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Identity formation, identity crisis in Margaret Atwood’s “Surfacing”

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There are several ways an identity is formed; having self-knowledge which has been created through one’s personal history, experience of childhood and one’s membership to a certain society thus defines the person’s concept of himself according to the set of norms of the given culture. These characteristics are essential to develop a stable personal identity and when these are complex or problematic the individual has to face struggle in the process of identity construction, so to speak, the person needs to find his place in society, resolve the problems of existing personality discrepancies, feelings of displacement and alienation from his culture.

The unnamed narrator in Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing embarks on a journey of self-discovery during which she has to come to terms with her confusion of choices, uncertainties of her past, personal life incongruity and her defected interpersonal relationships with the people surrounding her. Erik Erikson formed his theory about “identity crisis” which provides explanations for the conflicts that a person has to struggle with. Although, Erikson based his theory on adolescents, he also states that every human being has to face temporary instability during different stages of life which needs constant redefinition of the self. “Today when the term identity refers, more often than not, to something noisily demonstrative, to a more or less desperate ‘quest,’ or to an almost deliberately confused ‘search…'” The nameless narrator in Margaret Atwood’s novel is on the pathway of unresolved crisis, she stands at the crossroads between different values, her insecurity of her self-certainty limits her presenting her self-image to others. The novel reflects her journey of finding a resolution for her identity crisis, her struggle to conquer one of the most difficult issues in life: finding her soul buried deep within her. What are the elements that caused her crisis? How does the social environment and her past affected her?

From the outset the reader is presented with a nameless protagonist who is Atwood’s literary instrument to demonstrate the universality of the collective experience of English speaking Canadians. How does the cultural background of Canada cast a shadow on the social identity of the narrator? “Canada features a multicultural society par excellence; comprises a society that has committed itself to multiculturalism as an official political programme…Canada is a nation of immigrants.” The Trudeau government made an effort to create multicultural Canada with the Multicultural Act in 1971, which indicated that there was no dominant culture in Canada. This means that they live side by side, near to one another, influencing and continuously contacting each other while cultures develop similarities, differences and exchanges. In each of the multicultural states, there are the different heritage identities that exist equally beside the determining and common culture characterizing the adopted country. However, there is no dominant culture as such, there is no agreed way of life.

In Surfacing the narrator is faced with the consequences and downsides of this issue such as a developed alienation from the culture in which she has grown up. The native English protagonist is traveling back to her home, in Quebec, French Canada and she is presented with the dualities that determine her heritage, and she clearly states her disconnection to it: “Now we’re on my home ground, foreign territory. My throat constricts, as it learned to do when I discovered people could say words that would go into my ears meaning nothing.” The protagonist’s awareness of the existing duality in her identity developed when she was adolescent: being torn between two different cultures with two different languages has created a conflict for her.

She can not understand her own former neighbors, thus even basic communication is limited with Madame: “French I can’t interpret because I learned all but few early words of mine in school” (pg 21). Language is said to be one of the most fundamental issues in identity formation, as through language can we express our world and our place in it – unsurprisingly, the protagonist does not feel connected to her home terrain: ” Now I’m in the village, walking through it, waiting for the nostalgia to hit, for the cluster of nondescript buildings to be irradiated with inner light like a plug-in crèche, as it has been so often in memory; but nothing happens” (pg 19).

Narrowing down the wider scope of Canadian culture to her closer environment, there are additional complexities that occurred in the narrator’s past. Schooling and her family background are the factors of socializing in a culture that have an effect on one’s identity formation. According to Maria Raguz, “Social learning takes place through discovery and receptive learning, not only in the context of formal education, but in everyday experiences.” She was kept away from school by her father, she begged to be allowed to go to Sunday School like other children, she could only attend the school when her father decided she was old enough. As a matter of fact, she had to change schools quiet often, she was an outcast of the school and a victim of other children’s mocking jokes and tortures: “…I was the one who didn’t know the local customs, like a person from another culture: on me they could try out the tricks and minor tortures they’d already used up on each other” (pg 99-100).

As it is true for every human being, it would have been fundamental for the narrator to learn the skills, behavior patterns, attitudes, values and how to function within a certain community – one of the key institutions for this process is school and family. The outcome of not being able to fit into her society’s cultural gatherings surfaced early in her childhood experiences. From her brother’s stories, she imagined going to school was a sort of birthday party, however, when she had the chance to attend a real birthday party she despised them and hide herself behind open doors: “I had to learn to be polite; ‘civilized,’ she [mother] called it” (pg 99). She simply declares herself as being “socially retarded,” a person who is cut off from the social community.

