her: I remember the heron; by now it will be insects, frogs, fish, other herons. My body also changes, the creature in me: I ferry it secure between death and life, I multiply (180). This change also implies that she is carrying a new life in her womb. She decides not to teach the child any language for it no more has any significance in the wilderness. Her thoughts reflect the mutation she has undergone: «The baby will slip out easily as an egg, a kitten, and I¶ll lick it off and bite the cord, the blood returning to the ground where it belongs«(173). The blood that she carries in her veins is attributed to the landscape. The child she bears is also thus linked to the wilderness. It enters her neurotic strands controlling her psyche thereby


channeling the entire thought process. She is defined by the landscape, no more the women is there: I am not an animal or a tree, I am the thing in which the trees and animals move and grow, I am a place (195). She became the landscape. There is no ³I´, the Self has been translated into a vastness indescribable. For the Self the boundaries have been erased, the social structure collapsed, it is now the wilderness. The metamorphosis of the body into wilderness reaches its culmination. Joe comes to take her back; she remains mute as the wilderness«. ³asking and giving nothing´(208) .



Primary Sources Atwood, Margaret. Surfacing. Toronto: Paper Jacks, 1972. Secondary Sources Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid¶s Tale. Toronto: Seal Books, 1985. ____ . The Journals of Susanna Moodie. Toronto: OUP, 1970

Braziel, Jana Evans and Anita Mannur. Theorizing Diaspora: a Reader. USA: Blackwell, 2003. Braidotti, Rosi. Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming. UK: Polity P, 2002. Erikson, E.H. ³Reflections on the Dissent of Contemporary Youth,´ International Journal Of Psychoanalysis, Vol.51, 1970, p.11-22. Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin, 1967, pp. 27-48. Goldblatt, Patricia F., "Reconstructing Margaret Atwood's Protagonists," World Literature Today, Vol. 73, No. 2, Spring 1999, p. 275. Mc Leod , A.L. ed. Subjects Worthy Fame: Essays on Commonwealth Literature in Honour of H.H.Anniah Gowda. New Delhi: Sterling, 1989.

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