Mirror Imagery in “Surfacing”

To truly delve into Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, a reader must understand the symbolic meaning of a mirror in the novel as well as on its function as an object of symbolisation itself implemented through the characters, their interrelations, and faculties of mind, such as memory and perception. After an examination of mirror as a physical object in the novel, this paper proceeds to provide an interpretation of its figurative meaning. By contrast, the second part of the essay attends to the abstract representation of mirror manifesting itself through the relationship between the main character and her partner as well as through protagonist’s own perception of herself. The final part of the present work aims to apply the conclusions made in the previous paragraphs of the analysis to the ending and title of the novel.

In their study on the role of duality in Atwood’s works, Constance Classen and David Howes make a remark of “her frequent references to mirrors”, which may be found in a variety of writer’s poems and novels [1] (par. 2). In Surfacing, the image, too, becomes incorporated into the plot, thoroughly imbued with a symbolic meaning. This becomes most evident at the end of the novel as the protagonist, at the peak of her nervous breakdown, realises that “she must stop being in the mirror” so that “it no longer traps” her, for she comes to understanding the subjective and distorted reality that the mirror provides her with, “reflection intruding between … eyes and vision” (Atwood 138). Proceeding to imagine it as “Anna’s soul closed in the gold compact”, the narrator thereby reveals her perception of the mirror as a tool for conforming individuals to the social expectations (Atwood 138). Her subsequent refusal to use it, therefore, may be considered as a symbol for protagonist’s protest against subduing her own desires and will to that of the society. In retrospect, the scene becomes foreshadowed in the episode of narrator’s self-reflection upon her life before and after the wedding as she remarks: “Woman sawn apart in a wooden crate … smiling, a trick done with mirrors … only with me there had been an accident and I came apart” (85). Here, the image of mirror is found overtly associated with an illusion, which, characteristically, the narrator perceives to be not working for her. It may, thus, be concluded that in the novel, mirror is used as an epitome of social constraints, which the main character implicitly rejects through her attitude to the physical representation of the symbol.

Yet, this imagery of distorted reality caused by social pressure does not limit itself to the mirrors as physical objects only. For the characters themselves serve as a reflection of one another, as the protagonist, in an attempt to justify her reluctance to marry Joe, points out: “He didn’t love me, it was an idea of himself he loved” (Atwood 87). It is not, however, other characters only but the narrator herself who resorts to falsifying reality, in her case, by rewriting her own history, creating a mirror made of her fictitious memories of the past and, as character’s instability progresses, manifesting itself through the nature of her apparitions as well. Commenting on the subject matter in her interview with Linda Sandler, Atwood observes: “She is obsessed with finding ghosts but once she’s found them she is released from that obsession … my character can see that ghosts but they can’t see her” (qtd. in Royappa 123). This non-reciprocity of the relationship between the character and her apparitions echoes the same kind of relationship she maintains with the other heroes – that of mere reflecting, of which, to conclude, the narrator becomes an object for the other characters and which she herself resorts to in the course of her pursuit of self-identification.

Nonetheless, as noted by Kokotailo in his essay on the form of the novel, “the entire structure falls to pieces … when the narrator goes diving” into the lake, the surface of which has been previously in the novel analogised to that of “the dark mirror” (par. 23; Atwood 53). Hence, one of the possible explications of the title of the book is that it alludes to the mirroring effect of the glide of the water, and surfacing, therefore, implies breaking of this reflection. For the main character, this primarily means to strip herself of her delusions by admitting to having fabricated her memories: “A faked album, the memories fraudulent as passports; but a paper house was better than none and I could almost live in it, I’d lived in it until now” (Atwood 112). The next stage of her process of recovering implicates parting with the apparitions of her dead parents or, as Burkhard Niederhoff describes it, “to witness their decline and to accept their death—in other words, to mourn and to bury them” (72). Upon recognising the inner inconsistency of character’s perception of herself, she, thus, becomes enabled to face up to the external misrepresentations imposed on her by the society, which manifests itself through her regained ability to look in the mirror. The change in her perception, as she sees in the mirror “a creature neither animal nor human”, indicates narrator’s enduring defiance of yielding to the prism of social lenses, rejection to discern between animals and humans she has asserted before, for “[a]nything we could do to the animals we could do to each other: we practised on them first” (Atwood 149; 95). Finally, the last stage of character’s recuperation involves re-establishment of her relationship with Joe by breaking the “spurious peace” of “avoiding each other” and choosing an actual communication, “the intercession of words” (Atwood 151).

