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One of the most crucial issues that are faced by modern day human beings is the degradation of land as well as the surround ecology and its eventual consequences on the very survival of the human beings (Bhalla 1). In this background the term Ecofeminism becomes notable and pertinent. Does Atwood’s novel gets a happy ending or is it an ambiguous one? This paper tries to answer the above question by conducting a comprehensive study of Margaret Atwood‘s Surfacing, written in the year 1972, and present the analysis from the perspective of an eco-feminist, while also considering the relationship between human beings and natural world, as portrayed by Atwood in her work. The publication of this particular work of Atwood coincides with the advent of the feminist and ecological movements and perceptibly echoes the concerns of its period.
Margaret Atwood’s work ‘Surfacing’, extensively portrays abuse and annihilation of wilderness in Canada by a group of people claiming to be enlightened (Brooks, 39). In the early 1970s, the cultural nationalism of Canada, placed wilderness as streak of difference and also as an object of ecological reliance. Atwood’s Surfacing replicates this obsession with wilderness. Coral Ann Howell has defined wilderness as follows: “wild uncultivated land, which in Canada comprises of vast tracts of woods, containing countless lakes as well as the Arctic North (Howell, 21).” He goes on to describe wilderness as “Canada’s most popular cultural myth (Howell, 21). Atwood’s ‘Surfacing’ deals with the mistreatment and annihilation of the Canadian wilderness by the people claiming themselves to be practical and rational.
The objective of eco-criticism is to evaluate the relevance of human to non-human and otherwise in a literary context. Eco-criticism, typically addresses concepts like nature writing, wilderness, regionalism, as well as landscape. The goal of eco-criticism is to appreciate how integrated and inseparable, a human being is with the environment as his capacity to make changes in this relationship, all in the literary setting (Buell, 138).
This is a story of a narrator returning to her hometown Quebec, after several years of futile search of her missing father. She is shocked to notice the dramatic changes that have taken place to her native place and also the polluted wilderness. Surprisingly, most of this is attributed to the deeds of the Americans. The economic growth has taken on nature, by the use of tools which are believed to be progressive and fruitful, is intolerable and agonizing to the sensible narrator. As the story progresses, readers get increased awareness of the damages that have occurred to the wilderness of Canada, in the form of bulldozed trees, blasted rocks etc.
The setting is in a place called Bottle Villa, which is between English and French Canada. In a total separation, far from the din of the urban living, and constant mental influence of society and friends, immersed fully in nature and wilderness, she finds her poise and ultimately discovers the true reason for her father going missing – his death (Fiona, p. 43).
Margaret Atwood because of her work ‘Surfacing’ has gained global acclaim and has been recognized as a symbol of Canadian creativity. Her deep insights and perspectives on a variety of social, psychological, and cultural issues, which she views from her own intricate personal experiences, through which she lays the groundwork for her fictional microcosms.
Atwood made a dramatically different and thoughtful effort to convert a simple piece of literature into a valuable contribution to the global world of literature, by first showcasing it to the Canadian connoisseurs. Atwood completed her work by authoring Survival, in which she highlights the importance of culture. Therefore Atwood created a position for herself as well as the Canadian literary legacy. Her effort succeeded primarily because of her attention to detail in the post-modern stories, her originality in creating characters and heroes, some of which were inspired, some of which were enthused from reality clubbed with her penchant for creating opulent schemes in her stories.
Typically, she sets a stage comprising of wilderness to highly sophisticated urban living environment and there is no perfectly chronologically ordered sequence, thereby creating fragmented and jumbled pieces which lends a kind of fragmentation to the entire drama itself. With this method, she conveniently manipulates time and space, and Atwood comfortably directs her works into the post-modern era with only major humour missing in the complete sitting.
In this renowned work, Atwood pilots and traces a return journey from a rich urban environment, away from her native place Quebec, to the wilderness using a nameless female lead, ostensibly looking for her identity. This character goes back to the place in which she spent her childhood, into a cabin in the middle of a forest titled ’Bottle Villa’ accompanied with her lover Joe and another couple friends named Anna and David. “To have the past but not the present, that means you’re going senile´ (79).” The notion of space and time enters the mindscape via the landscape: “Around us the illusion of infinite space or of no space, ourselves and the obscure shore which it seems we could touch, the water between an absence. The canoe’s reflection floats with us, the paddles twin in the lake. It’s like moving on air, nothing beneath us holding us up; suspended, we drift home (72).” She feels so because, in total separation from an urban setting and the pressures of the urban life, and leaving all social relationships behind her, fully immersed in nature and bush, the narrator finally recovers her poise as well as hits upon the truth of her father’s death.
