This page last revised 12 May 1998
In his book Ideologies of Epic, Colin Graham looks at the recognisable tendency of Victorian epic poetry to establish or attempt to establish a monologic discourse in relation to the concept of nation, national literature and empire. Epic as genre and the concept of nation, . . . desiring to be centripetal, turning in upon themselves, denying the existence of the other (Graham,1), is a phenomenon relevant to monologic discourse as it may be perceived not only in national epic but also in the novel and its concomitant ideologies.
Graham points to the evolution in literary history, the move towards the adjectival use of the word epic, particularly with regard to the work of Wordsworth and George Eliot. He notes, . . . [the feminising and privatising of ] the once-public, turning narratives of action into narratives of the drama of selfhood. (Graham,4)
In a post-colonial context and in the geographical context of Canada one can see in Surfacing how Atwood asserts a feminist counter hegemonic discourse with and within a discursive framing of Canadian national identity.
Graham draws on the work of M.M.Bakhtin, the Russian critic. Michael Gardiners comments on Voloshinov are also seen by Graham as relevant to this discussion of monologism:
The dominant class is motivated to ensure fixity of meaning and arrest the flux of the sign, insofar as the establishment of a monolithic or official language facilitates the socio-political unification of society. (Gardiner, 16)
So, monologism is synonymous with hegemony - be that sexual, social, imperial or any other ideological assertion of dominance and fixity. Thus, the status of the subaltern - where the subaltern has no voice - leaves them, as Bakhtin says, as, . . . another person [who remains] wholly and merely an object of consciousness, and not another consciousness. (qtd.in Gardiner, 26)
In Surfacing the subaltern role could be filled by both male and female. The narrating I holds the discourse firmly. She alone has her inner consciousness exposed and denies others their consciousness. Unlike, say, Toni Morrison in Jazz, where questions of gender and race are dealt with through a narrative consciousness that moves fluidly from one voice to another.
As feminist epic, structurally and adjectivally, the foregrounding and dominance of the I forms a moral-ideological hierarchy.
Anna walks out of the bedroom, dressed in jeans and shirt again. She combs her hair in front of the mirror, light ends, dark roots, humming to herself. You are my sunshine; smoke twines up from her cigarette. Help, I think at her silently, talk. And she does.
Whats for dinner? she says; then, waving, Here they come. (Atwood, 64)
Annas weakness is as marked as that which is perceived in David and Joe. The I confronts the discourse within which the others are bound and stresses the importance of the unfolding, provisional discourse which she is forming and and being contained within. Like Rhyss Wide Sargasso Sea it is open-ended. As Bakhtin identifies, purity in monologic discourse is a theoretical ideal. She has to engage, in some way, with the other. The search for her father, be it actual or maetaphorical, is an engagement.
The colonial metaphor figures strongly as both form and content. Like Friels Translations the individual can be seen in terms of violated space as can the land itself. It is not the old colonial powers of France and Britain which figure here, although their legacy remains, but the USA which is a convenient target for the leftist opprobrium of David in particular. Canada, having an interior, is seen as a space for retreat and discovery but the Americans have penetrated even this far and their discourse, or the discourse which they represent has infiltrated their Canadian mental interiors. Her own mind is, A small neutral country. (Atwood, 94)
The sequence on the water when they meet the yanks only to discover that they are Canadians who had made the same presumption demonstrates that it is the territory of the mind which has to be fought for: It doesnt matter what country theyre from, my head said, theyre still Americans, theyre whats in store for us, what we are turning into. (Atwood, 139)
In her attempts at deinvention in order to find something essential Atwood may be seen to be writing back to similar modernist attempts to come to terms with shattered certainties. I am thinking of Hemingway and his Nick Adams stories and specifically Big Two-Hearted River, Part 1. In both cases it is the figure of the isolate who attempts to leave society: He felt he had left everything behind, the need for thinking, the need to write, other needs. It was all back of him. (Hemingway, 144 ). It is that use of felt that gives it all away, like in a story from Joyce. What is denied and what is not said become paramount.
The attempts of Atwoods successors bears out the inevitability of engagement and the problems of asserting any essentialist solutions. As Audre Lorde says in The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle the Masters House, attempts at monologism, may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. (qtd.in Trinh T. Minh-Ha)
This project was completed under the direction of Dr. Leon Litvack as a requirement for the MA degree in Modern Literary Studies in the School of English at the Queen's University of Belfast. The site is evolving and will include contributions from future generations of MA students on other writers and themes.
This page was written by Aidan Fadden. E-mail me with your suggestions.
The Imperial Archive Project is supervised by Leon Litvack. E-mail me with your suggestions.
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