The Water Dancer

The Water Dancer Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Why do the Tasked fear the "low whites" more than the Quality?

    The "low whites" are impoverished and working-class white people. Hiram reflects that in reality, the Tasked and the low whites should unite against their common oppressor, the Quality. However, the Quality use racism to divide these groups of people. In this deeply hierarchical world, the low whites cling to the only power that the Quality allow them to have, which is the power to do violence to enslaved people. For this reason, the Tasked fear the low whites even more than they fear the Quality.

  2. 2

    What is the importance of memory in The Water Dancer?

    In The Water Dancer, Coates presents memory as an important way of resisting slavery. At the beginning of the novel, Hiram is unable to remember his mother. This is because his father sold her when Hi was just nine years old. Hiram forgets his mother because what happened was so traumatic that he cannot bear to face it at this young age. But eventually, he must remember her in order to use the power of Conduction, which functions through memory and storytelling.

    Slavery separated whole generations from their loved ones, families, homes, and cultures. Physically, these people are lost forever, and even the actions of the Underground cannot change this painful reality. Yet the act of remembering maintains a connection with lost loved ones and keeps their memory alive. Coates suggests that when the Tasked are able to hold onto their memory, it is a source of great power that is beyond the understanding and control of the Quality.

  3. 3

    What are the different motivations behind Hiram's and Corrine's participation in the Underground different?

    Corrine joined the Underground because she hates slavery. As a white member of the Quality, she is personally offended by the horrible violence that her class inflicts upon enslaved people. Therefore, she has dedicated her life to correcting this wrong. Hiram also hates slavery and eventually dedicates his life to resisting it. Yet Hiram is most motivated by love, and by his desire to free his loved ones who are enslaved. This is why Hiram says that while he is loyal to the Underground, he must also be loyal to those he loves. Even though it goes against the plans of the Virginia station, if Hiram is given the chance to save those who have saved him, he will do so.

  4. 4

    The Water Dancer includes many accurate historical aspects. What are some of the real historical events the novel refers to?

    In the novel, the Underground is an historical reference to the Underground Railroad, a vast network of secret routes and safe houses that people used to escape from slavery in the United States during the 19th century. In addition, the character of Moses, or Harriet, refers to the real historical figure, Harriet Tubman. She was one of the most well-known “conductors” of the Underground Railroad. She escorted over 300 enslaved people to freedom.

  5. 5

    What does the copper coin that Howell gifts to Hiram symbolize?

    The symbolism of the copper coin shifts as Hiram matures. At first, the coin represents Hiram’s ticket out of the Street and into the mansion of Lockless. More broadly, it represents his desire to escape slavery and gain access to the privileged world of the Quality. After nearly drowning in the river Goose, Hiram looks for but cannot find his coin. At the same time, he realizes that his desire to join the Quality is a fantasy and that their power is based on cruelty and lies. By the times he finds the coin, he reflects that it has become “my token into the Realm—but not the Realm I’d long thought.” In this way, the coin becomes a symbol of a different way out of slavery, through Conduction.