The Novel pp 253-268 | Cite as

Withdrawal and Return

Margaret Atwood: Surfacing


Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, described by Rigney (1987:38) as ‘quite possibly, the best of all her work’, has already been read in a great variety of ways: as a search for the self, as a female introversion of the traditional male genre of the Quest, as a redefinition of the Oedipal relation, as an exploration of Canadian identity, a postcolonial showpiece, an enquiry into eco-relationships, an invocation of Amerindian mythology and shamanism. But in one way or another, sooner or later, all these approaches have to confront the novel’s quite explicit problematisation of language — specifically as a woman’s experience of (male) language. It is

a search for a feminine discourse: [the narrator’s] escape from, and challenge to, the patriarchal social order she has previously accepted as the ‘norm’, resulting in a ‘double-voiced discourse’ as [Atwood] depicts her protagonist gradually becoming ‘silenced’ in her inability to find expression through the dominant structure of patriarchy. (Spaull 1989:110)

Indeed, in a novel like Surfacing, ‘language is both the vehicle of exploration and the site of combat’ (Hutcheon 1988:143); and its presentation of ‘a descent through space, time and water, and then a hazardous return to the surface’ (Piercy 1988:63) is only possible in terms of the language in which it is invented or reinvented.


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© André Brink 1998

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