Guilt and Innocence in the Community and the Self: An Examination of Mutual Responsibility in Margaret Atwood's Surfacing

By Tolan, Fiona | British Journal of Canadian Studies, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Guilt and Innocence in the Community and the Self: An Examination of Mutual Responsibility in Margaret Atwood's Surfacing


Tolan, Fiona, British Journal of Canadian Studies


This article examines the theme of guilt and innocence in Margaret Atwood's 1972 novel, Surfacing, and pays particular attention to how these themes interact in the text with feminism, nationalism and environmentalism. I suggest that the ideas that Atwood is exploring in the novel - ideas about an individual's social responsibility and about a society's responsibility towards an individual - are questions that later become central to the multiculturalism debate in Canada. The article attempts to demonstrate that Atwood is considering some of the same concerns that are discussed in Charles Taylor's 1994 essay, 'The Politics of Difference', and that both authors are articulating important themes that continue to have relevance in Canada today. I argue that Atwood's use of the traditional quest motif initially seems to imply a liberal belief in autonomous authenticity, but that Atwood disrupts the normative quest pattern by concluding, like Taylor, that authenticity can only be achieved in dialogue with others. Finally, I conclude that both Taylor and Atwood are seeking an alternative 'third way' between traditional liberal and communitarian models of society.

In this article I will examine Margaret Atwood's much discussed 1972 novel, Surfacing, with the aim of highlighting a typical moment in Atwood's career when her fictional text can be seen to interact with issues that are later to grow in importance within Canada's political discourse. Although examples of political contemplation are frequent in Atwood's work, Surfacing has been chosen in this instance to illustrate the argument because, of all her novels, it deals most explicitly with political images of Canada. Also, as an early example of her work, it clearly demonstrates that the liberal feminist project with which Atwood is usually associated has never been a stable position within her work, but rather appears as one discourse among many, challenging and challenged by various competing beliefs. Specifically, I will examine how feminism, ecology and nationalism begin to converge under Atwood's pen; how she discovers in them a common theme of guilt and innocence, and how she uses the medium of the novel to examine the implications of identifying one's self as an innocent individual within a framework of collective guilt. I will argue that Atwood charges both feminists and Canadians with perpetuating their victim status, yet struggles to reconcile her instinctual liberalism with a simultaneous belief in communal guilt and mutual responsibility. To support the argument that this evaluation anticipates later political concerns, I will compare the issues running through Atwood's novel with the subsequent work of Canadian political theorist Charles Taylor, giving particular attention to his important 1994 essay, 'The Politics of Recognition'. The work of both Atwood and Taylor has proven hugely influential, and not just within their immediate spheres, but as part of a more general cultural discourse. I think that the coincidence of theme in these particular works will demonstrate that both writers, despite in this instance a distance of some years, are articulating important concerns about identity and the role of the individual in society: concerns that continue to command attention in Canada today.

Early North American readings of Surfacing were distinctly culture-specific. Atwood has said that the American reviewers interpreted the novel 'almost exclusively as a feminist or ecological treatise' whereas in Canada it was reviewed 'almost exclusively as a nationalistic one' (Ingersoll 1990: 117). Initially, both countries viewed nationalism, feminism and ecology as unrelated issues. With the progression of feminist theory came the development of a more comprehensive school of thought, and it was during this period, when Surfacing was being published, that Canadian nationalism and feminism first began to significantly interact around issues of autonomy and self-identity. …

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