Atwood, Animals and the Anthropocene: Re-Reading Surfacing in the 2020s

John Thieme

John Thieme

When Margaret Atwood published her second novel Surfacing in 1972, environmental fiction was already an established genre, but awareness of the extent to which anthropogenic activity was damaging the planet was in its infancy. For pioneering nineteenth-century North American environmentalists such as Aldo Leopold and John Muir, who strove to combat attitudes that saw wilderness as a site for exploitation, the natural world had been a tangible constant, and for the most part the traditions of ecological writing that followed them concerned themselves with addressing local eco-systems. Thus, in the twentieth century, while seminal fictional and non-fictional works such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) demonstrated the injurious consequences of particular farming practices, they stopped short of suggesting that human activity was fundamentally changing the composition of the planet. Arguably Surfacing goes further, because it offers a radical critique of human exclusivity and as such invites being read as a brilliantly conceived harbinger of twenty-first century novels such as Wu Ming Yi’s The Man with the Compound Eyes (2011; trans. 2013) and Richard Powers’s The Overstory (2018) that offer a thorough-going interrogation of the Anthropocene.[1]

Margaret Atwood
            As I write, scientists continue to debate when the Age of the Anthropocene, the age in which human actions have become the most important single determinant of the condition of the earth’s eco-systems and atmosphere, began. The term has been bandied about for some four decades, and various moments have been put forward as candidates for its inception. These have ranged from the beginnings of the Agrarian Revolution more than ten millennia ago to the peak in nuclear fallout in the 1950s or 1960s, after the detonation of the first atom bombs in 1945. Between these extremes come the suggestions that the Industrial Revolution’s adoption of fossil fuels makes the eighteenth century a more obvious terminus ad quem for the Age of the Anthropocene, and the proliferation of the carbon economy after World War II signals a moment when the descent to the bottom accelerated at a hitherto unparalleled rate. So, while there is a fairly general consensus that the Age of the Anthropocene is more than just a sub-division of the Age of the Holocene, as yet the jury has remained out on the question of when it began and whether it constitutes a new geological era.

            Just at the moment, though, as I write – in July 2023 –  the Anthropocene Working Group has proposed Crawford Lake in Ontario as a site that represents the beginning of the proposed new era and has dated it as having begun in the 1950s, since that was when the lake showed an increase in levels of plutonium from hydrogen bomb tests, along with an upsurge in carbon particles and nitrates, from fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers respectively. The Group’s proposal awaits ratification, but, if it is accepted, the Anthropocene era will officially be approved next year.

            What, one may ask, does this have to do with Surfacing? When Atwood wrote the novel just over half a century ago, she could hardly have foreseen that the current debates about the case for the instatement of the Anthropocene as a distinct geological epoch would be argued on the basis of evidence drawn from a Canadian lake. Yet, the setting for the novel is just such a lake, a lake located in a wilderness environment that is showing signs of the damage caused by anthropogenic encroachments and so, coincidentally, this location is very appropriate, since Surfacing stands at the headwaters of novels that critique human exclusivity.

            At first glance Surfacing is a highly personal story. The introspective unnamed narrator/protagonist, who is a commercial artist, journeys from the city into the Quebec woods, an environment where she has lived as a girl. She goes back with three companions – her lover Joe and another couple, David and Anna – to search for her father, a retired arborist who has gone missing from the remote island cabin where he has been living alone. Interspersed with her account of this present-day journey, the narrator revisits episodes from her past, recalling them in an associative stream-of-consciousness manner that particularly focuses on her childhood and her relationship with her supposed ‘husband,’ who turns out to have been a married man with whom she was having an affair. The dénouement of the present-day action begins when she discovers her father’s drowned body, though initially she displaces this onto her brother, whom readers have earlier been told drowned as a child, only to have this subsequently corrected; the dénouement of the past action begins when she reveals that she has had an abortion and readers realize that she has displaced details from the day when this took place onto references to her imagined wedding day, which never took place.

