Identity formation, identity crisis in Margaret Atwood's "Surfacing"

Topics: Multiculturalism, Erik Erikson, Emotion Pages: 6 (1890 words) Published: November 28, 2006
There are several ways an identity is formed; having self-knowledge which has been created through one's personal history, experience of childhood and one's membership to a certain society thus defines the person's concept of himself according to the set of norms of the given culture. These characteristics are essential to develop a stable personal identity and when these are complex or problematic the individual has to face struggle in the process of identity construction, so to speak, the person needs to find his place in society, resolve the problems of existing personality discrepancies, feelings of displacement and alienation from his culture.

The unnamed narrator in Margaret Atwood's Surfacing embarks on a journey of self-discovery during which she has to come to terms with her confusion of choices, uncertainties of her past, personal life incongruity and her defected interpersonal relationships with the people surrounding her. Erik Erikson formed his theory about "identity crisis" which provides explanations for the conflicts that a person has to struggle with. Although, Erikson based his theory on adolescents, he also states that every human being has to face temporary instability during different stages of life which needs constant redefinition of the self. "Today when the term identity refers, more often than not, to something noisily demonstrative, to a more or less desperate 'quest,' or to an almost deliberately confused 'search...'" The nameless narrator in Margaret Atwood's novel is on the pathway of unresolved crisis, she stands at the crossroads between different values, her insecurity of her self-certainty limits her presenting her self-image to others. The novel reflects her journey of finding a resolution for her identity crisis, her struggle to conquer one of the most difficult issues in life: finding her soul buried deep within her. What are the elements that caused her crisis? How does the social environment and her past affected her?

From the outset the reader is presented with a nameless protagonist who is Atwood's literary instrument to demonstrate the universality of the collective experience of English speaking Canadians. How does the cultural background of Canada cast a shadow on the social identity of the narrator? "Canada features a multicultural society par excellence; comprises a society that has committed itself to multiculturalism as an official political programme...Canada is a nation of immigrants." The Trudeau government made an effort to create multicultural Canada with the Multicultural Act in 1971, which indicated that there was no dominant culture in Canada. This means that they live side by side, near to one another, influencing and continuously contacting each other while cultures develop similarities, differences and exchanges. In each of the multicultural states, there are the different heritage identities that exist equally beside the determining and common culture characterizing the adopted country. However, there is no dominant culture as such, there is no agreed way of life.

In Surfacing the narrator is faced with the consequences and downsides of this issue such as a developed alienation from the culture in which she has grown up. The native English protagonist is traveling back to her home, in Quebec, French Canada and she is presented with the dualities that determine her heritage, and she clearly states her disconnection to it: "Now we're on my home ground, foreign territory. My throat constricts, as it learned to do when I discovered people could say words that would go into my ears meaning nothing." The protagonist's awareness of the existing duality in her identity developed when she was adolescent: being torn between two different cultures with two different languages has created a conflict for her. She can not understand her own former neighbors, thus even basic communication is limited with Madame: "French I can't interpret because I learned all but few...

Bibliography: Atwood, Margaret. Surfacing. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, 1992
Erikson, Erik. Identity, Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton, 1968
Kymlicka, Will. Finding Our Way: Rethinking Ethnocultural Relations in Canada.
Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998
Raguz, Maria. Masculinity and Femininity: An Empirical Definition. Nijmegen: Drukkerij Quickprint BV, 1991
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