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Sunday, October 6, 2013

Psychoanalytic Diving in Atwood’s Surfacing By Junaid Shabir

Psychoanalytic Diving in Atwood’s Surfacing By Junaid Shabir

Margaret Eleanor Atwood, (born November 18, 1939) is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist. She is among the most-honored authors of fiction in recent history and is a winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Literature. She has been short listed for the Booker Prize five times, winning once, and has been a finalist for the Governor General’s Award seven times, winning twice.

Atwood’s feminist influence is felt in Fiona Tolan’s book, Margaret Atwood: Feminism and Fiction (2007), which goes through each of her books and breaking them down. For example, The Edible Woman was published in 1969 which coincided with the early second wave of the feminist movement. The themes in the book were much like the ones discussed through the movement but Atwood goes on to deny that the book is feminist and that she wrote it four years before the movement. Atwood believes that the feminist label can be applied to writer’s who consciously work within the framework of the feminist movement.

Atwood’s contributions to the theorizing of Canadian identity have garnered attention both in Canada and internationally. Her principal work of literary criticism, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), is considered outdated in Canada but remains the standard introduction to Canadian literature in Canadian Studies programs internationally. In Survival, Atwood postulates that Canadian literature, and by extension Canadian identity, is characterized by the symbol of survival. This symbol is expressed in the omnipresent use of “victim positions” in Canadian literature. These positions represent a scale of self-consciousness and self-actualization for the victim in the “victor/victim” relationship. The “victor” in these scenarios may be other humans, nature, the wilderness or other external and internal factors which oppress the victim. In Surfacing (1972), the female narrator blurts out, “This is above all, I refuse to be a victim”. The victim position assumed by the characters in her novels will be studied intensely in the Paper.

This Paper intends to reread Atwood using the psychological prism and will find out does she really emerge as a feminist “other” or not. Besides this, the want for Canadian identity in her novels will be analyzed minutely against the backdrop of Psychoanalysis. The temptation is to run the Paper through various categories, like the theories that have influenced her: identity politics, the body, the Gothic, the environment, Canada, the post-colonial, science fiction and, of course, Psychoanalysis.


Psychoanalytic literary criticism refers to literary criticism which, in method, concept, theory or form is influenced by the tradition of psychoanalysis begun by Sigmund Freud. This paper will attempt a Psychoanalytic study of Surfacing, a complex novel by Margaret Atwood with multidimensional themes. As the novel contains evidences of unresolved emotions, psychological conflicts, guilts, ambivalences and so forth. Within the framework of psychoanalysis, the actions of the protagonist will be decoded and appreciated.

The unnamed narrator of Surfacing (1970), has been living in the city, an unnatural construct of concrete and steal, a symbol of rigidity and control. Her victimized spirit identifies itself with the lifeless logged woods, the hanged heron and the frog used as bait in fishing. The expression of self through the medium of symbols is the delineation of psychological material as stated:

Psychological material will be expressed indirectly, disguised, or encoded (as in dreams) through principles such as “symbolism” (the repressed object represented in disguise), “condensation” (several thoughts or persons  represented in a single in a single image), and displacement (anxiety located  into another image by means of association.
— (Online)

The symbols of heron, baited fish etc represent the inner chaos of the protagonist. She fails to speak about the conflict she is going through and gives a vent to them through symbols.

The protagonist is going through severe conflict between Id, Ego and Superego. Bressler (150) says in this regard:

ID is irrational, instinctual, unknown unconscious, containing secret desires, Wishes, fears. It houses the libido, source of psychological desires and psychic desires and psychic energies; pleasure principle resides in ID.

It is the sheer doing of “Id” principle in the protagonist which makes her to plunge in the marriage which is sans love. The protagonist feels baffled about the institution of marriage and feels as if she is just playing the part of bride. She says:

He coiled his arms around me, protecting me from something, the future, and Kissed me on the forehead. “You’re  cold,” he said. My legs were shaking so much I could hardly stand up and there was an ache, slow like a groan. “Come on”, he said, “We’d better get you home”…He was talking to me as if I was an invalid, not a bride.
— (1972:82)
And about “Ego” Principle, Bressler says:

Ego is rational, logical, waking part, corresponds to the reality principle, it regulates desire from Id.
— (150-151)
“Superego” comes into play,when the narrator feels inwardly that the act of abortion was a fatal blow that made her head droop down in shame of her powerlessness. She is a party to the crime and must punish self for the ruthless murder of fetus. So, She disconnects herself herself from society, turns into a primitive being and ponders over the past. She says:

I walk to the hill and scan the shoreline, finding the place, opening when they disappeared: checking, reassuring…It’s true, I am by myself; this is what I wanted, to stay here alone. From any rational point of view, I am absurd, but there are no longer any rational points of view.
— (1972:165)
For Freud, the unresolved conflict that give rise to any neurosis are the stuff of literature. Coming to the protagonist, there are several instances in the novel where in she emerges as a Schizoid patient.Sczephernia is defined as:

Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder characterized by delusions,     lhallucinations, incoherence and physical agitation; it is classified as a “thought” disorder while Bipolar Disorder is a “mood” disorder.
— (Online)
The protagonist experiences hallucinations, mingles past and present. Even the ambiguity of what she has seen and their influence upon her has been explained by Atwood. When she says that Surfacing can be termed as a ghost story of Henry James kind, “in which the ghost that one sees is infact a fragment of one’s own self which has split off, and that to me is the most interesting kind and that is obviously the tradition I am working in” (Atwood 29) and in another interview Atwood observes:

She is obsessed with finding the ghosts but once she found them she is released from that obsession. The point is, my character can see that ghosts but they can’t her. This means that she can’t enter the world of the dead, and she realizes, o.k. I’ve learned something; Now I have to make my own life.
— (Atwood, Linda 43)
And, her final acceptance of life with these words:

I drop the blanket on the floor and go into my dismantled room. My sphere clothes are here, knife slashes in them but I can still wear them. I dress, clumsily, unfamiliar with buttons; I re-enter my own time.
— (1972:185)
The act of intercourse with Joe can be looked at as an act to sublimate the repressed  desire and get rid from the guilt of abortion. After all, its only the feel of fetus surfacing within that brings her back to life and saves her from getting lost in the labyrinths of guilt. She says:

But I bring with me from the distant past five nights ago the time traveler, the Primeval one who will have to learn, shape of goldfish now in my belly Undergoing its watery changes…It might be the first one, the first true human; It must be born allowed.
— (1972:185)
Not only this, the glimpses of “sublimation” which is defined by Charles Mauron as “ A basically unconscious sexual impulse is symbolically fulfilled in a positive and socially gratifying way. And sublimation acts are present in the text when she reveals her love for paintings and drawings. Even his father leaves for her a painting to decode.

I concur with the many critics who insist upon the invalidity of father fixation evidence due to the lack of empirical data and the demographically restricted samples of individuals on which Freud based the majority of his ideas. I also find it hard to accept that all mental problems stem from issues concerning aspects of sex, such as unresolved.

Oedipal and Electra complexes. Though it appears a gross exaggeration and overgeneralization but there are prominent traces of “Electra Complexes” in the novel. There are obvious symptoms of “father fixation” in the novel:

But they must have missed something, I feel it will be different if I look myself. Probably which we get there my father will have returned from wherever he has been, he will be sitting in the cabin waiting for us.
— (1972:18)
So much is her obsession with her father that she cannot take him dead and is sure that she will find him alive somehow. There is further implication of “father fixation” in the novel:

All at once I’m furious with him for vanishing like this, unresolved, learning me with no answers to give them when they ask. If he was going to die he should have done it visibly, out in the open, so that they could mark him with a stone and get it over with.
— (1972:52)
Not to forget that her search for her father acts as pivotal part of the novel and its this journey that acts as a medium for her redemption and salvation. She says:

My father will have the island to himself; madness is private, I respect that, However he may be living its better than an institution.
— (1972:52)
There are almost no references in the novel where she is projecting her mother as an affectionate figure. She is delineated as a lone, cold and morbid lady.

My father explained everything but my mother never did, which only convinced me that she had answers but wouldn't tell.
The father fixation ends only when the death of father is confirmed which culminates into her transformation. As, she now understands, she re-enters the cabin and wears her dresses and eats normal food once again. Now she slowly comes back to reality and states, “In my case, I cann’t stay here forever, there isn’t enough food…, they will never appear to me again…now on I’ll have to live in the usual way, defining them by their absence”( 1972:189). This transformation is aptly summed up by Salat:

Hence when the protagonist surfaces from the depths of the lake, she surfaces with a new knowledge about herself that entails a re-assessment of herself in relation to the world. The psychological/spiritual journey towards self-discovery finds its culmination in a ritualistic re-alignment with the primitive world and a subsequent re-alignment with the lived-world with altered perspective and a new vision.
— (1993:82)
To sum up, the alienation, initial victimization, guileness, immaturity and decadence of the narrator results from her psychological trauma and it is the breaking up of the mirage of the illusions that brings her back to normality and hence to life. The dive in the labyrinths of self cleanses her from all the dross of psychological disorders and hence she ceases to be a victim and comes up with the assertion:

This above all,
To refuse to be a victim!
— (1972:185)


Primary Source

1.       Atwood, Margaret. Surfacing. Great Britian :Virgo press,1972.

Secondary Source

1.       Rigney, Barbara Hill. Women Writers: Margaret Atwood. Houndmill: Macmillan, 1975.
2.       Salat, M. F. The Canadian Novel: A Search for Identity. Delhi: B. R Publishing Coorporation, 1993.
3.       Interview with Linda Sandler. “A Question of Metamorphosis.” M. Atwood Conversations .ed. Earl G. Ingersoll. Ontario: Ontario Review Press, 1990.

Miss Junaid Shabir, M Phil and B. Ed, is currently pursuing Ph D from Department of English, University of Kashmir.

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