The Narrator’s Abortion Started the Process of her Mental Transformation (Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing)

Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing is a novel about a woman who seeks redemption because of having her baby aborted. Her name is never revealed what denotes a serious problem in her identity. She has lost all the human characteristics such as the ability to feel (Atwood 22), love (Atwood 36), dream (Atwood 37) or weep (Atwood 166). She has to go through both physical but mainly mental transformation to realize and find her real self; she has to move from denial to self-knowledge.

In this essay I am going to focus on the most important details connected to the abortion which changes her life, and prove that the abortion started the process of her mental transformation.

First and most importantly, there is the word abortion which accompanies the reader throughout the whole book. The narrator’s lover describes the abortion as something ‘legal, simple’: “He said I should do it, he made me do it; he talked about it as though it was legal, simple, like getting a wart removed” (Atwood 79) to persuade her that there is nothing wrong with it.

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The narrator, hurt by the abortion, seeks comfort in persuading herself that she did not experience the abortion but the divorce, she simply substitutes the word abortion by the word divorce. It might be because ‘to divorce somebody’ means “to separate a person, an idea, a subject, etc. from sth; to keep two things separate” (Oxford Dictionary 444). The same meaning has the verb ‘to abort something’; because when a foetus is aborted it is also separate – from its mother.

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She needed a rational connection between these two words to be able to replace them. Later on the narrator even confesses that: “He [the lover] didn’t want our relationship to influence anything; it was to be kept separate from life” (Atwood 174).

The second part of the sentence might not speak about their relationship anymore, but about the abortion while using the word ‘separate’. It was the child who was to be kept separate from life, not just their relationship. That means that both words – abortion and divorce – mean to ‘disjoin something’ – the foetus from the mother’s body or two lovers, and that is the way how she deceives herself. Another hint in the text is that she speaks about the abortion and the divorce in the same way: “A divorce is like an amputation, you survive but there’s less of you” (Atwood 49).

The way she remembers the abortion is: “I was emptied, amputated” (Atwood 169). That is the point where a denial comes – in psychology it is “a refusal to accept that something unpleasant or painful is true” (Oxford Dictionary 405). The narrator skews what happened to protect herself from grief. It is certainly easier for her to think that she is divorced, because divorce does not mean killing an innocent creature. Killing is regarded as something sinful. Even if it is easier for her to live through what happened when she substitutes it with a divorce, her parents still despise her even if she is ‘only divorced’.

“They never forgave me, they didn’t understand the divorce […] What upset them was the way I did it, so suddenly, and then running off and leaving my husband and child […] Leaving my child, that was the unpardonable sin; it was no use trying to explain that it wasn’t really mine” (Atwood 33-34). The narrator herself describes two techniques how to cope with the pain. “I bite down hard into the cone and I can’t feel anything for a minute but the knife-hard pain up the side of my face. Anaesthesia, that’s one technique: if it hurts invent a different pain” (Atwood 13). Firstly, the word anaesthesia comes from Latin, Greek and it means ‘without sensation’.

That is an important point; because when one has an abortion she is under the anaesthetic – to not feel anything. The truth is even when one does not feel anything it ‘invents a different pain’ – there is not physical pain, but the emotional pain is unbearable. That is the point in her life where she stopped to feel (Atwood 22) or weep (Atwood 166). Neither is she able to love (Atwood 36), because there is no one to – her unborn baby is dead and her lover, who claims that he loves her, disappointed her by forcing to the abortion; and dream (Atwood 37), because there is nothing to dream about anymore.

The second technique is projection and transference: “I couldn’t accept it, that mutilation, ruin I’d made, I needed a different version” (Atwood 169). The reader now realizes that the marriage, divorce and custody are just a fabrication to protect her from pain and recrimination. In the novel there are many symbols which in the narrator’s mind raise the feelings of the abortion.

The strung heron is one of them. “It was hanging upside down by a thin blue nylon rope tied round its feet and looped over a tree branch, its wings fallen open. It looked at me with its mashed eye” (Atwood 137). Supposing that the heron represents a foetus, one might see the connections. A baby before parturition is upside down and it has rope too – an umbilical cord.

The projection in this case is that a foetus might be suffocated by the umbilical cord – it might be killed in a mother’s body where it should be protected. “It was hiding in me as if in a burrow and instead of grating it sanctuary I let them catch it” (Atwood 170). She was supposed to protect both of them – her baby and the heron, because it was ‘her land’ where the Americans come. “I felt a sickening complicity, sticky as glue, blood on my hands, as though I had been there and watched without saying No or doing anything to stop it” (Atwood 150).

The Americans here constitute the doctors, because both of them killed an innocent creature. What is more, not only the doctors harmed the baby, but also the narrator experienced pain: “She experiences herself as the wilderness innocent and virgin, violated by nameless and destructive men” (Christ 320). She can do nothing but just witness her victimization. Later on the narrator regrets that she did not bury the heron: “In my head when I closed my eyes, the shape of the heron dangled, upside down.

