Mirror Imagery in “Surfacing”

August 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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.

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