The Malignant American in Surfacing
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 could get away with it" (66). The narrator chooses every word describing the encounter to emphasise her perception that Americans have a total lack of regard and even an active contempt for their environment. Emotional numbness is the logical cause for such behaviour, as a lack of empathy enables an individual to act heedless of negative consequences to others.
The narrator's scathing treatment of Americans during the foregoing encounter is representative of the treatment she affords them throughout Surfacing. Americans are variously described as "tapeworms" (129), "loon killers" (121), analogues to Hitler (129) and attackers (183). Although the narrator frequently applies the label American to people who she thinks are citizens of the United States (US), she ultimately divorces the term from nationality. When the narrator discovers that two men who wantonly killed a heron are Canadian, she states, "It doesn't matter what country they're from, my head said, they're still Americans" (129). In the narrator's mind, American is a term describing those who are emotionally numb and are capable of inflicting pain on others.
Given the intensity of the narrator's feelings about the term American, it...