Margaret Atwood | Critical Essay by Carol P. Christ

This literature criticism consists of approximately 17 pages of analysis & critique of Margaret Atwood.
This section contains 4,952 words
(approx. 17 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Carol P. Christ

Critical Essay by Carol P. Christ

SOURCE: "Refusing to be a Victim: Margaret Atwood," in her Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest, Beacon Press, 1980, pp. 41-53.

In the following essay, Christ offers an analysis of Surfacing, focusing on the protagonist's quest for self-discovery and Atwood's focus on nature and power in the novel.

The spiritual quest of the unnamed protagonist of Surfacing begins with her return to the Canadian wilderness, where she had lived as a child. Ostensibly, the protagonist is in search of her missing father, who is presumed dead. But the search is really for her missing parents, her mother having died a few years earlier, and for the power she feels it was their duty to have communicated to her. The external detective story of the protagonist's search for her father is paralleled by an internal search—half obscured by her obsession with her father—to discover how she lost the ability to feel. The scene of the mystery is strewn with false clues from her fictitious memories, which she created to shield herself from the pain of confronting her true past. While the protagonist's interest remains focused on her father's disappearance, the reader struggles to make sense of the inconsistencies in her story about her marriage, husband, and child. Why couldn't she return home after the wedding? Why did she hide the child from her parents? Why is she obsessed with the bizarre image of her brother floating just below the surface of the water, a near drowning that occurred before she was born? The unraveling of her father's mystery awakens her to the powers that enlighten her, but the unraveling of her own mystery is the key to the redemption she seeks. The two mysteries intersect when she recognizes that "it was no longer his death but my own that concerned me."

Even at the beginning of the journey the protagonist recognizes that she has experienced a death. Like the three friends, Anna, David, and Joe, who accompany her, she is completely cut off from her past: "Any one of us could have amnesia for years and the others wouldn't notice." She has also lost the ability to experience normal feelings. She recalls that her current man-friend, Joe, was impressed by her coolness the first time they made love. She, on the other hand, found her behavior unremarkable because she did not feel anything. She is tortured by Joe's demand that she say she love him because she does not believe the word has any meaning.

The protagonist's alienation from her feelings is reflected in her dispassionate voice. Everything is seen; nothing is felt. The small town, the cabin in the woods where she grew up, her three friends, even her memories are accurately recorded—or so it seems. Occasionally she slips, as when she says, "I keep my outside hand on the [car] door … so I can get out quickly if I have to," causing the reader to ask whether she is similarly defensive about her life, perhaps censoring her story. The reader is suspicious when the protagonist reports how she copes with the pain of seeing the town of her childhood changed: "I bite down into the cone and I can't feel anything for a minute but the knife—hard pain up the side of my face. Anesthesia, that's one technique: if it hurts invent a different pain." How much unacknowledged anesthesia, the reader wonders, does the protagonist use? Might her whole story be a shield from a pain she wishes to deny?

The protagonist's inability to feel is paralleled by an inability to act. Her selective vision holds fast to the illusion that she is helpless and "they" do things to her. Hurt and angry that her parents died before endowing her with their power, she accuses them of having hurt her. "They have no right to get old," she complains, remaining blind to the pain her abrupt departure from home doubtless caused them. Always conscious of how she might be hurt, she remains oblivious to her power to hurt others. Moreover, as the reader later discovers, she studiously avoids confronting the center of her pain, the place where she lost the ability to feel and to act—her betrayal by the first man she loved.

Unable to come to terms with his violation of her self and her body she obsessively focuses her attention on the violation of the Canadian wilderness by the men she calls "Americans," some of whom turn out to be Canadians. In Surfacing, the image of Canada victimized by Americans is a mirror of the protagonist's victimization by men. The conflict between Americans in powerboats and Canadians in canoes—one apparently stronger but alienated from nature, the other seemingly weaker but in tune with it—becomes a cover for her own pain. She identifies with Canada, the wilderness, innocent, virgin, and violated by nameless American men. Her illusion that the wilderness has no power to recover from American violation prevents her from realizing her own power to overcome her sense of violation. Though the wilderness initially deflects her vision, in the end it will provide the key, the revelation that releases her power.

Though the protagonist continually imagines herself as powerless, she is extraordinarily concerned with power Anything out of the ordinary—Madame with one hand, a purple bean at the top of a high pole, the cool blue lake, a white mushroom, the toes of saints—all are seen as harboring magical power. To her, religion and magic are one—a view modern Westerners have often associated with children or people they call primitives. Eventually the protagonist's sense of the magic-religious powers resident in things will become a key to revelations that enable her to contact the source of her power.

