Term Paper: Canada's Relationship to the United States in Margaret Atwood's Surfacing

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Canadian Nationalism & Margaret Atwood

Canada's Relationship to the U.S. Vis-a-Vis Margaret Atwood's Surfacing

For Americans or Europeans who are oblivious to the justifiably pessimistic feelings many Canadians have toward the U.S. In particular and Western attitudes in general, reading Margaret Atwood's book Surfacing should serve as enlightenment. And if readers rationalize that Atwood's work is fictional so it probably isn't representative of how Canadians truly feel about their neighbors to the south - those readers would be, at some level wrong. Indeed, Atwood's is a critically acclaimed and brilliant novel which weaves Canadian nationalism themes, universal feministic themes - and strong ecological consciousness - into an appealing dramatic tapestry of drama and conflict. Meantime, this paper's task is to flush out metaphors deep in the heart of this book that aren't generally discussed by scholars and critics.

This paper reviews and analyzes Atwood's book (and scholarly journal articles about the book) from the broader point-of-view of nationalism and with special attention to her powerful environmental and feministic themes - and why those themes become metaphors - along with the personal rage evident when conflicting family and relationship dynamics come into play. The novel "moves from the plain perceptions of the opening chapters into the knife edge of madness and fantasy..." according to Christina Newman ("In Search of a Native Tongue [Surfacing]"); and reading it is a dip into the cutting edge of a creative writer's view of Canadian nationalism.

How Canadians View themselves and the United States:

An examination of the political, economic and cultural relationship between Canada and the United States - from the Canadian point-of-view, in all its colorful intensity - is presented by professor James Tagg in the journal, The History Teacher ("And, We Burned Down the White House, Too": American History, Canadian Undergraduates, and Nationalism"). Tagg, an American professor of History teaching at The University of Lethbridge in Alberta, writes that Canadian students (in general) "...are offended by the patronizing and condescending attitudes of Americans" and they "dislike the vulgar materialism of American society."

Moreover, Tagg has witnessed on numerous occasions the "scorn" Canadian students feel towards the "dumb-downed American culture"; and Canadians are "uncomfortable with the too familiar, too up-beat, too in-your-face candor of many Americans," he claims. Indeed, a "plethora of negatively perceived elements" of American history "always linger on their historical horizons," Tagg explains, in particular issues like Vietnam, the "recurring ironies of so-called 'free trade,' and the two wars on Iraq."

Tagg goes on to describe the "guarded feelings" of Canadian students as framed by what they see as American "...ignorance and self-righteousness." They are intolerant of "American ignorance of, and [disinterest] in, Canada," as well, he says. And if that isn't a sufficient enough list of dislikes, Tagg says that some Canadians he has come into contact with in conversations abhor "American political, economic, and cultural 'imperialism'."

Beyond the litany of things Canadian young people apparently dislike about America and Americans, Tagg there is a "...still more profound yet not always well articulated fear that Canadian culture, and likely Canadian sovereignty, will be overwhelmed by a United States too ignorant and too uninterested to even notice the consequences of their actions." And when Canadian students sign up for Tagg's American history classes, many "carry the baggage of Canadian nationalist emotions," and those emotions can be discomforting for a professor, Tagg implies.

That said, it is also true that Canadians "...enthusiastically embrace good trade relations" with the U.S., and they have "a seemingly endless appetite for American popular culture," according to Tagg. They also "admire American energy" and they look favorably upon "...most of the principles of civic governance" in America. Still, Tagg warns, none of the "positive" feelings Canadians have for America can "override the necessity most Canadians feel for upholding their own cultural and national identity."

In the view of Professor Sharon Anne Cook (Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa) the resentment Canadians feel towards the U.S. is not as severe as Tagg suggests; indeed, Cook writes that the education establishment has tried to downplay patriotism and nationalism. High school educators, for example, are careful not to use history classes as a platform with which to promote patriotism because they have a "suspicion toward the extremes of propaganda" (Cook 2006).