            So, while initially the plot seems to revolve around the disappearance of the narrator’s father, it quickly becomes clear that she is engaged on a parallel quest to find herself – a quest to unravel suppressed aspects of her past, on which she has superimposed a fictionalized version. Her companion Anna occupies herself with reading detective stories and Surfacing itself emerges as a kind of detective story: a detective story of consciousness, in which the unreliable narrator is both the object of investigation and the detective who unravels the mystery of her dissociated consciousness, as she gradually discloses the truth about her past. Her unreliability functions on various levels with readers being treated to more of her back story than she reveals to the various people in her life, her present companions included. Ultimately, though, she is a victim who has estranged herself from the reality of her past and in the latter stages of the novel she undergoes an extended epiphany, in which she strips away the layers of her false self and resolves ‘to refuse to be a victim’ (Atwood [1972] 1979: 185), a condition which she has associated with her being a woman and a Canadian.[2]

Surfacing is, then, ostensibly a very personal story, in that it is an account of one woman’s struggle for authenticity. However, at the same time, the narrator’s surfacing from the false version of her past that she has constructed has broader significance, since she comments extensively on language, landscape, gender, nation, and society in a manner that makes her consciousness a crucible for many of the most debated issues of the period in which the novel is set, the early 1970s. She sees life in terms of a series of oppositional binaries, which include Canadian/American, female/male, wilderness/city, organic/mechanic, conception/abortion, sanity/madness, and Native/settler. Above all, she mistrusts the ‘human’ and affiliates herself with the non-human animal So what may initially seem to be a tightly written account of an aberrant psychology has much broader resonance. While it may be reductive to read the narrator as a Canadian Everywoman, the text lends certainly itself to being read as a study of a Canadian Anywoman’s psyche – her being left unnamed lends credence to such a reading – and beyond this as a probing investigation of fundamental existential issues that have ever increasing relevance, as, half a century later, geologists move toward ratifying the era in which we are living as the Age of the Anthropocene. Germane though the issues foregrounded in Surfacing were to the North American counter-culture of the 1970s, the novel anticipates the contemporary growth of awareness that anthropogenic activity is threatening the future of the planet.

            So, although on one level, Surfacing can be read as an interesting early 1970s period-piece, it is also a forerunner of Atwood’s post-millennial ecologically committed fiction, particularly her MaddAddam trilogy, and in many ways it is her finest work in this genre. The three MaddAddam novels – Oryx and Crake ([2003] 2004), The Year of the Flood ([2009] 2010) and MaddAddam ([2013] 2014) – move between a chilling near-present and a dystopian future to show, over the course of some 1,700 pages, how Anthropocene activity is contributing to the destruction of life on Earth as we know it. Surfacing, which is only a tenth of the length of the trilogy, may seem slight in comparison, but it is a tightly written masterpiece that has few rivals among the growing group of novels that are addressing the impact of human behaviour on the planet’s climate, biodiversity, and resources. While its main action takes place within the mind of its narrator, its themes encompass most of the issues that have subsequently come to be associated with the Anthropocene. The relationship between human and non-human animals is central, but from the opening sentence, where the narrator says ‘I can’t believe I’m on this road again, twisting along past the lake where the white birches are dying, the disease is spreading up from the south, and I notice they now have sea-planes for hire’ (Atwood [1972] 1979: 1), onwards, it is clear that the environment more generally is under threat, as Canadian wilderness space is invaded by forces associated with Canada’s powerful southern neighbour.  And along with this physical invasion, the narrator takes the view that Canada is threatened by American psychological colonization:

They spread themselves like a virus, they get into the brain and take over the cells and the cells change from inside and the ones that have the disease can’t tell the difference. Like the late show sci-fi movies, creatures from outer space, body snatchers injecting themselves into you dispossessing your brain […]. (123)