At first, however, the protagonist seeks her lost power in the wrong places. Realizing that she lost the ability to feel somewhere in the past, she imagines that a simple return to childhood will provide the answer. Searching through old scrapbooks kept by her mother, she discovers that she looked normal in all the pictures—no clues there. There is a clue in the drawings from her childhood—hers of eggs and bunnies, everything peaceful, her brother's of airplanes and bombs—but she cannot quite fathom it. Another clue surfaces from the garden. She remembers that once she thought a certain purple bean on a high pole was a source of power. She says she is glad the bean did not give power to her because "if I'd turned out like the others with power I would have been evil." Her association of power with evil and her dissociation of herself from both reflect a typical female delusion of innocence. Hiding from her complicity in evil feeds a false belief that she can do nothing but witness her victimization. In order to regain her power the protagonist must realize that she does not live in a world where only others have power or do evil. An unexpected thing, the sight of a dead heron strung up on a tree, monument to some "American" victory, mediates revelation.

The reaction of the protagonist and her friends to the dead heron, symbol of purposeless killing, reveals some truth about each of them. Anna's weakness is evident when she holds her nose, not from any real feeling, but simply to make an impression on the men. David's concern to preserve the Canadian wilderness from crass commercialism is revealed as mere rhetoric when he and Joe film the bird, trapping its humiliation while distancing themselves with their "art." Only the protagonist realizes the enormity of the crime as she imagines the heron in its natural habitat killing its appointed food with effortless grace. She identifies herself with the bird, wondering "what part of them the heron was, that they need so much to kill it," but she does nothing to protect the heron from further humiliation.

When they pass the spot again, a day later, the sight of the heron mediates the knowledge the protagonist requires to escape her passive sense of victimization, the delusion of her childhood innocence. For her the heron is sacred object, mediator, like Christ to the Christian. Seeing it again, she realizes that her passivity is not innocence. She does not live in a world of eggs and bunnies; she did not escape the evil others are immersed in. "I felt a sickening complicity, sticky as glue, blood on my hands, as though I had been there and watched without saying No or doing anything to stop it." Memories of her active participation in acts of cruelty equally senseless surface in her as she remembers how she and her brother used to throw the "bad kind" of leeches into the fire. She realizes there is no innocence in childhood. "To become like a little child again, a barbarian, a vandal: it was in us too, it was innate. A thing closed in my head, hand, synapse, cutting off my escape." Though she feels trapped, recognizing her guilt and responsibility is a step toward claiming her power to refuse to be a victim.

With the path to redemption through childhood closed, the protagonist decides the clue to her redemption lies in deciphering her father's final obsession—a series of unintelligible drawings and marks on maps. At first she fears he had gone mad and wandered off into the woods, but then she discovers he was copying Indian paintings and marking their locations on maps. She goes in search of the paintings to verify his sanity and her own. Deciding that the painting she seeks is submerged underwater, she dives deep into the lake to look for it. Instead of a painting, she discovers an image from her past: "It was there but it wasn't a painting, it wasn't on the rock. It was below me, drifting towards me from the furthest level where there was no life, a dark oval trailing limbs. It was blurred but it had eyes, they were open, it was something I knew about, a dead thing, it was dead." Seeing the body of her father forces her to acknowledge he is dead. The mystery of her father's death solved, his image becomes a clue to her own mystery, her own death. The open eyes of his corpse remind her of the bizarre image of her brother's near drowning, but with a shock she recognizes, "it wasn't ever my brother I'd been remembering." The thing approaching becomes the image of her aborted fetus "drowned in air." This revelation unlocks the mystery of the confusing stories of husband, child, marriage. The childbirth was an abortion; the wedding day—the day of the abortion; the husband—the lover who told her to have the abortion. "It wasn't a wedding, there were no pigeons, the post office and the lawn were in another part of the city," she remembers, finally accepting the truth about her first love affair.

The protagonist sees the fetus as a living thing, not yet a child, but an animal deserving protection like the heron. Wanting to convince her to have the abortion, her lover "said it wasn't a person, only an animal." Now she realizes, "I should have seen that it was no different, it was hiding in me as if in a burrow and instead of granting it sanctuary I let them catch it." She views her abortion as no more or less a crime than the murder of the heron, but her guilt is more direct, because the creature was in her body. As the knowledge of her complicity in a killing comes to her, she realizes why she hid her past in false memories. "It was all real enough, it was enough reality forever, I couldn't accept it, that mutilation, ruin I'd made, I needed a different version." She understands, too, that the anesthesia of false memory is no escape, but rather the beginning of a fatal disease: blocked feelings do not go away; they fester inside. "Since then I'd carried that death around inside me, layering it over, a cyst, a tumor, black pearl." Her ability to accept the painful truth about the past counteracts the anesthesia, abolishes the need for false stories to cover up true pain. By allowing herself to feel pain, she unblocks her feelings and contacts her energy and power. "Feeling was beginning to seep back into me, I tingled like a foot that's been asleep."

