The novel is set in Virginia in the mid-19th century, during the time of slavery.
Narrator and Point of View
The Water Dancer is a first-person retrospective narrative: an older Hiram narrates the story looking back.
Tone and Mood
Protagonist and Antagonist
Hiram is the novel’s protagonist and narrator. In many ways, Maynard serves as the antagonist. While Hiram is intelligent and aware, Maynard is stupid and cruel. Moreover, Maynard is Hiram’s master and holds him back from accomplishing his dreams.
The major conflict is between Hiram and his attempt to free himself and those he loves from slavery, and the masters and Southern plantation owners who want to keep the old order intact.
The climax is when Hiram finally unites with Sophia and takes over the Lockless plantation upon his father's death.
After making his escape plan with Georgie Parks, Hiram runs into Hawkins and Amy. They ask him about going to see Georgie and he assumes that they are spying on him for the Quality. Then, suddenly, Hiram’s former tutor, Mr. Fields, comes to meet with Amy and Hawkins on the street. They all seem nervous. Hiram feels that this encounter is strange, just like Hawkins’s apparent lie about finding him by the river Goose. In this way, the moment foreshadows that Hawkins and Amy know something more about Georgie Parks, and that they are involved with Mr. Fields in a way that will eventually have important implications for Hiram.
When Hiram recalls his handling by the “flesh-traders” at Ryland’s Jail, he uses understated language to describe how they abused him. This is because facing the reality of what the hounds did to him was too difficult for him to bear at the time. Later, when he is older, Hiram recognizes that the men physically and sexually violated him, saying: “it took time to learn how to speak of what was done to me directly, to tell the story of my time in Ryland’s Jail as it was, and not feel my manhood fleeting from me.”
In the novel, the Underground alludes to the Underground Railroad, a vast network of people who helped fugitives to escape from slavery in the United States, and Harriet (aka Moses) alludes to Harriet Tubman, one of the most famous "conductors" on the Underground Railroad. The notion of "Conducting" itself also alludes to the Underground Railroad.
Blue mist, blue light, and the color blue come to represent Hiram’s experience of Conduction and the dream of freedom. Blue mist and blue light accompany Hiram’s experiences of Conduction. When he is certain that he will die drowning in the river Goose, he feels a blue light surrounding him. In this blue light he feels a sense of peace and freedom, and knows that there really is “a home-place of our own, a life beyond the Task.” In this way, for Hiram the blue mist and light represent Conduction and the possibility of freedom beyond enslaved life.
By the time he runs away, Hiram has long desired to escape slavery and be free. But paradoxically, when he finally reaches freedom in Philadelphia, Hiram misses his home in Virginia.
When Hiram is in the pit, he repeatedly revisits a painful memory, in which Maynard forced him to participate in a race alongside the other Tasked. Back then, Hiram tripped on a branch or root and Maynard laughed at him. For weeks, a sharp pain in Hiram’s ankle serves as a painful reminder of his new place as his brother’s slave. In a parallel moment, when the low whites are hunting Hiram in the forest, he trips on a branch or root and “a sharp pain, an old pain, shot up through my ankle.” Coates draws a parallel between the pain of serving Maynard and the pain of being hunted by white men. But the second time, Hiram experiences Conduction and is able to escape the hunters’ beating.
Metonymy and Synecdoche
Amy says that Corrine Quinn “is Virginia, through and through.” In this example of metonymy, “Virginia” stands in for a whole class of wealthy, white slave-owners. Amy explains that on the one hand, Corrine Quinn is Virginia through and through, meaning that she is a member of that wealthy class and her personality was formed through this upbringing. But on the other hand, when she spent time up north, Corrine changed her outlook and became a member of the Underground.
"I was close enough to see the shadow of the bonfire dancing off her face."
The Water Dancer Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Water Dancer is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.