The tension between American materialism and Canadian reverence for Nature runs throughout the novel. In its starkest form, it is articulated by David, who glibly sees their temporary stay in the Canadian bush as offering an escape from American-led capitalist culture, at one point saying, ‘We ought to start a colony, I mean a community up here, get it together with some other people, break away from the urban nuclear family. It wouldn’t be a bad country if only we could kick out the fucking pig Americans, eh?’ (83). Earlier, when the narrator suggests they should use their time away from urban civilization to read, he replies, ‘Naaa, why read when you can do that in the city?’ (33), but at the same time as he says this, he is twiddling the knob on his transistor radio to try to get the latest baseball scores. And the narrator, who distances herself from David’s rhetoric, nevertheless takes a similar view of Americans, when she sees two fishermen in a powerboat, who have wantonly slaughtered and strung up a heron, as the epitome of that kind of Anthropocentric exclusivism that arrogates to itself the right to brutalize and kill the non-human:

The innocents get slaughtered because they exist, I thought, there is nothing inside the happy killers to restrain them, no conscience or piety; for them, the only things worthy of life were human, their own kind of human, framed in the proper clothes and gimmicks, laminated. It would have been different in those countries where an animal is the soul of an ancestor or the child of a god, at least they would have felt guilt. (121-2)

The powerboat fishermen turn out to be Canadians not, as she has assumed, Americans, and it transpires that they have taken David and Joe to be Americans because of their long hair. So rigid national stereotyping is undermined, but the broad contours of two diametrically opposed views of existence continue to be signified by the terms ‘American’ and ‘Canadian’ and in tandem with this the narrator equates the American with the ‘human,’ which she distrusts, and the Canadian with the ‘animal’.

            This is a dichotomy that runs through much of her work. In the same year as Surfacing appeared, Atwood published her critical book, Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), a surprise best-seller (Atwood [1972] 2012: v-xii) whose popularity has outlasted that of many of the literary works it discusses. Survival includes a chapter on the way animals are represented in classic British, American and Canadian animal stories, which provides an interesting companion-piece to the representation of animals in Surfacing.[3] Atwood takes the view that British animal stories are not really about animals at all, but ‘like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, Englishmen in furry zippered suits, often with a layer of human clothing added on top,’ and goes on to say that the animals ‘speak fluent English and are assigned places in a hierarchical social order which is essentially British (or British-colonial; as in the Mowgli stories): Toad of Toad Hall is an upper-class twit, the stoats and ferrets which invade his mansion are working-class louts and scoundrels’. She notes that these stories ‘invariably’ have ‘happy endings’ ([1972] 2012: 73-4).

In contrast, according to Atwood, American examples of the genre are hunting stories, and she cites Moby-Dick, the bear in Faulkner’s story of the same name, the lion in Hemingway’s ‘The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber’, the grizzlies in Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam? and the deer glimpsed in James Dickey’s Deliverance as evidence of animals that are the prey of human hunters. In each case, she says. the animals concerned are ‘endowed with magic symbolic qualities’:

They are Nature, mystery, challenge, otherness, what lies beyond the Frontier: the hunter wishes to match himself against them, conquer them by killing them and assimilate their magic qualities, including their energy, violence and wildness, thus ‘winning’ over Nature and enhancing his own stature. American animal stories are quest stories – with the Holy Grail being a death – usually successful from the hunter’s point of view, though not from the animal’s; as such they are a comment on the general imperialism of the American cast of mind. (Atwood [1972] 2012: 74)

Having identified what she sees as the dominant mythology of American animal stories, Atwood goes on to contrast this with Canadian examples of the genre. She sees the Canadian animal story, as pioneered by Ernest Thompson Seton and Sir Charles G. D. Roberts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as a genre which offers insight into the Canadian psyche and says that ‘Those looking for something “distinctively Canadian” in literature might well start right here’ (73). She finds the Canadian stories very different from their British and American counterparts:

The animal stories of Seton and Roberts are far from being success stories. They are almost invariably failure stories, ending with the death of the animal; but this death, far from being the accomplishment of a quest, to be greeted with rejoicing, is seen as tragic or pathetic, because the stories are told from the point of view of the animal. That’s the key: English animal stories are about ‘social relations,’ American ones are about people killing animals; Canadian ones are about animals being killed, as felt emotionally from inside the fur and feathers […]. (74-5; italics in original)

And this is followed by the remark: ‘Moby-Dick as told by the White Whale would be very different (“Why is that strange man chasing me around with a harpoon?”)’ (75).