The protagonist sees this new self-knowledge for what it is—a revelation from great powers. "These gods, here on the shore or in the water, unacknowledged or forgotten, were the only ones who had ever given me anything I needed … The Indians did not own salvation but they had once known where it lived." In the presence of great powers, she feels the need to worship. She leaves her sweatshirt as a thank offering to the gods whose names she does not know but whose power she has felt.

She correctly understands that her redemption comes from facing the truth and accepting the pain, guilt, and responsibility it entails. With this act, the protagonist also divorces herself from the interpretations men use to justify their crimes. She no longer believes killing can be justified as "sport." She rejects her brother's distinction between "good" leeches that deserve to live and "bad" leeches that deserve to die. She rejects her lover's distinction between "good" (legitimate) fetuses that grow up to have birthday parties and "bad" (illegitimate) fetuses that must be killed. The protagonist is allowing her own feeling, not male "morality," to define reality for her.

The revelations that come to the protagonist through the heron and the underwater image of death provide her with the knowledge that unlocks her past, but she finds the revelation incomplete. Her father's "were the gods of the head, antlers rooted in the brain." She believes a gift from her mother must complement her father's gift—"Not only how to see but how to act." Searching again for something out of the ordinary to provide guidance, she senses power in one of the scrapbooks her mother had made. Heavy and warm, the scrapbook opens to a picture the protagonist had drawn as a child of "a woman with a round moon stomach: the baby was sitting up inside her gazing out." Her mother's gift is a reminder of the powers of her body. Though the gifts of the parents reflect a traditional stereotyping of men with the mind, women with the body, the protagonist incorporates both gifts and transcends the limitations of her parents' lives.

That night she conceives a child by Joe with the moon, a Goddess symbol, on her left. In a heightened state of awareness she feels "my lost child surfacing within me, forgiving me, rising from the lake where it has been prisoned for so long … it buds, it sends out fronds." As she conceives, the protagonist resembles the Virgin Mother Goddesses of old: at one with nature and her sexual power, in tune with the rhythms of the moon, complete in herself, the male being incidental.

The protagonist's extraordinary insight and sense of her power alienates her from her friends. She realizes that if she wishes to pursue the revelations and experience the powers more deeply, she must choose the isolation of the visionary quest. She can't stay with people because "they'd had their chance but they had turned against the gods, and it was time for me to choose sides." When the time to leave the island comes, she hides, escaping from her friends. "I am by myself; this is what I wanted, to stay here alone." "The truth is here." The choice of solitude is not so much a rejection of community as a recognition that certain experiences and truths are so alien to ordinary consciousness that the individual must withdraw in order to experience them.

After the others have left, the protagonist has time and space to plumb more deeply the knowledge and experience that has been given her. Lying alone at the bottom of her canoe she has a vision of the great powers of the universe, the gods who have guided her journey: "Through the trees the sun glances; the swamp around me smolders, energy of decay turning to growth, green fire. I remember the heron; by now it will be insects, frogs, fish, other herons." The great powers of the universe transform the swamp; they transform the heron from death to life. The life power rises from death. This is the meaning of the incredible words she had spoken earlier, "nothing has died, everything is alive, everything is waiting to become alive."

The protagonist recognizes her body as both revelation and incarnation of the great powers of life and death. "My body also changes, the creature in me, plant-animal, sends out filaments in me; I ferry it secure between death and life, I multiply." The female experience of the transformation of parts of her body into plant, animal, and infant is perhaps the most complete human incarnation of the great powers. The protagonist's vision of the universal transformative energy of life into death and death into life is reflected in her characteristic perception of the fluidity of the boundaries between objects, plants, animals, humans. Joe has "fur" like a bear, canoers are "amphibian," the fetus is "plant-animal" sending out "filaments."

After her vision, the protagonist enters the final phase of her visionary journey: transformation itself. She realizes that she can see her dead parents, and perhaps the gods themselves, if she follows the path she is beginning to sense. "The gods, their likenesses: to see them in their true shape is fatal. While you are human; but after the transformation they could be reached." Her transformation is frightening. Though she knows it is beyond "any rational point of view," it is neither mad nor illogical. Whereas before she had abandoned false memories, now she will give up all identity as a human. Before she had experienced the fetus transforming her body, now she will change herself into a different state.

