Margaret Atwood’s surfacing, a postcolonial novel, attempts to replace language, one of the most powerful means of the power of the Empire, in a ‘discourse fully adapted to the colonized place,’ through rejection and subversion, for an independent identity of an English speaking Canadian woman. It does so by what Ashcroft and Tiffin call ‘a refusal of the categories of the imperial culture, its aesthetic, its illusionary standards of normative or correct usage, and its assumption of as traditional and fixed meaning inscribed in the words,’ which makes it ‘bear the burden’ of one’s own cultural experience by inserting regional ‘english’ varieties (Ashcroft et al 37-38). The paper explores how surfacer, the protagonist, attempts to replace language, what are the strategies for such replacement, how it provides liberation from colonial and patriarchal forces and helps in asserting the voice of women.
Atwood’s use language in the novel subverts the colonial inheritance and colonial power. The novelist differentiates the usage of English from its standard form which evolved in Britain, because the original vocabulary of English fails to carry the cultural values, differences and experiences of a different place. It is for this reason, a new kind of ‘english’ is created by the novel to represent the tradition and inheritance of Canada, and to witness the particular sights and experiences of a woman in Canadian environment. Ashcroft believes that all utterances and texts are originated and disseminated in specific contexts and distinctive situations. Meaning is determined by the cultural location and period of time of the text. The place and moment of textual production limits and determines the multiple interpretations available to a text. In this way, the use of English in once-colonized location automatically forces the meaning to change, whereby the new form of ‘english’ is intentionally distanced from the received form and offers the differences in its very use. In this context Ashcroft notes:
But even in the most monoglossic settler cultures the sub-cultural distancing which generate the evolution of variant language shows that linguistic cultures encompassed by the term ‘English’ are vastly heterogeneous. Most importantly, post-colonial literatures provide . . . a writing which actually installs distance and absence in the interstices of the text (61).
The theories of colonial discourse reveal how language perpetuates power and constitute our world-view by constructing reality. Language is not a tool for passive reflection of reality; instead, it constitutes a person’s understanding of world. Ngugi wa Thiong’o notes:
Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world. How people perceive themselves affect how they look at their culture, at their politics and the social production of wealth, at their entire relationship to nature and to other human beings. Language is thus inseparable from ourselves as a community of human beings with specific form and character, a specific history, a specific relationship to the world (16).
The representation of cultural-specific gender issues in once-colonized countries like Canada is problematized by English. What relation do the aboriginal women have with English? Do general representations do a fair justice to women in the colonial situations? Emma LaRocque writes that aboriginal voices have been silenced in Canada due to the dominance of English and the native languages have dismissed along with cultural values and traditions that they represent. In addition, those who write in English are difficult to be heard and their representation of Canada is dismissed as “parochial”. LaRocque gives a very vivid description of the relationship between the “Native woman writer” and the English language in the preface to Jeanne Perrault et al’s edited book Writing the Circle: Native Woman of Western Canada. She writes:
To a native woman, English is like an ideological onion those stinging layers of racism and sexism must be peeled away before it can be fully enjoyed . . . native readers and writers do not look at English words the same way as non-Native may, for we have certain associations with a host of them. It is difficult to understand following terms as neutral: savage, primitive, pagan, medicine man, shaman, warrior, squaw, hostile, civilization, developed, progress, the national interest, bitter, angry, happy hunting grounds, brave, buck, redman, chief, tribe, or even Indian. These are just few of string of epithets that have been pejoratively used to specifically indicate the ranking of Indian people as inferior to Europeans, thus to perpetuate their de-humanization (xx).
The protagonist in Surfacing, who is an unnamed narrator, in the world of patriarchy, cultural imperialism, and geographical colonization along with colonial experiences, has feeling of displacement and disconnectedness from her language. Her fractured self made her realize that she could not regain and reclaim her identity though the imposed language that has certain standards and norms. Since, as Ashcroft writes, ‘the colonial process begins in language,’ the novel, from the very beginning, demonstrates the subversion of it. The first manifestation of this course of action emerge, in the very first page, in the delineation of ‘the last or first outpost depending on which way we were going’’ of which the main street is said to show off ‘a movie theatre, the itz, the oyal, the red R burnt out’ (1).