It is only towards the end of the novel, when the narrator dives into the lake of the forest, when she is under the surface of the water, she experiences that dramatic paradigm shift while having visions of connection with her dead father and other ancestors. “She prepares her descent into the underground through the mediation of mushrooms that cause a state of trance. The imagery with which the narrator describes the mushrooms that cause her intoxicated mental state bear resemblance to the symptom signifiers that used to regularly erupt from her unconscious. The white, “fish-colour” mushrooms, with “chalk gills” and an “invisible part, threadlike underground network” call back to mind the deadened life force of the protagonist. Yet the mushrooms are associated both with death and life (p. 61).” She experiences rebirth and literally surfaces with a total change in her perspectives towards her environment. Thus, Surfacing also refers not just about surfacing in the water of the lake and also this woman’s cognition about herself and the sense of completeness that she experiences under water.
What triggers a change in the narrator is that, when this main character is in middle of nature, in a very intimate intertwining, in the middle of forests, she is disturbed by an incident witnessed with her group of friends. She witnesses, what she believes as Americans killing a heron for sheer pleasure. However, as she discovers that the tourists are actually Canadians, her mental model collapses and she no longer has an enemy to target. She says, “If you look like them and think like them then you are them (p.165).” Her entire set of explanations that she created for herself goes haywire, and she ultimately accepts the truth that, even Canadians could behave badly, and set a bad example for themselves, without understanding the long-term impact of such misbehaviour. This creates a kind of a cultural battle which the narrator desperately tries to solve.
She is deeply disturbed but manages to hold her feelings and is shocked that even her friends enjoyed the entire incident. This enjoyment seems to have obviated them to the gross act. It is at this moment that, she embarks on a process of rediscovery and it is at this juncture, she experiences an imminent urge to change and transform. It is at this point in her life, that she realizes that she cannot withdraw into being her old self, as long as surrounded by people like David, and until she musters the courage to censure and discipline such acts of outrage as killing a bird for sheer pleasure, which she construes to be having a soul. "Senseless killing, it was a game: after the war they had been bored´ (p. 131).” She enters into a prolonged and very deep scrutiny of the experience that she underwent while the bird was killed which continues on to her. She is able to discover her own, highly sensitive and empathetic nature and also identifies her inability of being able to be candid and assertive in an effort to put an end to such horrendous events and also those involved in such acts. She experiences a myriad range of emotions, while at one end she begins to feel guilty for being part of such a disgraceful act because of her inability to stop it, to the other extreme where she would like to be aggressive and be able to take on the perpetrator of the heinous act and the accomplices, while being conscious of her inability to do so. Therefore, she sees herself being party to the colonizer who came to destroy nature, conquer the natives, and steal their lands. She abhors such violent acts. It is the predominant post-colonial Canadian theme – guilt, which is evident in this book.
She ultimately rouses from the state of stupor to understand that she was terribly wrong to patronize the heinous act, thus sowing the seeds of transformation and as a first step; she initiates the process of isolating herself. The narrator is deeply disturbed by this experience of heron being killed, and this is when she begins to rebel the feeling of being inferior to the Americans. She adopts a higher position of enlightenment and understands that mutual respect for the other living beings must be experienced, irrespective of them being men, animal, reptiles, which she insists would give respect for self. This is where she identifies the balance of nature.
Other than identifying patterns of American-Canadian behaviour in her fellow nationals and her, she is also ceased with the Anglo-French heritage and this creates identity crises for her from within her. She realizes that, as a child, she was comfortable speaking French, and interacting with the French people who are natives of Canada, but now she feels alienated because of her rich British accent and acceptance by locals is not that easy. She is also disturbed because she was realizes that she was brought up between the French and the English part of the country, and she feels a dislike for the French. She also realizes that she has adopted a typical British behaviour of extreme calm, austere, and self-restraint. As a woman, she feels ‘trapped in a language that wasn’t king (Atwood, p. 106). She has been staying out of Quebec, her native place, for a relatively long duration and thus could not speak the native tongue in the appropriate accent and thus gets embarrassed when the trader grins at the style of her accent and her language. Suddenly she feels that she had pretended as an American for avoiding the embarrassment. “I see I’ve make a mistake, I should have pretended to be an American´ (28). The propensity of hiding identity as a tactic to gain respect or allowance in a society is pretty apparent here. She somewhere realizes a need to take on a Zen-like life pattern to create peace and harmony, thus creating and establishing a relationship between her and the environment. She can be seen to adopt, “cool” behaviour patterns, ostensibly under peer pressure.
This is in line with the Confucian theory of security – the meticulous following of etiquette, which provides safety from embarrassment. However, she realizes that this behaviour runs against her fundamental grain of nature, and she is stifled. The total impact of the environment and the deep impact of the culture on her makes her unrecognizable to herself, and this becomes the primary cause for her to embark on a journey of self-discovery to discover her real self, her origins, and establishing a connection with her ancestors, who she believed to have lived peacefully in the wilderness of Canada, in constant peace with Mother Nature.