She ritually breaks her connections to the human world—burning or purifying clothing, books, one of everything in the cabin. She is purified and transformed by immersion in the lake. Like the fetus in her womb, she changes in water. "The earth rotates, holding my body down as it holds the moon; the sun pounds in the sky, red flames pulsing from it, searing away the wrong form that encases me." The powers guide her away from the garden, the house, into the woods. She becomes wild. She is animal: "I hollow a lair near the woodpile, dry leaves underneath and dead branches leaned over." Having undergone transformation, she experiences mystical identification with all forms of life: "Leopard frog with green spots and gold-rimmed eyes, ancestor. It includes me, it shines, nothing moves but its throat breathing." She experiences direct union with the great powers of life and death in nature. All boundaries between herself and other forms of life are abolished. She becomes the transformative energy: "I lean against a tree, I am a tree leaning … I am not an animal or a tree, I am the thing in which the trees and animals move and grow."

Later she sees a vision of her mother feeding the birds; then her mother disappears, the birds remain. She is translated. This vision confirms her sense that her mother's gift is connection to nature. As Barbara Hill Rigney says, "Almost witchlike, with her long hair and wearing her magically powerful leather jacket, the mother feeds wild birds from her hand, charms a bear, and is in tune with the seasons." In a similar vein, Adrienne Rich calls the mother as she appears "Mistress of the Animals."

The next day she sees what her father saw. What he has seen "gazes at me with its yellow eyes, wolf's eyes, depthless but lambent as the eyes of animals seen at night in the car headlights." The eyes of the wolf remind her that her father's gift is the power of seeing, or insight. The protagonist is terrified as she realizes that in the state of transformation individual human identity has no meaning. Her father's vision is impersonal, but it is also strangely comforting because it means that the life power survives a particular identity. With the vision of the parents, the protagonist's circle is complete. Her parents' power has been communicated to her.

The vision granted, the gods then retreat into "the earth, the air, the water, wherever they were when I summoned them." Translated back to human form, the protagonist returns to the cabin and opens a can of beans, symbolizing her return to modern human life. Though she is no longer in direct contact with the powers, she has gained wisdom and consciousness of her own power through her encounter with them. She marks her new power with a declaration: "This above all, to refuse to be a victim … give up the old belief that I am powerless." The source of her newly discovered power is twofold. First, she renounces the fictitious memories that held together her delusions of innocence and powerlessness. Letting go and allowing her true past to surface is itself a source of tremendous energy. Second, her grounding in her own past and in the powers of the universe provides her with a sense of authentic selfhood.

Though Atwood has effectively portrayed a woman's spiritual quest, she has left the question of its integration with the social quest open. It seems likely that the protagonist, now pregnant, will return to the city with Joe and attempt to reconstruct their relationship on the basis of her recovered ability to feel. The potential for a deeper relationship with Joe is "a possibility which wasn't there at the outset." But it remains an unexplored possibility. Will Joe understand how she has changed? Will he assume equal responsibility for the care of their child? Will he view her work and personal growth as being as important as his own? Atwood's failure to address such questions makes Marge Piercy skeptical that the protagonist has achieved power at all. Using a social or political definition of power, she objects, "Power exists and some have it." To Piercy, Atwood's protagonist might reply, "Power exists in many more forms than are usually recognized. I have gained power by experiencing my grounding in the great transformative powers of the universe. I don't know yet how I will translate my power into social and political forms. But you cannot deny that I have gained power." Atwood's protagonist has experienced a spiritual and psychological transformation that will give her the inner strength to change her social and political relationships. She no longer sees herself as inevitably powerless and victimized. And since Atwood's story is set in the 1970s, not the 1890s, the reader has some reason to hope that her quest to integrate the spiritual and the social will be more successful than Edna Pontellier's [as related in Kate Chopin's The Awakening.] I am not as uneasy about Atwood's protagonist's future as Piercy. But like her, I recognize the need for stories that describe how the woman who has awakened will live in the social world. Still, I wish Piercy had understood more clearly the contribution novels like Surfacing make to women's total quest: by naming anew the great powers and women's grounding in them, such novels provide women with alternatives to patriarchal notions of power that can aid their struggle to change the social world.

