Separation is a major theme of Surfacing. This is established in the first chapter, when the narrator is shown to be politically dispossessed as an English-speaker in Quebec, at a time in which Quebec was aspiring to become an independent French-speaking nation. The narrator also feels disconnected from the people around her, equating human interaction with that of animals. For example, while overhearing David and Anna make love, the narrator thinks "of an animal at the moment the trap closes".
The mouthpiece for feelings of nationalism is extremist David, who claims Canada would be better without the "fascist pig Yanks" and suggests they be driven from the country by attack beavers.
Feminism, a theme in many of Atwood's novels, is explored through the perspective of the female narrative, exposing the ways women are marginalized in their professional and private lives.