The unnamed protagonist of Surfacing. The narrator is reverential toward nature, intensely private, anti-American, and introspective. She works as a freelance artist. She searches for her missing father on a remote island in Quebec along with her boyfriend, Joe, and her friends, David and Anna. Socially alienated and distrustful of love, the narrator suffers a debilitating emotional numbness that eventually fixes itself through a grand psychological transformation. She eventually goes mad on the island. For a time she lives like an animal, but she eventually emerges as a more enlightened being. Surfacing is composed entirely of the narrator’s unfiltered thoughts and observations.
The quiet, shy, well-meaning boyfriend of the narrator. Joe is an unsuccessful artist who makes ugly pottery and teaches pottery classes. Joe remains too simple-minded to understand the narrator’s complexities. He insists on marrying the narrator, which she resists. Joe is a good man, but he is also potentially violent.
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The psychologically abusive and womanizing husband of Anna. David is a communications teacher who loves baseball. He is an amateur filmmaker composing a film with Joe called Random Samples. David’s constant joking and imitation of cartoon characters serves as a poor cover for his selfish and sexist behavior, and the manner in which he communicates with Anna is deeply cruel. David is staunchly anti-American, yet he possesses all of the awful qualities that the narrator associates with Americans.
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The vulnerable yet sly wife of David. Anna puts on a veneer of sweetness in order to please her husband. She constantly sings and applies makeup. She believes her marriage is a war that she fights using her body; Anna uses sex with her husband and with other men to curb David’s behavior. She is more talkative and social than the narrator but far less introspective or self-aware.
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The compassionate yet reserved best friend of the narrator’s father. Paul is the first one to inform the narrator of her father’s disappearance. He is a poor man who lives a modest life, and he operates by traditional morals and codes of courtesy and provides as much help as he can in locating the narrator’s father. Paul was the model of “the simple life” to the narrator’s father, though the narrator observes that he is a model through financial necessity and not choice.
An aloof and secretive woman. The narrator’s mother died from a brain tumor before the novel begins, and the narrator constantly tries to remember her. Her mother serves as the narrator’s image of inner strength. The narrator continually remembers the image of her mother in a leather jacket feeding blue jays.
A stern man who disappears, forcing the narrator to search for him on his island. The narrator’s father is an atheist and a fan of the eighteenth-century rationalists. Self-reliant and rugged, he built the cabin on his own and had used the island as respite from city life. He dies accidentally on a trip researching local Indian wall paintings.
A character who never appears in person. The narrator’s brother fled from his parents years before the novel takes place. The narrator finds it difficult to imagine him as an adult. He nearly drowned as a child, and the narrator constantly reflects on the image of his drowning. He was loving toward his sister, but he had a rather dark childhood. He kept a laboratory on the island, running experiments on animals in jars.
The narrator’s ex-lover. The fake husband is eventually revealed to be the narrator’s art professor, a married man with whom she had an affair. He forced the narrator into having an abortion. He is emotionally callous in nature and tries to avoid letting his affair with the narrator influence his actions.
A shady and wealthy American whom the narrator immediately distrusts. Malmstrom claims to be a representative of a Detroit-based wildlife preservation agency. He offers to purchase the narrator’s father’s island. David suspects that Malmstrom is an undercover C.I.A. operative.
Two Canadian campers whom the narrator initially mistakes for American tourists. They are avid fishers, and they befriend David. They are also responsible for killing and hanging a heron, and for their senseless violence the narrator believes them to be Americans.
A young boy working at a generic bar attached to a new motel in the village. Claude gives fishing licenses to David and to other tourists and also guides American tourists on fishing expeditions. He speaks in a yokel dialect.
The seasoned American guide who takes the narrator, Joe, Anna, and David to and from the narrator’s father’s island. Evans is gruff and minds his own business; he is aware that the narrator’s father has disappeared, but he never asks the narrator about it.
Paul’s wife. Madame is a French woman living in the village close to the narrator’s father’s island. Simple and polite, she speaks only French. Because they only speak English, the narrator and the narrator’s mother both experience long, awkward conversations with Madame.
The local priest whom the narrator remembers from childhood. The town priest forbade women in the narrator’s village from wearing slacks. Instead, he forced them to wear long, concealing skirts. The narrator reflects that he is likely dead by now.
One-armed French woman whom the narrator remembers simply as “Madame.” The old shopkeeper operated from a storefront attached to her house. The narrator remembers how the shopkeeper used to tie packages with her stump arm and how she used to sell candies that the narrator was never allowed to buy.
A French woman who works in a small village near the narrator’s father’s island. The new shopkeeper is a rude, snide woman who humiliates the narrator for speaking broken French. The shopkeeper wears slacks, which would have been forbidden in the village years ago.