Writing in Phi Delta Kappan, Cook reports educators' concern that "combining historical and civics education in the same curriculum would increase the propagandistic potential of history and social studies courses to an unacceptable level." And rather than "promoting explicit patriotism," she explains, patriotism which can easily emerge into nationalism, "Canadian curricula have typically celebrated out pride in democratic institutions."

That having been said, it is also true (according to Cook) that Canadians' national aspirations include "a tradition of populism that encompasses environmentalism and peaceful dispute resolution; health care for everyone; public life grounded in an ethic of fairness, honesty, and plain hard work rather than glitz and glitter." Several of those concepts are diametrically opposite to what Canadians who are reading newspapers and watching news channels are now witnessing in America, and those concepts may very well have crept into the consciousness of alert young (or middle aged or old) Canadians; and as such, those contrasts between U.S. And Canadian values could indeed provide fodder for the generalized but real sense of Canadian discomfort with the arrogant bully neighbor south of their border.

To wit, "environmentalism" is not something Canadians see Americans doing very well (in particular, the current U.S. president rejects scientific data on global warming while Canada has indeed signed on to the Kyoto Protocol); "health care for everyone" is desirous in the U.S. But politically unworkable; the idea of "peaceful dispute resolution" is an anathema to the current executive branch's "war on terrorism" (think Iraq, prisoner torture, Geneva Accords being re-written); and "hard work rather than glitz and glitter" goes contrary to the American obsession with the glitter of Hollywood, the glitz of "American Idol"-themed entertainment, and baseball players earning $18 million a year to hit a little white ball over the fence.

Surfacing - Looking Closely at the Novel's Feminism, Nationalism & Guilt close examination of Atwood's nameless protagonist / narrator and the narrator's sometimes wild, sometimes child-like but often feminist-themed observations gives the impression to a reader that the narrator herself just might be Atwood's metaphor for Canada the nation. A novel this rich, with anti-Americanism and Canadian nationalism lurking around every corner, with haunting images, ecologically glorious settings and ongoing mysteries naturally brings creative thoughts to the minds of Atwood readers who are doing more and going further than simply paying attention in order to write a "report."

And since it is no secret that Atwood the person gives the impression of being a strong-willed Canadian first, a writer second - and what ranks third is up to critics, readers, and history - therein exists an open-ended possibility that the narrator is indeed the swimming, swirling, churning, confused and conflicted spirit of Canada (as Atwood sees it).

Further, the guilt the narrator feels could be a metaphor for the guilt Canada has for the mistreatment (in many cases) of its native peoples; and the metaphor could quite possibly reflect the burden of guilt on the Canadian national consciousness for the earlier Canadian playing out of America's imperialistic "Manifest Destiny"; professor Sharon Anne Cook points to that issue in her aforementioned article, quoted in part below:

In the early 20th Century," Cook writes, "Canadian schoolchildren were challenged, as one textbook of 1910 put it, to civilize 'a vast solitude of uncultivated plains, unbroken forests, and lonely mountains' by using...British values." That point by Cook is mentioned here even though more modern textbooks and teachers have preached environmental respect and responsibility; still, there is the lingering sense of regret in the literature of Canada's history that has a familiarity when reading Atwood's novel. And moreover, the word "civilize" rings familiar to readers of Surfacing, because to become "civilized" means, in the narrator's view, being too much like an American.

On page 43 (this paper references the paperback edition of the novel, "First Anchor Books Edition, June 1998") the narrator is searching for her missing father, and she passes "gigantic stumps, level and saw-cut, remnants of the trees that were here before the district was logged out." She is saddened by the fact that "The trees will never be allowed to grow that tall again, they're killed as soon as they're valuable, big trees are scarce as whales." Indeed, the narrator uses "killed" rather than "cut down" - for graphic emphasis of her rage at the loss of innocence - and she sees the Canadian wilderness on an endangered species list, like whales.

Being "civilized" also means perhaps being capable of the wanton killing of a heron, which was found hanging with a rope around its neck, and which the narrator assumes was the work of an American; David sees it as an appropriate addition to his amateur movie, "Random Samples." The narrator herself feels some… [END OF PREVIEW]

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