Before traveling through Europe last summer, friends advised me to avoid being identified as an American. Throughout Europe, the term American connotes arrogance and insensitivity to local culture. In line with the foregoing stereotype, the unnamed narrator's use of the term American in Margaret Atwood's Surfacing is used to describe individuals of any nationality who are unempathetic and thus destructive. The narrator, however, uses the word in the context of her guilt over her abortion and consequent emotional numbness. The narrator's vituperative definition of American as an individual who is unempathetic and destructive is largely attributable to the narrator's projection of her own feelings of emotional dysfunction and guilt.
Consider an individual who is incapable of empathy. Such a person has the potential to be enormously destructive to their surroundings. Without the ability to identify with others, it becomes a matter of indifference whether others experience pain or joy. The narrator rapidly begins to define an American as just such a psychopath. As the narrator is fishing in a canoe, two Americans and a local guide pull up in their power boat proudly flying the Stars and Stripes fore and aft, rocking the canoe. During the conversation in which one of the Americans is "friendly as a shark", the other American throws his cigar in the water and threatens to take his business elsewhere (66). Of the Americans, the narrator comments, "if they don't get anything in fifteen minutes they'll blast off and scream around the lake in their souped-up boat, deafening the fish. They're the kind that catch more than they can eat and they'd do it with dynamite if they c...
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...st people I spoke to were cognisant of how dangerous it is to blindly apply stereotypes and labels. In Margaret Atwood's Surfacing, the narrator freely applies the label American to those who are incapable of empathy and destructive. Her use of the label, however, is to a large extent an expression of the emotional numbness and guilt she feels as a consequence of her abortion. At the end of the novel, there is hope that the narrator may succeed in reuniting her head and body by reconciling with the events and emotions haunting her past. Perhaps as the narrator heals herself, her conception of the term American will undergo its own healing process, allowing the word to shed the qualities of insensitivity and destructiveness which were in fact always the narrator's own.
Atwood, Margaret. Surfacing. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1972.
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