After establishing herself as one of the leading 20th century poets in Canada, the publication of Surfacing in 1972 instantly confirmed Margaret Atwood’s status as one the country’s most important novelists. Atwood’s unnamed heroine literally goes into the woods on a search for her missing father who may be mad and mad still be alive. The woods represent an entry into her own psychic past as issues of environmentalism, American imperialism and sexism are manifested in both literal and figurative imagery.
Surfacing also connected strongly with the burgeoning feminist movement, but the novel really elevated Atwood to the level of caretaker of postcolonial concerns. The novel’s direct concern is with thematic elements related to the identity of Quebec within the framework of outside influences of non-French Canada around it and America to the south. Gender conventions and expectations are realized though narrative progression and symbolic interjection, but the alienation experienced by the narrator expands well beyond the constrictions of mere sexual identity.
The distinct anti-American sentiment expressed by characters throughout the novel served to create one of the most ironic casting decisions in film adaptation history when two American actors were chosen to play the two main characters in the 1981 film version of Surfacing. Further irony resulted from giving top billing to the male actor despite the character played by the second-billed American clearly being the protagonist of the story.