In addition to schooling, the narrator’s family life and her upbringing played an important role in her inability to socialize, which affected her in building a secure identity. It is no wonder the protagonist is dealing with difficulties in her relationships, her parents failed to foster a stable bond with their daughter. Her mother is portrayed as an unemotional person, a symbol of detachment, a blanked out figure: ” She may not have known who I was: she didn’t ask me why I left or where I’d been, though she might not have asked anyway, feeling as she always had that personal questions were rude” (Pg 25). The protagonist’s mother kept a diary, but it was a purely factual text, a report on the weather and the household activities.

On the other hand, her father represents a lonely figure of logic and rationality to whom isolation was desirable. He was against of ideologies; he brought up his family next to a remote lake, where he could create his own private island, a “freedom from interference” (pg 80). The narrator remarks that the father would never understand her marriage and divorce, perhaps for him these were ideologies he could not interfere with. Neither parent shows any emotional attachment or feelings, which undoubtedly leaves deep marks on the narrator relating to the death of her mother or the disappearance of her father. While browsing through the family pictures the narrator shows no more emotions than watching a colorful magazine; her confusion ends up with a feeling of alienation: ” I was in most of the pictures, shut in behind the paper: or not me but the missing part of me” (pg 154-155).

Parents are said to establish the foundations for identity formation in order to develop the child’s self-esteem, autonomy and success in building up relationships. The narrator lacks an ability of interacting emotional relationships, moreover, she is incapable of expressing feelings, she is impassionate and unsuccessful in all her relationships towards her friends, ex-husband, her abandoned baby or her so-called love, Joe. “I rehearsed emotions, naming them: joy, peace, guilt, release, love and hate, react, relate; what to feel was like what to wear, you watched the others and memorized it” (pg 160). She managed to establish her own smallest unit in society: her own family, which failed, sadly ending in a divorce and an abandoned baby.

She claims her relationship with her ex-husband to be unique, she worshipped him, though it was a one-sided affection: he criticized her drawings and he convinced her the dream of being a real artist is misguided: ” he said I should study something I’d be able to use because there have never been any important woman artists” (pg 70). He clearly imposed his wills on her not leaving any space for her own personality and opinion to develop. The proof for this is their baby to whom she feels absolutely unattached, the narrator continuously calls their baby “it.” She describes the delivery of the baby that the husband “imposed upon her” as a horrifying mechanical act in a sterile hospital. Apart from these terrible memories of the husband, she describes their relationship plainly, impassively – same way as she portrayed her own parents.

The narrator’s identity and the process of her identity formation has been distracted, so she needs to find or redefine her way to the path of
self-discovery. She is in search for her missing father throughout the novel, but in fact what she is really looking for is solutions for her inner conflicts. As the novel progresses she learns a lot from this journey and her friends Anna and David are essential for her to start off towards her true being: “They are necessary: David’s and Anna’s car was the only way I could make it, there’s no bus and no train and I never hitch. They’re doing me a favour” (pg 17). They serve together with Joe, as complementary characters for the narrator’s journey to her buried soul. David, Anna and Joe are the closest persons from her present time and they act as catalysts for regaining her identity. They are standing at the end of the road of the narrator’s journey until the point when the protagonist escapes and chooses to unmask her own identity by herself. “It is true, I am by myself; this is what I wanted, to stay here alone” (pg 249).

Her identity crisis emerged from different values and dualities that exist in Canadian society, a country which is shared by more than one nationality; however, their native tongue is not. The narrator’s adolescence shattered by problems of communication and the isolation that her family chooses for her. The lack of fundamental elements of socialization empowered the feeling of alienation and disconnectedness in her and left her desensitized in adult life, unable to deal with emotions and relationships. At the end of the novel the narrator is able to re-socialize, the process of finding her identity is completed; she can deal with her past, feelings, relationships and fit into the environment and the Canadian society.


Atwood, Margaret. Surfacing. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, 1992

Erikson, Erik. Identity, Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton, 1968

Kymlicka, Will. Finding Our Way: Rethinking Ethnocultural Relations in Canada.

Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998

Raguz, Maria. Masculinity and Femininity: An Empirical Definition. Nijmegen: Drukkerij Quickprint BV, 1991

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