Nature Philosophy in Atwood’s “Surfacing” By Meghna Roy
“The exploitation of nature and animals is justified by feminizing them ;the exploitation of women is justified by naturalizing them. ”
- Karen J Warren , Ecological Feminism
Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing (1972), encompassing issues of nature ,ecology and environment , grapples with notions of national and gendered identity and emphasizes on the rising concerns about Canandian nationalism . It presents the journey of a woman who abandons and ritualistically sheds all remaining vestiges of language ,culture and civilization to undergo a shamanistic cleansing madness , ultimately surfacing with a new found sense of self. Surfacing, thus ,invites comparison with Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in that both delineate the desperate condition of the protagonist who tries to escape from the shifting social milieu and can find solace only by deserting what those around them considered sanity . Yet , Plath’s novel expresses only a pure and private suffering ,her heroine Esther can make no impression on the conditions of her life but Miss Atwood’s nameless protagonist expresses a more sweeping revolt than Esther .Unlike the flat ,sealed off resignation on which The Bell Jar ends ,Surfacing invigorates with the heroine’s resolve to trust herself to the world while at the same time refusing to be a victim of it.
The journey from the psychic and emotional paralysis to unified agency is patterned after the ancient heroic quest that triggers the quest of self-discovery which Joseph Campbell ,author of Hero with a Thousand Faces describes “as a separation from the world ,a penetration to some source of power and a life- enhancing return” .Surfacing is a novel about human relation with nature ,which shows Atwood‘s unique insight into the suppressed condition of nature and women which have been exploited by patriarchy and colonialism.From this silence of suppression emanates the strong voice of protest which manifests itself in the pertaining novel as ecological feminism that holds the belief that the social mentality that leads to the exploitation of women is directly proportional to the social mentality that feels the exploitation of the natural world.
When the narrator enters the natural world of Quebec or to put more aptly, the wilderness world of Quebec, she is “emptied, amputated”, anaesthetized and cut off from emotions because of her disastrous marital liaison. She realizes that human predicament is locked in binaries – the narrow perspective of human race believes only in the ruin of natural life and habitation to meet its needs and not preserving it. An instance from the text will substantiate the situation; when the narrator and her friends reach her homeland and she uses her olfactory ways of understanding to grasp the whole scenario, she realizes that the “first smell is the mill, sawdust, there are mounds of it in the yard with the stacked timber slabs…” This artificiality and imitation forcefully imposed on the real and natural, corroding slowly the innocence and essence of purity is really upsetting for the narrator. The “roadside crucifix with a wooden Christ, ribs sticking out, the alien god”is indicative of the pathetic condition man has brought on himself. The underlying idea is that the Christ is no longer the conventional Christ, but the image of the ruthless Industrial Man, as Russell, puts it the Economic Man.
Truth to be told , Man’s association with Nature is endotelic- it is constructed on the principles of reduction, materialization and objectification of everything natural for the sake of self- gratification. So to say, it is primarily the anthropocentric view of man that makes him feed mercilessly upon his life containing Non- human other; the WORLD OF NATURE. And it is this disrupted, distorted, sordid form of Nature that compels the Narrator into seeing a “ foreign territory” in her homeground Quebec.
In Surfacing ,Atwood scathingly criticizes the rampant consumerism and colonization embodied in the threat posed by America to Canada and Nature. The waving of American flag is the very symbol of industrial and economic domination provided, the vastness of the American empire that has affirmed everywhere the power of its encroachment and with this extreme gigantic institutionalized force, it thinks not even once before defiling the naturalness of Canada. Atwood , in fact, endeavours to embrace many of the dichotomies that have long been standards of Western thought- she connects women with Nature and Canada itself and men with America, each in opposition to another. Like Americans who repeatedly ravage and rob the landscape and disregard the the reciprocal relation between humans and land, man treacherously impregnates and exploits women, gets her aborted and leaves her dejected in the chauvinistic society.
In the novel, David symbolizes the chauvinistic principles that depreciate women in all respects. On the sixth day, for instance, on the island, David asks Anna to take off her clothes for his Random Samples: “What’s humiliating about your body, darling?... We all love it, you ashamed of it? ”For David, Anna becomes nothing but a pornographic object displaying in front of his eyes. Anna lives upto the stereotypical image in the society that women are labelled subordinate to men. Like what Bouson describes in Brutal Choreographies, Anna is a passive recipient and not an active agent, who behind her makeup appearance, hides her pathetic condition and powerlessness. . The hideous truth lying beneath the falsity of idyllic liaison of Anna and David makes the narrator even more contemptuous of the idea of marriage and at the same time the desperate condition of both Nature and women make them share commonality in terms of a mysterious power concealed in fragility and strong endurance adorned with delicacy.
However as the journey progresses, the narrator rejects the patriarchy defined roles for women, she refuses to become a victim like poor Anna. According to Elenoara Rao , the narrator comprehends so many oppressions in her life that she decides not to be a victim anymore. However the physical exploitation that the narrator has confronted in the past affects her consciousness and makes her a woman heading towards her rising and emergence in the post-abortion period . In her case, this consciousness becomes the immanent consciousness that makes her see the image of foetus in the water and not on land, which is suggestive of the transposition of foetus from body of woman to the consciousness of woman.
After a few days stay on the island, the narrator’s long denied past surface -she wants to experience Nature in its raw form ; eating roots, destroying clothes and sleeping in the wilderness ,she reverts to the original state of life. Emma Parker in her“ You are What You Eat:The Politics of Eating in the Novels of Margaret Atwood”opines that , the narrator gives up eating processed food as such food is contaminated in the same way that society is contaminated by patriarchal ideology… the nature that the author now dwells , therein man becomes another object as the narrator herself feels, “ I lean against a tree, I am a tree leaning…” Atwood’s phenomenological reduction of human to a tree is the transpersonal ecology in which deanthropomorphism takes place.Undoubtedly man here becomes the involved thing in nature and in such case, man does not need a name or clothes to identify or cover himself, and this justifies the nudity and namelessness of the narrator.
In diving deep into the water, she moves towards her self- exploration and begins interrogating her individual self. Indeed her diving is more than diving , it is a philosophical rafting where objects like the rock painting of the native Indians speak to the subject independently. As Joan Larkin in Soul Survivor observes , “Surfacing, then, is a metaphor for rebirth, awakening and return.”From the concealed depths oneself , the woman emerges into the world with a new vision of self and of her powers as a human being. Indeed to be surfacing, one must go beneath, one should penetrate into the layers of appearance.
About the Author
Meghna Roy is a commendable writer and scholar in the field of English Literature. She is a former Guest Lecturer at A.C College of Commerce, Jalpaiguri. At present, she is working at Siliguri College, West Bengal. She obtained her M.A degree in English Literature from University of North Bengal. Simultaneously, the Bachelor’s degree in Education has lent versatility to her academic knowledge and experience. While she was pursuing B. Ed she qualified NET as well. She is an aspirant who believes that sky is the only limit.