Surfacing - A Reason to Kill


A Reason To Kill

Margaret Atwood's Surfacing is an intensely symbolic novel about an artist whose weekend trip home to search for her missing father turns into a journey of self discovery. The main character in the story is also the narrator and is not given a name probably because readers will be able to identify with her as the story's heroine. Early in the story, she talks about being married, divorced, and having a child. Later it is made known that she was never married, but has had an affair with her art professor. As a result of the affair, she gets pregnant and has to have an abortion. Her method of dealing with the pain of having an abortion is to create a false memory to cover it up. Her false memory becomes so real that she actually forgets until later in the novel that she really did have an abortion. Having the abortion was a horrifying experience for her because she had killed another creature without having a reason for doing so. The abortion symbolizes the killing of her own humanity which causes her to feel alienated from everyone around her. This feeling of alienation is like being confined in a jar.
In the novel, there are several references to jars, bottles and tin cans. These items represent methods of containing or imprisoning life : "I put the worms in a can and some dirt for them." They also represent the narrator's own emotional life which has been put into jars preventing her from being able to feel. The narrator knows that she has feelings, but the trauma of having an abortion has caused her to become extremely desensitized.
It can be deduced that the narrator has always felt trapped in places she did not want to be. On page 58, she says that Anna could be her at sixteen, "sulking on the dock, resentful at being away from the city and the boy friend I'd proved my normality by obtaining ... " She has never felt normal. She even has a career that she did not intend to have and this makes her uncomfortable : " ... it feels strapped to me, like an aqualung or an extra, artificial limb.

For her entire life, The narrator has been unable to know her true self because she has not been taught to feel. Instead she has been taught how to respond appropriately to different situations. Her body becomes a symbol for the unconscious repressing her emotions so that she has to make a conscious effort to decide hoe she feels about things. She talks on page 54 about how she memorized survival guides at an age when girls in the city were reading True Romance magazines. She thinks that the magazines would have given her better guidance for social behavior than all the stuff she had learned from the maps and survival guides. Knowing how to dig a hole in a snowstorm and picking the right mushrooms to eat had been no good to her living in the city.
In the first chapter, the narrator talks about the time Anna read her palm : "'You had a good childhood but then there's this funny break.'" As a child the heroine idolized her parents. Her parents were atheist, so she was never taught to believe in God. She refers to Him as the alien god, and her parents become her gods since they are all she has to believe in : "If you tell your children God doesn't exist they will be forced to believe you are the god, but what happens when they find out you are human after all, you have to grow old and die?" The funny break Anna saw in her palm represents her separation from her parents after the abortion. She was very ashamed of what she had done and did not feel like she could talk to her parents about it because they would not understand something so evil. "They were from another age ... when everyone got married and had a family ... " She also stayed away from her parents in an attempt to keep them young : "'They have no right to get old.'" She says she was sure her parents would remain unchanged : " ... I could leave and return