            In Surfacing, the American attitude she identifies in Survival comes through particularly forcefully when the narrator describes her response to the dead heron:

Why had they strung it up like a lynch victim […]. To prove they could do it, they had the power to kill. Otherwise it was valueless: beautiful from a distance, but it couldn’t be tamed or cooked or trained to talk, the only relation they could have to a thing like that was to destroy it. Food, slave or corpse, limited choices; horned and fanged heads sawed off and mounted on the billiard room wall, stuffed fish, trophies. It must have been the Americans. (Atwood 1979 [1972]: 110-11) 

The heron represents ‘Nature, mystery, challenge, otherness’, the ‘magic symbolic qualities’, which, as Atwood sees it, have to be destroyed in American animal stories, and later in Surfacing, the narrator invests it with a particular spiritual meaning, when, she links it with Christ and the Christian doctrine of the vicarious atonement: ‘anything that suffers and dies instead of us is Christ […]. The animals die that we may live’ (134).

On one level, then, the representation of animals in Surfacing encourages reading the novel as national allegory, but such a reading is delimiting, both because the supposed Americans prove to be Canadians, but also, and more significantly, because the narrator’s equation of the American with the human moves this dichotomy onto a more fundamental ontological plane. Numerous details relate the specifics of her situation to concerns that interrogate the Enlightenment privileging of the Anthropocene. Thus the passage that opens the second of the novel’s three sections goes to the heart of the Cartesian separation of mind from body, and in so doing foregrounds and criticizes ways in which humans distinguish themselves from animals on the grounds that they have reasoning capacities:

The trouble is all in the knob at the top of our bodies. I’m not against the body or the head either: only the neck, which creates the illusion that they are separate. The language is wrong, it shouldn’t have different words for them. If the head extended directly into the shoulders like a worm’s or a frog’s without that constriction, that lie, they wouldn’t be able to look down at their bodies and move them around as if they were robots or puppets; they would have to realize that if the head is detached from the body both of them will die. (70)

And in this section of the novel, the narrator journeys back into the past – personal, national and prehistoric – and rediscovers a conception of self that existed before language created this duality. This journey is enacted on several levels. Initially it is signalled by a change in tense: hitherto she has been telling her story in the present; now the narrative moves into the past, and as she gradually uncovers buried aspects of her personal past, the novel engages in a similar process of excavation as it digs into the pre-Columbian past of Canada, a past which is particularly associated with animals and Native Canadian culture. One reading of her journey has seen it as a shamanistic rite (Pratt 1981) and certainly the narrator enters into a mindset which is remote from the norms of Western Anthropocene thinking.

            Pursuing her quest to locate her father, the narrator looks for clues in his papers and comes across some apparently insane drawings that he has made. They include a figure that seems to combine alligator-like animal features with human attributes, and this therianthropic amalgam leads her to conclude that her father has become totally deranged, with the figure he has drawn possibly representing ‘what he thought he was turning into’ (95). Her father has been the epitome of reason to her, even though she has discovered that the ‘eighteenth century [sic] rationalists’ (32), personifications of the Enlightenment Anthropocene, that he admired were afflicted with a plethora of mainly psychological problems. Consequently she is particularly shaken by what she views as his insane drawings. However, when she realizes that he has been pursuing an interest in Native rock-paintings, there is a sea change in her attitude. What appears mad as the product of a supposedly rational, modern mind takes on different connotations when it is associated with an animist Indigenous view of experience. So she goes in search of her father in places where his papers suggest the rock-paintings are located and gradually her identity as a woman from contemporary consumer society is stripped away, as she travels back into a world where the norms of the Anthropocene no longer obtain.      

