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Social Commentary in Margaret Atwood’s Novel "Surfacing"

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‘Feeling foreign’ is an experience not uncommon to the human condition. This experience of surfacing as a reaction to how one perceives oneself about society is often explored in literary works, an example of which can be found in Margaret Atwood’s novel Surfacing. Adopting a feminist lens, the following essay will analyze the use and success of Atwood’s social commentary concerning women. In the passage from the end of chapter twenty-six to the beginning of chapter twenty-seven – “I set the half-empty tin down…and the alternative is death” (Atwood 4-1)– Atwood highlights the narrator’s feelings of foreignness by comparing human characteristics to animalistic ones. The focus though is gendered. The foreignness of women in a society that expects them to play at humanity, to play at being a woman by adhering to the standards they are given, will be explored through what can be interpreted and learned from Atwood’s work.

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Atwood, through the text, provides us with a situation in which we can observe a shift within the narrator’s consciousness based on the change in her outward appearance. Atwood further notes the deciding factors of sanity, and how little it takes to cross that line, especially as a woman. The narrator’s thoughts push her towards further change, wherein she decides to “refuse to be a victim” (Atwood 1). The narrator is faced with the realization that she can no longer hide from these societal expectations and must create new ways of coping with what she has been removing herself from; thereby not only acknowledging the issues within the gendered society but returning to society with a mindset that is prepared to face it head-on, rather than retreating away from it.

The technical elements of Atwood’s writing also contribute to the feelings of foreignness within femininity. Atwood’s writing has a distinct tone within Surfacing, one that we can see within this passage. The narrator’s disdain for the situation at large is palpable, as is evident in her comments: “This was the stereotype” (Atwood 4), “…their definition of sanity” (4), “They would never believe it’s only a natural woman” (4). The narrator’s tone does somewhat shift by the beginning of the next chapter, but only so much as it seems the narrator has found a new sense of vigor when it comes to facing the issues that she has been disdainful of: “I have to recant, to give up the old belief that I am powerless and because of it nothing I can do will ever hurt anyone” (1). There is also a newfound sense of self-accountability for her actions. The narrator acknowledges that she has been acting purely out of her disdain for the gendered societal expectations and therefore acting out of a perceived sense of superiority.

The imagery Atwood imbues this passage with is also significant, as her descriptive language very clearly paints a readable picture: “my bare feet avoiding the broken glass” (Atwood 4), “eyes staring blue as ice from the deep sockets” (4), “face dirt-caked and streaked, skin grimed and scabby, hair like a frayed bath-mat stuck with leaves and twigs” (4). Additionally, the stream-of-consciousness style in which the story is told allows for a more personal connection to the text. The reader is more immersed because they are seeing and feeling what the narrator is doing, therefore understanding the narrator’s intentions from her point of view. Atwood also presents – and somewhat solves – the narrator’s conflict with herself and subsequently with what society expects from her: “This above all, to refuse to be a victim” (1). Furthermore, by mentioning the “half-empty tin” (4) the narrator seems to be using it to serve as a loose metaphor for herself, the ‘she’ that has been existing within society thus far. She has been surviving in limbo, stagnating at a “half-empty” (4) self. The significance of all of these literary devices is that they validate the notion that humanity, or, more specifically, standardized femininity, can be played at. Most notably, the text focuses on appearance and what it means to the narrator in terms of her understanding of gendered stereotypes. The text is therefore drawing attention to the necessity of growth for the narrator. For her to stop retreating from a problematic society and to instead come to terms with how she can combat it, as the previous way she has been dealing with it has been unsuccessful.

In Surfacing, the narrator struggles with feeling foreign in the space she inhabits throughout the whole text. The passage discussed presently highlights the systemic nature that perpetuates her foreignism, which stems from a society that calls for strict adherence to gender expectations, expectations that the narrator cannot, and does not, want to meet. The social commentary Atwood is making is quite successful because not only does it provide the reader with a personal account of dealing with this kind of suppression, it gives the reader an understanding that is tangible, and discernable. Atwood personifies the struggle through the narrator’s appearance and this animalistic appearance caters to the societal perception of women who do not follow the guidelines of femininity, as does the commentary on sanity. The narrator goes so far as to sound like an animal. The progression back into ‘humanity,’ and the decision for the narrator to recognize her faults, speaks to a larger need for change in society, a change that needs to be created for women to become what they want to be, instead of submitting to what they are told to be.

In conclusion, This passage from the end of chapter twenty-six to the beginning of chapter twenty-seven in Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing draws attention to a societal-wide forced foreignness against women, and comments on the psychological and physical impacts it can have. The narrator of the text serves as a metaphor for both women in society and society as a whole, a call to action, for women to accept themselves as they are and to stop being ‘the victim’, and for society to change the faults that they have and enforce against themselves. Atwood effectively uses literary devices to showcase the façade of gendered expectations, and that of humanity. What we deem separates us from that of animals, can push us closer to them. 

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