The Water Dancer

The Water Dancer Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Howell and Maynard as the decline of Virginia (Allegory)

Howell Walker has all the appearances of a gentleman of “the Quality.” He wears refined clothing and holds elaborate social events. Yet he is “the last of a particular species,” since the wealthy class of Virginia has fallen on hard times. In this way, Howell is an allegory for the decline of Virginia and the early settlers of the East, whose success depended on the tobacco crop. As the land becomes impoverished and the tobacco crop fails, a new generation of entrepreneurs finds success further West. That Howell's son Maynard is stupid and without charm only further highlights that this Virginia class has no future.

Harriet’s walking stick (Symbol)

Harriet tells Hiram that she had an extremely difficult childhood. She performed backbreaking labor from a very young age and her masters beat her daily. Often, she would like to forget those trying times. But she always carries a walking stick made from the branch of a sweet gum tree, which reminds her of the worst days of her life working in the timbers. It is natural for humans to try to forget traumatic events that are often too painful to face. Yet Harriet implies that remaining in touch with those painful stories is crucial for the power of Conduction. The walking stick is a symbol of the importance of memory and the danger of forgetting.

The copper coin (Symbol)

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 is “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.

Natchez (Motif)

Throughout The Water Dancer, the characters reference Natchez, the looming threat of being sent there, and all of their loved ones sent down “Natchez-way.” Natchez is an allusion to the real city on the Mississippi River that was an important center of trade in the nineteenth century. Many enslaved people were forcibly brought there to work on new plantations of cotton and sugarcane. More broadly in The Water Dancer, Natchez is a symbol for the uncertain and crueler future awaiting enslaved people who are separated from their loved ones and sent to new masters further south and west.

The bridge (Symbol)

In the first scene of The Water Dancer, the bridge over the river Goose symbolizes the connection “between the land of the living and the land of the lost,” and between “the ends of our knowledge and how much more lies beyond it." This is because the Tasked must cross over this bridge when they are sold to new masters and sent “Natchez-way.” As Hiram approaches the bridge, he is struck by the memory of his many loved ones, like his mother, who have disappeared over the bridge. More broadly in The Water Dancer, the bridge is another symbol of the power of memory. Harriet later tells Hiram that for people who possess the power of Conduction, memory works as a bridge that lets them cross over water.