She dives into the lake at a spot where her father has been looking for the Native paintings and surfaces having experienced the central epiphany of the novel. This is the discovery of her father’s drowned body, and after initially displacing this onto her brother, she conflates what she has seen with the central trauma in her past: the repressed knowledge of a child she has aborted:

I knew when it was, it was in a bottle curled up, staring out at me like a cat pickled; it had huge jelly eyes and fins instead of hands, fish gills, I couldn’t let it out, it was dead already, it had drowned in air. It was there when I woke up, suspended in the air above me like a chalice, an evil grail and I thought, Whatever it is, part of myself or a separate creature, I killed it. It wasn’t a child but it could have been one. I didn’t allow it. (137)[4]

So the shock of seeing her father dead brings her own aborted parenthood to mind and she likens the foetus to an animal that may or may not be part of herself. The feminist aspects of the text make it clear that patriarchal repression has been a major factor in her alienation and her father’s death releases her from one kind of male logic, even though he has been less rational than she has assumed. More significantly, she emerges as the victim of her married former lover, who has coerced her into an abortion she hasn’t really wanted, telling her the child ‘wasn’t a person, it was only an animal’ (138; my italics).

            She has come to regard herself as the murderer of this animal, and traumatic though the abortion has been for her, this takes on resonances that go far beyond her personal angst, since, along with wilderness space and Indigeneity, animals represent a prehistoric, extra-Anthropocene order of existence, which is being destroyed by contemporary ‘civilization’. There are several allusions to prehistoric species – mammoths (3), pterodactyls (57), and mastodons (138) among them – as well as numerous references to the contemporary fauna of the region. In the action that follows, as mentioned above, she discards the trappings of such ‘civilization’ and reverts to an animal-like state of being. Animals, in the narrator’s imagination, as she undergoes this return to Nature, have no need of language; they represent a pre-linguistic order, in which Anthropocene binaries such as the split between mind and body do not exist.

            After discovering her father’s drawings, she believes that her mother must have left her a similar legacy and she finds this in a scrapbook in the form of a picture she herself has drawn as a child. This depicts a pregnant woman, whose unborn baby, her pre-natal self, is ‘sitting up inside her gazing out,’ and opposite the woman is another therianthropic being: ‘a man with horns on his head like cow horns and a barbed tail’ (152). This is glossed as a representation of God, in which the Manichean binary that separates God and the Devil has been broken down, but it can equally well be seen as a transgression of the human-animal binary. Just prior to this, she says, ‘it wasn’t the men I hated, it was the Americans, the human beings, men and women both’ (148) and she resolves to raise the baby she believes she may now be carrying as an animal-like being, whom she ‘will never teach […] any words’ (156).

            During this phase of the action, she removes herself from the norms of human behaviour by identifying herself as an animal – discarding clothes, making herself a lair, defecating like an animal – and subsequently imagining herself going beyond this into a state of being in which she envisages herself being absorbed into a complete hylozoist oneness with Nature:

The animals have no need for speech, why talk when you are a word

I lean against a tree. I am a tree leaning […]

I am not an animal or a tree, I am the thing in which the trees and animals move and grow, I am a place. (175)

The thinking seems to anticipate James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis that the Earth is a self-sustaining holistic system ‘alive: not as the ancients saw her – a sentient Goddess with a purpose and foresight – but alive like a tree’ (Lovelock 1991: 12).

            Her visionary experience outside social norms promotes a view that undermines Anthropocene notions of normality predicated on reason: during this period she says at one point, ‘From any rational point of view I am absurd, but there are no longer any rational points of view’ (163). The novel concludes with her suspended between nature and culture, being called to return to society, but not having actually done so. So the ending leaves her in an interstitial situation. She knows that her extra-social experience has been an interlude, but she has learnt a counter-human wisdom from it, and as yet remains poised on the cusp between animal and human worlds. She has encountered therianthropic figures in both her father’s sketches of Native rock paintings and the scrapbook of her mother’s legacy, and just as she has thought that her father’s drawings may represent what he sees himself as turning into, she has entered into a non-human conception of self, when she has seen herself as first an animal, then a tree, and then simply a place.