The problem of language, very explicitly explored in the novel, shows how the novel embodies different perspectives on the use of languages for Canadians. The protagonist says that language is false and unsuitable for her purpose; moreover, it is not her: ‘it was language again, I could not use it because it wasn’t mine’. She feels herself distanced from the structures and words of language because it is not outcome of her own experience, her own set of values and ideology; but from European and American male who crucially has had a different set of experience and assigned a different meanings and ideas in the world. The notion of language as a set of meaning is demonstrated in the novel through the cultural differences that words acquire and denote. This is underlined by the narrator examples: ‘the worst language in French is religious words, and in English it is connected with body’.
Since the protagonist knew that she has been controlled to express herself in the so called inherited language, she had to espouse the approach of rejection or subversion. There are certain instances in the novel which support the idea of rejection because ‘The master’s tool will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change’ (Ashcroft et al: 264). However, subversion is the more effective and practical method in the novel. The protagonist’s preference for subversion rather than rejection is depicted in pictures she drew as a child, using the binary polarity to represent the idea: ‘if the devil was allowed a tail and horns, God needed them also’ (Atwood150).
The use of metonymy and synecdoche play a crucial function in abrogation of the privileged centrality of English. The use of untranslated words, the sound and texture of the mother language can be held to have metonymic of culture adopted from. It is a more widely used device for conveying the sense of cultural uniqueness. One way to demonstrate an ‘appropriated english’ is to contrast it with another still tied to imperial centre. The novel is replete with a series of pictures and visual images specific to Canada. It is difficult to put a clear demarcation between the image of individual expression of the local populace and those which represent mass culture. There is a very explicit rejection, by the narrator, of the Niagara Falls cushion and Sunday school religious pictures and romantic comic books. But there is a similarly negative reaction to Bottle Villa “a preposterous monument” the painting on the rocks: “THE SALAD, BLUE MOON COTTAGES ½ MILE QUEBEC LIBRE, FUCK YOU, BUVEZ COCA COLAGLACE, GESUS SAVES” (15) and to the anthropomorphized moose: “the three stuffed moose on a plate form near the pumps: they are dressed in human clothes and weird standing up on their hind legs, a father moose with a French coat and a pipe in his mouth, a mother moose in a pink dress and flowered hat that had a little boy moose in short pants, a striped jersey and a baseball cap waving an American flag (14).
Atwood considers that language is not an adequate and appropriate mechanism for successful communication and expression. Any attempt to convey radical vision of human relationship is doomed to failure. Therefore, the protagonist balances between retreat (to the animal stage and death) and return. Sullivan is correct therefore when she observes that, at the end of the novel, when “the narrator is returned to the present . . . [and] regeneration seems possible . . . there is a terrifying starkness to this present”. Such starkness is appropriate for a moment in which a human being, stripped to all remnants of civilization (whether by insanity or divine revelation) returns to the world of meaning as captured by the ordering capacity of human mind, reflected in it (Rosenberg 1978 n.p.).
Surfacing abounds with full- and half-stops, semi-colons and commas. For instance, ‘The other half, the one locked away, was the only one that could live; I was the wrong half, detached, terminal. I was nothing but a head, or no, something minor like a severed thumb; numb’. Atwood gives extraordinary numbers of full-stops, the two kinds of stops – period and internal – coming at an interval of roughly every twelve words. Equally distinctive is the technique of arranging both subordinate clauses and non-finite clauses. In short Surfacing uses subordinate clause in a disproportionate right-balancing way. An important feature of the novel’s habitual structure of finite clause is predicator placement.
