Before there was The Handmaid’s Tale there was Surfacing, the original novel of a woman re-wilding herself.
I first read this book when I was 16 and it absolutely stunned me. I have been working with its imagery since then. It was so powerful and mysterious. Radical. It shook me to the core. A woman who tried to squeeze herself into acceptable roles of womanhood. A woman traumatized by what these attempts have made of her. A woman who has shut down, dissociated, acted as if, tried to fit in, played the appropriate parts but is left empty, feeling-less and robotic. A woman who pushes back and reclaims her life, returns to the wild—wild female, wild woman, raw animal power— in the most absolute, authentic and riveting way.
Upon rereading it, I wondered if I would feel less stunned and rattled. Nope. Still the same. And the writing. Boy, can Margaret Atwood write. It is life-changing prose, so rich you can eat it, as good as the fudge on a chocolate layer cake. But you don’t stop to eat, you keep reading because it is so compelling, hurrying through some of the most beautifully phrased language you have ever read because you need to know what is going to happen.
Throughout the novel, the layers of affectation and artificial personality settings acquired by the narrator through her own life experiences and coping mechanisms slowly unpeel through interactions with her peers, the land she has returned to and memories of her dead parents:
“I’m not sure when I began to suspect the truth, about myself and about them, what I was and what they were turning into. Part of it arrived swift as flags, as mushrooms, unfurling and sudden growth, but it was there in me, the evidence, only needing to be deciphered. From where I am now it seems as if I’ve always known, everything, time is compressed like the fist I close on my knee in the darkening bedroom, I hold inside it the clues and solutions and the power for what I must now do”(75).
The relationships between men and women are explored with such bare-eyed, almost embarrassing, truth. One wants to look away from the harshness of it. The truth of what we do to one another. To survive. To feel safe. To hold our ground, whatever small portion of it we have in the emotional landmines that have been set for us in our modern interpretation of what relationships mean. The scene where the main character’s lover proposes marriage is a threadbare exposure of human need up against the conventional wisdom of what we think we need and the status quo reality:
“No,” I said, the only answer to logic. It was because I didn’t want to, that’s why it would gratify him, it would be a sacrifice, of my reluctance, my distaste…Prove your love, they say. You really want to marry me, let me fuck you instead. You really want to fuck, let me marry you instead. As long as there’s a victory, some flag I can wave, parade I can have in my head”(87).
It’s cold and it’s hard but it’s true. It’s often how we relate, calculating our power options, our power grabs, our disempowerment guiding us to bad decisions made with no choice.
“In the morning, we talked, uselessly but in calm, rational voices as though discussing the phone bill; which meant it was final. We were still in bed, his feet stuck out at the bottom. I could hardly wait till I was old so I wouldn’t have to do this anymore”(110).
The narrator also examines herself through observations of the mirroring couple that is there on this land with them, whose relationship also unpeels in layers before her. Anna, the woman, slowly revealing her achingly sad captivity by marriage and the culture at large:
“Is my nose peeling?” She says, rubbing it. From her handbag she takes a round gilt compact with violets on the cover. She opens it, unclosing her other self, and runs her fingertip around the corners of her mouth, left one, right one; then she unswivels a pink stick and dots her cheeks and blends them, changing her shape, performing the only magic left to her.
Rump on a packsack, harem cushion, pink on the cheeks and black discreetly around the eyes, as red as blood as black as ebony, a seamed and folded imitation of a magazine picture that is itself an imitation of a woman who is also an imitation, the original nowhere, hairless lobed angel in the same heaven where God is a circle, captive princess in someone’s head. She is locked in, she isn’t allowed to eat or shit or cry or give birth, nothing goes in, nothing comes out. She takes her clothes off or puts them on, paperdoll wardrobe, she copulates under strobe lights with the man’s torso while his brain watches from its glassed-in control cubicle at the other end of the room, her face twists into poses of exultation and total abandonment, that is all. She is not bored, she has no other interests”(169).
This above depiction of womanhood is vastly different than the version the narrator (never given a name) returns to at the end of the book: this who she is slowly remembering throughout the tale. Raw, authentic female does not sound like the above paragraph. It sounds like this:
“I lie down on the bottom of the canoe and wait. The still water gathers the heat: birds, off in the forest a woodpecker, somewhere a thrush. Through the trees the sun glances; the swamp around me smolders, energy of decay turning to growth, green fire. I remember the heron; by now it will be insects, frogs, fish, other herons. My body also changes, the creature in me, plant-animal, sends out filaments in me; I ferry it secure between death and life, I multiply”(172).
It’s a glorious and beautiful feminist tome. To believe the main character goes mad at the end reveals that one missed the point. She actually goes sane, the other life was madness. No. just No. At the end of the novel, she can finally feel again. Think again. Choose her life again.
A spiritual experience of oneness and expansion in, with and through the natural world offers her transformation and integration. Why is this called madness in a woman and spiritual transcendence in a man? She is surfacing. She is coming back to life in the above, out of the shadows of the underworld. She is Persephone rising.
“The forest leaps upward, enormous, the way it was before they cut it, columns of sunlight frozen; the boulders float, melt, everything is made of water, even the rocks. In one of the languages there are no nouns, only verbs held for a longer moment.
The animals have no need for speech, why talk when you are a word.
I lean against a tree, I am a tree leaning”(187).
This book is also an ecological treatise and homage to the planet. For 1972, it is early in this category of environmental fiction, eco-feminist literature. Things that only now are reaching conventional wisdom: how ecosystems operate in oneness, domestication vs wildness, plant intelligence and lost indigenous wisdom, are all here. This was a groundbreaking novel.
Six novels later by the same author, we get The Handmaid’s Tale. Same theme, different setting.
I was shocked to see that the book I purchased had been previously shelved in the teen section of a library. This book is so complex in what it brings to these subjects in such a rich and nuanced way, I would not consider it teen fiction. We should all be reading this in book groups. It’s a study in radical feminism, modernity, women’s realities, women’s lives, women’s truth, ecological reality and the worldview that is destroying it. It tells the truth and it tells it hard.
For sure, Margaret Atwood is a #NastyWomanWriter
©Theresa C. Dintino 2019