There’s something magical about crying. Something liberating. It’s not a language, it’s not socially constructed. It’s natural and honest.
“He likes to make me cry because he can’t do it himself”. In one sentence Atwood perfectly summarises sexism, racism, homophobia and any other form of prejudice. It’s just a projection of fears onto another person.
Atwood’s novel Surfacing is one of those novels that need a reread. The narrative is complex and at times confusing. It can read more like a piece of non-fiction rather than fiction. The characters are unlikable and sometimes unbearable. And the message takes its time to surface. It took a week for me to understand why Atwood wrote this novel.
The novel follows an unnamed narrator, perhaps a stand-in for women in general. A victim who experiences an awakening so we don’t have to. In some regards it is a modern version of Chopin’s The Awakening. We follow her journey and uncover the clear misogyny embedded in both the women and men.
Crammed with dysfunctional relationships, Atwood seems to present all heterosexual couples as problematic. Whether the male counterpart dictates and controls the female’s body or the female is with the male for nothing but normality. No love is there, just an empty convention waiting to be filled.
David, Anna’s psychologically abusive husband, tells her “jealousy is bourgeois, it’s a leftover property ethics, he thinks we should all be swingers and share it around”. David thinks his wife has no right to be jealous if he remarks on other women, the narrator being one of those who falls victim to his comments. He thinks women are there to simply please him, and no loyalty is necessary. But I’m sure he wouldn’t be saying that if Anna was doing what he was saying! But let’s not waste any more words on him!
The narrator recognises “when you can’t tell the difference between your own pleasure and pain, you’re an addict”. She’s unknowingly obsessed with fulfilling gender norms and she is hurting herself and others. She needs to escape the constructs suffocation.
Isolated on an island in Northern Quebec, the narrator starts to become fragmented. With only three other people surrounding her, she can see the artificiality of her lifestyle. She begins to detach herself, and eventually escape into nature. Only once everyone has left the island does she heal. Distinct from society, she is in her natural form.
Likewise, we find the narrator often incapable of using language. She likes to be alone and finds it difficult her thoughts. It shows that language is man-made and male-dominated. She cannot find the language she wants to express her feelings. There is no language to express the frustration of an oppressed woman. In the end, she has to result in using animal noises. All animals cry. Cry from pain, relief and even happiness It’s a natural emotion that has no gender.
When she is alone, she is not alone. But when she is surrounded by friends and lovers, she feels invisible. The societal norms alienate her. She cannot be herself.
Surfacing, the title, shows a younger Atwood who is attempting to uncover and realise the alienation of women. Only in a vacuum can the proper idea of a human being be identified. Atwood only explores a woman, but I think if it were a man, he’d find a different version of himself surface too.
In an essay Freedom, I found Atwood perfectly concludes this wonderful novel: “You can protect your thumbs only by staying below the surface of the frog pond: don’t stick your head up or croak too loudly, and, you are assured, as long as you don’t do anything ‘wrong’ — a shifting category — nothing bad will happen to you. / Until it does”.