The fabricated reality that the protagonist of Surfacing is exposed to consists of several levels: those constructed by the society are symbolized by the physical forms of the mirror, whereas those created by the narrator herself as a means of a coping mechanism are demonstrated by the specular nature of her delusions and relationship with Joe. As the character comes to terms with an actual state of affairs of her life, she begins to gradually extricate herself from the illusions, and it takes the form of re-evaluation of the distorted reality that is present in the reflection of the mirror, her memories, apparitions, and representation in the society. The title of the novel, as has been suggested, serves as a symbol for “breaking the surface”, which, in its turn, might be construed as both an idiom for “floating up” (thereby leading back to the idea of surfacing) and a figurative breakage of a mirror’s surface, in order for the protagonist, as she puts it: “Not to see myself but to see” (Atwood 138).

[1] Such as, for instance, “Tricks with Mirrors”, “The Circle game”, Alias Grace, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, and Survival, which are briefly analysed in the above-mentioned Classen and Howes’s essay, “Margaret Atwood: Two-Headed Woman”.

Works Cited:

Atwood, Margaret. Surfacing. McClelland& Stewart, 1972. Web. Accessed 18 Apr. 2017.

Classen, Constance, and David Howes. “Margaret Atwood: Two-Headed Woman.” Canadian Icon. Accessed 19 Apr. 2017. http://canadianicon.org/table-of-contents/margaret-atwood-two-headed-woman/

Kokotailo, Philip. “Form in Atwood’s Surfacing: Toward a Synthesis of Critical Opinion.” Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en littérature Canadienne, vol. 08.2, 1983. Web. Accessed 18 Apr. 2017. https://journals.lib.unb.ca/index.php/scl/article/view/7994/9051

Niederhoff, Burkhard. “The Return of the Dead in Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Alias Grace.” Connotations, vol. 16.1-3, 2006-2007, pp. 72. Web. Accessed 18 Apr. 2017. http://www.connotations.uni-tuebingen.de/niederhoff01613.htm

Royappa, Sheila R. C. “From Decadence to Confidence: Mapping the Mind of Margaret Atwood’s Protagonist in Surfacing.” Canadian Literature: An Overview, edited by K. Balachandran, Sarup & Sons, 2007, pp. 123. Web. Accessed 19 Apr. 2017.

Human Perceptions of Natural Spaces in Nils and Surfacing

Human relationships to space are perceived through memory, language, and emotional ties. Because Selma Lagerlöf’s Nils: The Wonderful Adventures of Nils and The Further Adventures of Nils Holgersson and Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and both deal with non-human identifying protagonists, these methods of perception are questioned. The surfacer makes judgements based off the faults of humanity through denying her past experiences and emotional ties. Her struggle with language restricts her from actualizing and articulating them. Nils reconstructs his idea of nature after his adventures with the geese. He can communicate with animals and appreciate nature as a “thumbietot.” Even though these characters are physically or mentally non-human, their reliance or resistance of human perceptions, such as family, memory, and language, show that relationships to natural space matters.

Past experiences and relationships play important roles in configuring space. Both Nils and the surfacer have strained relationships with their parents, yet are closely intertwined with mothers. Nils runs away from his parents, but on his journey, he learns how much he really cares about them. The cow recalls memories of the old peasant woman, saying once her children grew up, they ventured away from home. They went off to a “strange land” and never returned to help their mother (Lagerlöf 166). One can compare the children to Nils, who has run away from his mother. This story evokes a sense of guilt for not considering her mother, and he realizes he does not want to leave his mother like them. Fulfilling the cow’s wishes to put her mistress to rest serves as a reparation for his remorse. The narrator says, “He had not been such a one that anybody could long for him, but what he had not been, perhaps he could become” (175). Initially Nils was not a kind and devoted son, so becoming one would give his parents reason to long for him. When Nils observes the portraits of her children, he “thought that they all stared blindly into vacancy — and did not want to see.” This illustrates the children’s lack of perception, and Nils does not want to follow in their footsteps. He says, “Poor you…your mother is dead. You cannot make reparation now, because you went away from her. But my mother is living!” This is a rather insightful quote, showing how his perception changed on this journey. This is also the first time he remembers his familial ties, which emphasizes his human emotions, even in a non-human body, and relates them to space. Had the children not been away from home, they would have a better relationship with their mother and the space around them. Lagerlöf continues: “Here he paused, and nodded and smiled to himself. ‘My mother is living…Both Father and Mother are living’” (175). He realizes he still has a chance to make reparations with his parents, and is comforted by that opportunity. Nils specifically mentions his mother, and one can note Akka’s role as a mother figure. Despite her doubts, she agrees to let him stay with the geese. In fact, she played a similar role in Gorgo the Eagle’s life, in which Akka is his “foster mother” (300). The maternal significance of Akka combined with the story of the old peasant woman allows Nils to become closer to nature and reconsider his own familial relationships.