There is a good implementation of fragmentary images seemingly chosen at random: ‘the Ritz movie theatre with the R burnt out of its sign canned peas that are as watery and pallid as fisheyes, the waitress’s shiny orange rayon stockings’. Finally it should be noted that the sound of the narrator’s own syntax reinforces this sense of fragmentation and randomness. Throughout the novel, she presents her reality in disconnected phrases connected together with semi-colons and commas: ‘But this is still near the city limits; we didn’t go through, it’s swelled enough to have bypass, that’s a success’. Such broken up rhythm corresponds with and thereby emphasizes the discontinuous and non-linear way in which narrator tells her story. The narrator believes that the shortcomings of the language contribute to her predicament and vows never to teach language to her unborn child.
Throughout the novel, the surfacer’s deep seated distrust of language which she refers as something that she could not use. ‘Only human use language so discard. Only human use language so to discard your humanity you must discard your language’. Language, to the surfacer, often appears alien. When refusing to have sex with Anna’s partner David, for instance, she searches for ‘a vocabulary that would work’ in order to deter him. It is clear that use of language is not natural to her. It might be because of her Canadian background. When language appears a barrier to her understanding, it appears that she attempts to break down the barrier between the words and the objects, asserting that ‘the animal learned to eat without nouns’. This is the clearest indication that she now sees no distinction between words and objects. At one point the narrator says, ‘If you look like them and talk like them and think like them then you are them, I was saying, you speak their language, a language is everything you do’. (123)
Nancy Bjerring focused the use of language in Surfacing as early as 1976, and critically explored the silent nature of the narrator and her inability to communicate. For instance, the narrator calls Anna her ‘best friend’, but the fact is that they have known each other for only two months, and there is no indication of any close bond: “‘My friends’ pasts are vague to me and to each other also, any one of us could have amnesia for years and the others wouldn’t notice” (24). In a way, it shows that she is rather discomfited by the fact that the vanishing of her surviving parent unsettles her, even though she has not seen him for nine years. As she records for the reader, she had thought, ‘All I would have to do was come back when I was ready but I kept putting it off, there would be too many explanations’ (3), and now it is too late. These justifications are, nonetheless, meted out cautiously and neutrally; the reader learns of a marriage and a divorce, as well as an abandoned child – factors she feels her parents would not understand. She suggests that part of her is missing: ‘A divorce is like an amputation, you survive but there’s less of you’ (36). And, she later tells that she feels she is a woman cut into two pieces: ‘I was the wrong half, detached, terminal. I was nothing but a head, or no, something minor like a severed thumb; numb’ (102).
Linda Hutcheon says that in Surfacing ‘language is both the vehicle of exploration and the site of combat’; and it is only through language ‘a decent through space, time and water, then a hazardous return to the surface’ are represented. The focus on language is immediately evident from the construction of the novel in the three sections, distinguished primarily by tense. The Part I of the novel is written in present tense, the Part II in past tense and the Part III is once again returned in the present tense. In short, ‘Language, for Atwood, is like a habit, hard to break – but it can always be twisted and transgressed,’ and the novel subverts the notion of patriarchy and colonialism through language.
Ashcroft, Bill et al. The Empire writes Back: Theory and Practice in Postcolonial Literature. London & New York: Routledge, 1989.
Atwood, Margaret. Surfacing. Markham: Paperback, 1973 (16th reprint 1990).
Cluett, Robert. “Surface Structure: The Syntactic Profile of Surfacing” in Margaret Atwood: Language Text and System (ed.) Sherril E. Grace and Lorraine Weir. Vancouver: University of Columbia Press, 1993.
LaRocque, Emma. “Preface” to Jeanne Perrault et al’s (Ed.) Writing the Circle: Native Woman of Western Canada. Oklahoma:University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.
Rosenberg, Jerome H. “Woman as Everyman in Atwood’s Surfacing: Some Observations on the End of the Novel” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 3, Issue 1, 1978.
Thiong’o, Ngugi wa. Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House (Pvt.) Ltd, 1981.