The phase of the novel in which the narrator reverts to a non-human state may seem like a temporary episode, but the anti-Anthropocene mindset she assumes at this point is only an extension of her thinking throughout the novel and earlier it has manifested itself in her response to the requirements of the commission on which she is currently working as a commercial artist. She is illustrating a volume of Quebec Folk Tales and is struck by the extent to which the Disneyfied nature of its stories is at odds with the reality of the bush that she and her companions are experiencing. Bemoaning the fact that the animals are anthropomorphized (‘human inside and they take their fur skins off as easily as getting undressed’ (50) in a manner similar to the English animal stories she talks about in Survival and that there is no loup garou (werewolf) in the collection she has to illustrate, she sets about subverting the ethos of the tales by giving a princess she is depicting ‘fangs and a moustache [and] surrounding her with moons and fish and a wolf with bristling hackles and a snarl’ (51). Here, then, Gothic iconography replaces fairy tale sentimentality and this relates interestingly to what the novel as a whole is doing with the figure of the therianthrope. In Western incarnations such as the werewolf and the vampire, the therianthrope is separated off from the human by being demonized, but in the narrator’s childhood drawings that she finds in the scrapbook, they serve to dismantle human-animal binaries, in a manner that prefigures her assumption of a therianthropic identity when she removes herself from the norms of human society.  The ending of the novel moves beyond this, but irrespective of whether or not she is going to return to society, the trope of therianthropic identity, and beyond this the narrator’s coming to terms with her suppressed past by affiliating herself with a tree, a place, and by implication all the non-human organisms that make up life on earth, provide a powerful argument against human exclusivism. In short, this movement beyond the human into a hylozoist view of existence establishes Surfacing as a classic fictional attack on the Anthropocene avant la lettre.

[1] I discuss these two novels in Thieme 2023.  

[2] Cf. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, where Atwood identifies four basic victim positions ([1972] 2012: 31-35). The wording here in Surfacing seems to correlate with the fourth of these, the condition of being ‘a creative non-victim’ (Atwood [1972] 1979: 35).

[3] Earlier, in the title-poem of The Animals in That Country, Atwood had contrasted the animals ‘in that country’ who have ‘the faces of people,’ with the animals ‘[i]n this country’ who have ‘the faces of animals,’ die deaths that ‘are not elegant’ and then are said to ‘have the faces of no-one’ (Atwood 1968: 2-3). 

[4] This is anticipated by an earlier passage, in which, speaking of her own pre-natal experience, the narrator says, ‘I believe that an unborn baby has its eyes open and can look out through the walls of the mother’s stomach, like a frog in a jar’ ([1972] 1979: 26).




Atwood, Margaret (1968) The Animals in That Country, Toronto: Oxford University Press.

----------------------  ([1972] 1979) Surfacing London: Virago.

----------------------  ([1972] 2012) Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, Toronto: Anansi.

----------------------  ([2003] 2004) Oryx and Crake, London: Virago.

----------------------  ([2009] 2010) The Year of the Flood, London: Virago.

----------------------  ( [2013] 2014) MaddAddam, London: Virago.

Lovelock, James (1991) Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine, London and Stroud: Gaia Books.

Powers, Richard ([2018] 2019) The Overstory, London: Vintage.

Pratt, Annis (1981) ‘Surfacing and the Rebirth Journey’, in The Art of Margaret Atwood: Essays in Criticism, ed. Arnold and Cathy Davidson, Toronto: Anansi: 139-157

Thieme, John (2023) Anthropocene Realism: Fiction in the Age of Climate Change, London and New York.

Wu Ming-yi ([2011] 2013) The Man with the Compound Eyes, trans. Darryl Sterk, London: Vintage.

No comments :

Post a Comment

We welcome your comments related to the article and the topic being discussed. We expect the comments to be courteous, and respectful of the author and other commenters. Setu reserves the right to moderate, remove or reject comments that contain foul language, insult, hatred, personal information or indicate bad intention. The views expressed in comments reflect those of the commenter, not the official views of the Setu editorial board. प्रकाशित रचना से सम्बंधित शालीन सम्वाद का स्वागत है।