I should have buried it” (Atwood 112). She also regrets not having buried her baby: “They scraped it into a bucket and threw it wherever they throw them; it was travelling through the sewers by the time I woke, back to the sea” (168). When a dead body is buried it is generally easier to come to terms with the fact that something has died. Not burying her baby raises her insecurity. There is no place where she can go such as cemetery and grief for the baby, because the foetus is somewhere in ‘the sea’. It is no surprise that the narrator mixes up the foetus with an animal because “He [her lover] said it wasn’t a person, only an animal” (Atwood 170).

That is the point where she realizes that people are too animals and that both of them need protection. Another point is that the heron ‘looked at her’, the same situation happened when finding her father under the water: “It was below me, drifting towards me from the furthest level where was no life, a dark oval trailing limbs. It was blurred but it had eyes, they were open, it was something, I knew about, a dead thing, it was dead” (Atwood 136). And so as having her abortion: “It was in a bottle curled up, staring out at me like a cat pickled, it had huge jelly eyes […] it had drowned in air” (Atwood 137).

Then most importantly when her brother was drowning: “My brother was under the water, face upturned, eyes open and unconscious, sinking gently, air was coming out of his mouth. It was before I was born but I can remember it as clearly as if I saw it, and perhaps I did see it: I believe that an unborn baby has its eyes
open and can look through the walls of mother’s stomach like a frog in a jar” (Atwood 26). These quotations guide to the discovery that not only she thinks of her baby wherever she is, but also she thinks that the foetus was able to see what she did to it.

She is chased by her unborn baby but “the truth does not flash upon her in one instant. She recognizes only gradually, working her way down through a series of memories in which the truth is half veiled and half visible, until she finally arrives at a recollection of the abortion” (Niederhoff 65). At the end the narrator is redeemed by facing the truth and accepting the pain and the guilt. “It wasn’t a child but it could have been one, I didn’t allow it” (Atwood 168). “She no longer believes killing can be justified as ‘sport’. She rejects her brother’s distinction between ‘good’ leeches which deserve to live and ‘bad’ leeches which deserve to die.

And she rejects her lover’s distinction between ‘good’ (legitimate) foetuses which grow up to have a birthday parties, and ‘bad’ (illegitimate) foetuses which must be killed” (Christ 322). Now she is able to act upon her own feelings about what is good or what is bad. She no longer wants to vindicate her deeds by silly reasons. What is more, to reach the redemption she needs to give another life or maybe resurrect the dead one. When confessing that her brother did not drowned in the end (Atwood 68) she shows what she would like to do with the foetus, so the conceiving a new baby with Joe was expected. “He trembles and then I can feel my lost child surfacing within me, forgiving me, rising from the lake where it had been prisoned for so long” (Atwood 155-156).

Now she is so mature that she understands what she carries in her abdomen. “I ferry it secure between death and life” (Atwood 162). Only after the narrator acknowledged the death of the foetus and her responsibility for it, is she able to resurrect it. She also finds her human characteristics: “feeling was beginning to seep back into me, I tingled like a foot that’s been asleep” (Atwood 140). She also weeps (Atwood 166), dreams (Atwood 182) and love (Atwood 186). In conclusion, Atwood’s Surfacing is a psychological novel which shows the reader how people might change when something dreadful happens to them. It shows the transformation of the narrator, who in the end admits to herself what really happened and become sufficiently strong to redress it in another way.

She also becomes resolute in her deeds and seizes control of her life; she now knows what is needed and how to do it. She becomes a real person with health mind and determination to do everything to safeguard her foetus conceived with Joe. Without the abortion of her first foetus she would not be able to change in such a great way. She needed to live through the woeful dead of animals in her home village, to realize that people have no rights to kill anything just for their fun and most importantly to let all of these thoughts to change her thinking and her personality. All of these would not happen if she had not had the abortion, what means that the abortion is a starter of her mental transformation.

Works cited
Atwood, Margaret. Surfacing. General Paperbacks, 1989. Print. Christ, Carol P. “Margaret Atwood: The Surfacing of Women’s Spiritual Quest and Vision.” Signs. Chicago UP, 1976. 316-330. JSTOR. Web. 31 March 2012. Hinz , Evelyn J., Teunissen John J. “Surfacing: Margaret Atwood’s Nymph Complaining”. Contemporary Literature. Wisconsin UP, 1979. 221-236. JSTOR. Web. 31 March 2012. Niederhoff, Burkhard. “The Return of the Dead in Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Alias Grace.” Connotations: a Journal for critical Debate. 2006/2007. 60-91. Web. 31 March 2012. Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English. Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

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The Narrator’s Abortion Started the Process of her Mental Transformation (Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing). (2016, May 18). Retrieved from

The Narrator’s Abortion Started the Process of her Mental Transformation (Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing)

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