The newly named power, the transformative energy of life to death and death to life in Surfacing is, of course, not new to the historian of religions. Atwood believes that her protagonist has discovered the great power worshiped by the Canadian Indians. Many tribal and ancient peoples, both men and women, have worshiped similar powers. However, as Ruether has shown, when societies become urbanized, the culture-creating males celebrate their relative freedom from the body and nature in myth, symbol, philosophy, and theology. The traditional values derived from the body and nature then become identified primarily with women, both because women's close relation to the body and nature is evident in their traditional roles of child-bearing and nurture of the young and because the culture-creating males identify the traditional values their culture has transcended with the other, woman. This development produces the paradox that the surfacing of female values in alienated urban cultures may also be a return to some—but not all—of the values of traditional tribal or less urbanized cultures. Even the experience of connection to nature as a life and death power may reflect a particularly female viewpoint in modern culture. Western male heroes commonly envision nature as something that must be conquered or as inert matter that can be shaped to their purposes. A woman's experience of the intertwining of life and death processes in pregnancy and childbirth—the fetus might die or its movement toward life might kill her—seems to encourage in her a realistic acceptance of death as an element in all life processes.

Tribal and ancient peoples who worshiped natural powers such as those represented in Surfacing knew that the close connection of life and death in the hunting and agricultural cycles and in the birth processes was a reflection of the interpenetration of life and death in all natural processes. They knew the hunted or domesticated animal and the wild plant or crop as sacred sacrifices to human life. But in Christianity, the transformative mysteries of birth and the earth were spiritualized and the notion of sacrifice was limited to Christ's death for the sins of humankind. Atwood's protagonist reverses this spiritualization when she intuits, "the animals die that we may live … we are the eaters of death, dead Christ-flesh resurrecting inside us … Canned spam, canned Jesus … but we refuse to worship." Though speaking irreverently, the protagonist is expressing her sense that the ultimate mystery of life and death is reflected in the process of eating. Indeed the original guilt may be that we must kill to live. By showing how the ancient sense of the mysteries of life and death emerges in the consciousness of a thoroughly modern woman, Atwood has done more than nostalgically recall an ancient world view. She has suggested a direction for the transformation of modern consciousness that would be beneficial for women and all life. Reverence for the human connection to natural processes would create an atmosphere in which the natural functions of women's bodies would be celebrated rather than ignored or treated as sources of shame. Menstruation, childbirth, and menopause might once again be viewed as religiously significant events. And while it would not provide solutions to all the complex problems that arise in modern technological societies, a new naming of humankind's grounding in nature might create an atmosphere, or in Crites's terms, an "orientation," in which solutions to the ecological crisis could be developed.

The issue of abortion raised by the novel provides a crucial test of the viability of the novel's vision for women's quest. The affirmation of a woman's right to control her own body and to choose abortion has been fundamental in the women's movement. And the question naturally arises: Does Atwood's protagonist's vision of her connection to nature mean that women must not have abortions but must give birth over and over again, "naturally"? A careful reading of the novel's vision suggests that this would be the wrong conclusion to draw. The novel compares the fetus in the womb to an animal in a burrow and suggests the comparison of the termination of a pregnancy to the killing of an animal living in one's body. The novel suggests that no killing should be undertaken lightly, but it also recognizes that some must die so that others may live. The protagonist's abortion was wrong for her because she did not choose it herself, but allowed her lover to choose it for his own personal convenience and because she did not allow herself to feel the sense of loss that will naturally be felt when a life is taken. The novel does not suggest that abortion is wrong, but it does suggest that abortion is not a matter of little consequence. The woman who decides that she must have an abortion should recognize, as she does in eating, that some deaths are necessary for other life and that the proper response to the sacrifice of one life for another is worship and gratitude.

The emergence of a powerful vision of women's connection to nature in a novel of women's spiritual quest seems to suggest that women can achieve power through the acceptance of female biological roles. The traditional identification of women and nature that has been a legacy of oppression can also be a potential source of power and vision. As one critic has written, to entirely reject the identification of women with the body and nature might be "to neglect that part of ourselves we have been left to cultivate and to buy—into that very polarization [of culture and nature] of which we have been the primary victims." More importantly, it may lead to the kind of psychic suicide that the first part of Surfacing portrays.

It seems to me that women must positively name the power that resides in their bodies and their sense of closeness to nature and use this new naming to transform the pervasive cultural and religious devaluation of nature and the body. Atwood's novel suggests that the opposition of spirit and body, nature and person, which is endemic in Western culture, is neither necessary nor salutary; that spiritual insight surfaces through attention to the body; and that the achievement of authentic selfhood and power depends on understanding one's grounding in nature and natural energies.

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