The children in the memory resemble the surfacer’s peers. The surfacer returns to Quebec to find her father, but they do not empathize with her. She says: “They all disowned their parents long ago, the way you’re supposed to” (Atwood 17). She makes it sound like disowning your parents is a rite of passage into adulthood, which is rather inhuman. Her separation from her parents already puts tension on their relationship, yet even more so due to her unreliable memories of hem. She tries to remember her mother, but she is only certain on photographs of her in a gray leather jacket feeding blue jays. She then finds her missing father’s body in the lake, vividly describing the corpse (143). Her parents are dead and thus only reduced to images, only characterized through faulty memory, which resembles disownment.

Language is a component of space because we use it in description. Lagerlöf employs vivid descriptions to paint the landscape of Sweden. The real world is used as a text, and Nils uses language to articulate what he sees. For instance, Nils describes Skåne as a “big checked cloth,” in which he “saw nothing but checkmarks upon checkmarks. Some were broad and ran crosswise, and some were long and narrow — all over, there were angles. Nothing was round, and nothing was crooked” (Lagerlöf 19). Here, Nils uses language, specifically metaphor, to articulate the visuals of the Southern country. When Nils returns home and becomes human again, he cannot speak to the geese any longer. The geese become “strangely quiet and withdrew from him, as if to say ‘Alas! he is a man. He does not understand us; we do not understand him!’” (Lagerlöf 405). This loss of communication between Nils and the geese seperates human and nature, unlike the the surfacer, whose stubbornness towards language brings her closer to nature. Similar to the surfacer longing to be non-human, Nils wishes to be a thumbietot again so he can travel with the geese. Because he cannot rely on language, he uses the perception of his past experiences and emotional bond with the geese to relate to the natural space of Sweden. The surfacer, however, must abandon language in order to achieve the same affect.

In the beginning of the novel, the surfacer states, “Now we’re on my home ground, foreign territory. My throat constricts, as it learned to do when I discovered people could say words that would go into my ears meaning nothing” (Atwood 7). The comparison of her “home ground” to a “foreign territory” sounds contradictory. Despite partly growing up in Quebec, the surfacer constantly feels like a foreigner. “Words…meaning nothing” references French, since she cannot understand it; she cannot grasp its meaning. This statement highlights how foreign she feels in every aspect of life: in language, in space, and as a human. To find refuge from all these social, cultural, and linguistic clashes, she turns to nature.

The surfacer remembers her mother and Madame. She says, “neither knew more than five words of the other’s language and after the opening Bonjours both would unconsciously raise their voices as though talking to a deaf person” (Atwood 17). This memory relates to the surfacer to her mother and justifies her own struggle with language. Both mother and daughter struggle to communicate in French, which highlights feelings of foreignness. The complication of language is paralleled during the surfacer’s experience at the store, where the woman mocks her accent (22). This incident alienates her from the French people as well as the language. The struggle to communicate with others on a linguistic level illustrates her foreignness. Here the surfacer is embarrassed about her lack of linguistic skills, but she begins to despise language, even going as far to claim that she will not teach her baby language. She thinks of language as a human way of perception, which she will refuse to engage in because she does not identify as human. The surfacer also recalls the women resorting to screaming to understand each other, a primal and animalistic way of communication (17). When the surfacer goes mad, she too becomes primal and animalistic. This memory not only links her back to her mother, but it also foreshadows her future in the novel.

Another prediction of her primeval conclusion is her weaking grasp on the English language. Initially the surfacer feels more comfortable speaking English, but even that language becomes bizzarre. She says: “I had to concentrate in order to talk to him, the English words seemed imported, foreign; it was like trying to listen to two separate conversations, each interrupting the other” (Atwood 151-152). She cannot make sense of David’s words through the lack of perception of language. becomes disconnected from her identities an English speaker and as someone who should speak French, which severs her ties to language and thus humanity. She even claims: “Language divides us into fragments. I want to be whole” (147). Identity has always been foreign to the surfacer, especially as a human being. When she goes mad, she begins to reject aspects of human culture and civilization, such as language. This further isolates her from humanity and brings her closer to nature and animals.

Both Nils and the surfacer feel foreign in their spaces until they become aware of nature. The surfacer denounces her humanity, so her relationship to space is primal and inhuman, as is her identity. This distances her from reality, yet brings her closer to the natural space of Canada. Even as a non-human entity, Nils uses human methods of perception to define his relationship to space. Using language and forming an emotional bond with animals brings him closer to the natural space of Sweden. While Nils makes sense of the natural space through human values, such as family and language, the surfacer must dismiss them in order to embody a non-human identity and become closer to the natural space.