– A Reason To Kill Essay, Research Paper
A Reason To Kill
Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing is an intensely symbolic novel about an artist whose weekend trip home to search for her missing father turns into a journey of self discovery. The main character in the story is also the narrator and is not given a name probably because readers will be able to identify with her as the story’s heroine. Early in the story, she talks about being married, divorced, and having a child. Later it is made known that she was never married, but has had an affair with her art professor. As a result of the affair, she gets pregnant and has to have an abortion. Her method of dealing with the pain of having an abortion is to create a false memory to cover it up. Her false memory becomes so real that she actually forgets until later in the novel that she really did have an abortion. Having the abortion was a horrifying experience for her because she had killed another creature without having a reason for doing so. The abortion symbolizes the killing of her own humanity which causes her to feel alienated from everyone around her. This feeling of alienation is like being confined in a jar.
In the novel, there are several references to jars, bottles and tin cans. These items represent methods of containing or imprisoning life : “I put the worms in a can and some dirt for them.” They also represent the narrator’s own emotional life which has been put into jars preventing her from being able to feel. The narrator knows that she has feelings, but the trauma of having an abortion has caused her to become extremely desensitized.
It can be deduced that the narrator has always felt trapped in places she did not want to be. On page 58, she says that Anna could be her at sixteen, “sulking on the dock, resentful at being away from the city and the boy friend I’d proved my normality by obtaining … ” She has never felt normal. She even has a career that she did not intend to have and this makes her uncomfortable : ” … it feels strapped to me, like an aqualung or an extra, artificial limb.
For her entire life, The narrator has been unable to know her true self because she has not been taught to feel. Instead she has been taught how to respond appropriately to different situations. Her body becomes a symbol for the unconscious repressing her emotions so that she has to make a conscious effort to decide hoe she feels about things. She talks on page 54 about how she memorized survival guides at an age when girls in the city were reading True Romance magazines. She thinks that the magazines would have given her better guidance for social behavior than all the stuff she had learned from the maps and survival guides. Knowing how to dig a hole in a snowstorm and picking the right mushrooms to eat had been no good to her living in the city.
In the first chapter, the narrator talks about the time Anna read her palm : “‘You had a good childhood but then there’s this funny break.’” As a child the heroine idolized her parents. Her parents were atheist, so she was never taught to believe in God. She refers to Him as the alien god, and her parents become her gods since they are all she has to believe in : “If you tell your children God doesn’t exist they will be forced to believe you are the god, but what happens when they find out you are human after all, you have to grow old and die?” The funny break Anna saw in her palm represents her separation from her parents after the abortion. She was very ashamed of what she had done and did not feel like she could talk to her parents about it because they would not understand something so evil. “They were from another age … when everyone got married and had a family … ” She also stayed away from her parents in an attempt to keep them young : “‘They have no right to get old.’” She says she was sure her parents would remain unchanged : ” … I could leave and return much later and everything would be the same.” She wants to keep her gods young because they would lose their power if she had to watch them grow old.
Going home is a frightening experience for her, and the only reason she makes the trip is because of her father’s accident. If she finds him alive she intends to leave without ever letting him know she was there. She knows in her heart that her father is dead, but she keeps trying to convince herself otherwise. She tells Paul the reason she can not sell the cabin is that her father is still alive and away on a trip : “‘For all I could tell he might have been listening to us at that moment … ‘”
The main characters in the novel are Canadian, and they all appear to harbor a great deal of resentment towards Americans. To the heroine, “Americans” becomes a metaphor for the heroic ego and people who live in a culture which has separated them from their own humanity. On pages 152 – 154, she compares Americans to Hitler because in her mind Americans are trying to take complete control of the continent and to turn everyone into a single type of creature : “Are the Americans worse than Hitler. It was like cutting up the pieces of a tapeworm, the pieces grew.” Being American means being replicated for a prototype of the ideal creature and forced to live in a society separated from life’ s most fundamental qualities. If people are living in a culture which separates them from the most fundamental things in life, they have no freedom; so the narrator dislikes Americans because she believes that all living creatures should be free : “I emptied those bottles into the swamp. The other things, the ones still alive, I let out.”
The characters come across a dead heron tied with a blue nylon rope and hanging from a tree branch. This heron symbolizes the natural world. The narrator does not understand why they killed the heron since you can not eat them. It bothers her to see the bird strung up like a lynch victim. She thinks the Americans did it to prove “they had the power to kill.” Killing the heron was their way of possessing it. The heroic ego establishes control over the natural world by killing.
The narrator goes diving one night by a rock face to look for Indian paintings. While diving, she has a vision of a fetus : “It was blurred but it had eyes, they were open, it was something I knew about, a dead thing … ” She is a different person from this point on because her memory is restored and her healing process finally begins. She makes a descent into the mythological underworld by going through some physical changes which symbolize a return to her emotional life.
Joe tries to have sex with the heroine when she is through diving, but she pushes him away because he is human, one of the killers, and she does not want him in her. After her father’s body is found, she suddenly decides to get pregnant by Joe : “But nothing has died, everything is alive, everything is waiting to become alive.” She takes him out into the woods and has sex with him very hurriedly. Like an animal, she is not interested in pleasure. Her only focus is on getting pregnant : “I guide him into me, it’s the right season, I hurry.”
She is not certain that she is actually pregnant, and it does not matter. What matters is that her pregnancy symbolizes the recovery of the loss she incurred during the abortion : “I can feel my lost child surfacing within me, forgiving me … ” Like the Americans who killed the heron, her lover had tried to possess her by killing something that was a part of her. He did not just kill a baby, he also destroyed her humanity. Now she is pregnant with her own capacity to be human, and this child must be allowed.
The narrator’s heroic descent makes it possible for her to move beyond the bounds of human existence and return to what is most basic because she becomes an animal. She can not be a part of any type of social order. She breaks, smashes, or X-es out everything in the cabin. She stops eating canned foods and eventually stops eating at all. The garden and the cabin become places she is forbidden to go because they are things that contain and define life according to a social order.
During her journey, the narrator has visions of her parents, and later, as she is preparing to reenter the world, she talks about not being able to feel their presence : “No gods to help me now, they’re questionable once more, theoretical as Jesus.” At this point, she acknowledges for the first time that her mother and father are really dead. She has always perceived them as being super-human, but her prayers to them to help her are not working : ” … they dwindle, grow, become what they were, human. Something I never gave them credit for … ” Once she accepts the fact that her parents are human and have died, they are no longer her source of power. She can now look inside herself to find the power she needs to survive.
It is somewhat amusing that her journey ends just before the weather turns cold. She says, ” … I can’t stay here forever, there isn’t enough food. The garden won’t last and … I have no money.” She goes on to discuss “their definition of sanity,” and decides, partially out of fear of being institutionalized, to reenter society : ” … the hospital or the zoo, where we are put … when we can no longer cope.” She is looking at herself in the mirror with a dirty face and hair matted with twigs and leaves, and she laughs about seeing a natural woman like herself as “a new kind of centerfold.” She has to get herself back together before she is found and locked away in a mental hospital.
At the end of the novel, it is not important to know if she goes back with Joe. What is important is knowing that the “child” with which she is pregnant symbolizes the potential to become human. She has regained her own humanity and finally feels in control of her life. She has accepted the deaths of her parents. She has forgiven herself for having the abortion. She has surfaced as a true human. If she does go back with Joe, he will become her link to society, and their relationship will assist her in continuing to develop as a human being.