The core of her identity, she believes is intrinsically the native Canadian-Indian, to which an English cover was added. She understood that the French relationship came from the strong influence of her childhood family friends, and the society she lived in. Finally, she also has an American overtone, which she acquired in her urban life. The narrator has deep rooted and emotional disturbances, a divorce, difficult relationships, so called unfit friends, an abortion, and an emotional trauma of an identity crisis, and her goal in life. She deeply misses her father, but is extremely disturbed that she cannot connect with him. She feels a lack of equilibrium and is in a constant struggle to find a solution to this disequilibrium. She finally concludes that, to achieve a sense of balance, she needs to come back and face her past. She realizes that she needs to split away from the thought-processes seeded by her father, an extreme rationalist and who discounted fully, the concept of the inner-self, inner-force, and the soul.
With an endeavour to achieve this balance, the narrator in Atwood’s novel begins to give up a variety of her disparate standpoints, which only alienate her from her world. She is desperate to remove her feeling of false stability as she braces continuously, in the madness of modern world. She craves for the ideal, and the perfect – a kind of a utopia, where she perceives happiness and safety, which would put her conscience to rest. To achieve this, she needs a ritual to atone from having committed a sin, a grave mistake, the need for the soul for this spiritual peace with severe trauma of being torn between the self and the creation. She adopts a ritual to find answers for her disoriented self, as well as her father’s death and she experiences her sins being washed away by the leafs and the water of the lake and she re-gains a sense of equilibrium and peace. The blood that she is flowing in her veins is credited to the landscape. The child she bears is also therefore attributed to the wilderness. It enters her phobic features governing her psyche thus directing her whole thinking.
While Atwood created a niche for herself and her works globally, by her writings of literature, another Canadian critic Northrop Frye nurtured authors’ by giving them an opportunity to publish in his periodical that he edited. He also critiqued the literary works and created a scope for these young authors to grow. Northrop’s works generated an extreme sense of attention, which is an indication of his contribution to the modern Canadian literature. Frye’s theory of Mythopoeic and Archetypal structures, identify Atwood’s ‘Surfacing’ as “Mythological Conditioning” and “Ironic displacement”, both of which are the core of Frye’s concepts. Atwood, according to Northrop Frye, is seriously concerned with Canada’s dilemma as a political victim. In this typical manifestation, there are constant disputes between conformity and individual awareness of conventions and structures, entrapping an individual. Much of these pushes and pulls are seen in Atwood’s ‘Surfacing’, which has used contemporary mythology while also simultaneously displacing ironically. What has earlier been a source of power, namely the triple facet of the deity, has transformed in the archetypical displaced version of Atwood into an ironic turn of fate. The arrangement of ritual has turned out to be automated, deadening recurrence. As the narrator continues:
“I know it isHard to deny the strength of pattern;Too much to drink, late hoursDays, nights, and nervous headachesAll pastiched, predicted inMy infant fingerprints. (p. 11)”
Atwood is seen as a gifted author to use this technique and is highlighted in Atwood’s “Rewriting of the Odyssey from a Woman’s Perspective”. Atwood in her work ‘Surfacing’ constantly moves from the present to the past and to the roots in ancestral history, creating a sense of time and space fragmentation, at times even creating an offset sense of reality. The protagonist in Atwood’s ‘Surfacing’, in her quest to connect with her “real-self”, is seen to be moving away from a rich urban environment into the wilderness of Canada, which is again said to be the true reality of native Canadian-Indian life. In a quest to identify her real self, that was triggered and fuelled by her identity crisis, and deep emotional experiences in life, which have not really left a positive impact, the central figure of ‘Surfacing’, abandons her urban life and reaches out to the wilderness, in a sincere attempt to create a deep connect with nature, that she feels will find the solutions for her quest as she feels “I remember the heron; by now it will be insects, frogs, fish, other herons. My body also changes, the creature in me: I ferry it secure between death and life, I multiply (p.180).” According to Fiona Tolan, in agreement with ecofeminism, the narrator recognizes herself as a woman with wilderness and thus observes herself as endangered and persecuted (Fiona, p. 43). The story ends rather ambiguously as, although the narrator seems to come back to her senses, no affirmation of she joining her friends back is noticed.
Atwood’s ‘Surfacing’ has drawn acclaim at national and international forums for her innate ability to create Mythopoeic and Archetypal structures, and also create a serious and sincere sense of space and time displacement along the narrative. This wonderful piece of literature written by Atwood is a hallmark of Canadian literature, which has drawn attention from the whole world.
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