Hiram has an exceptional memory. Yet he has forgotten one of his most important memories because it is too difficult for him to bear: the memory of his mother and how Howell Walker separated them. 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" (the enslaved) are able to hold onto their memory, it is a source of great power that is beyond the understanding and control of the "Quality" (the slaveowners). In this way, Coates presents memory as a form of rebellion against slavery.
Race is one of the most important themes in The Water Dancer. In the novel, just as in the historical antebellum American South, the white, wealthy class enslaved people based on the color of their skin. Enslaved people were literally the property of the wealthy white plantation class. One result of this violent, inhumane system is that white men raped enslaved women. This is the case with Hiram’s mother Rose and his father Howell Walker. Initially, his status as biracial, as well as his exceptional intelligence, makes Hiram feel that perhaps he will be able to gain access to the white, privileged world. Yet as he comes to understand the true nature of the Quality, he realizes this will never be possible.
In the world of the Quality, nothing is at it appears. The masters have built a whole apparatus of hidden tunnels and secret levers to make it appear as if Lockless is powered by some invisible force, rather than by the labor of enslaved people. Hiram reflects that no one from the Quality would ever want to visit the Warrens where the Tasked work and live. But paradoxically, when the Tasked appear before the Quality at parties, they must be perfectly groomed, as if to give the impression that they are not slaves but “mystical ornaments, a portion of the manor’s charm.” This is part of their objectification and dehumanization.
When Howell sells Rose, Hiram adopts Thena as his mother figure. When they move to the estate, she reminds Hiram that she is more his family than his birth father will ever be. But as a young child, Hiram looks to his father as his family, since he longs to gain access to the privileged world that the Walkers represent. As he grows up he realizes the folly of his thinking and comes to accept the strength of found family. In Philadelphia, Hiram finds family in the Whites and the Underground. And back at Lockless, Hiram, Thena, Sophia, and Caroline form a found family unit on the Street, helping each other out and caring for each other.
Throughout The Water Dancer, Coates explores the theme of objectification, which refers to the treatment of people as if they were objects. In the novel, one important way in which slave-owning society objectifies enslaved people is by using them for their entertainment. When Hiram was young, his father had him perform memory tricks to entertain party guests. And Maynard made Hiram and the Tasked participate in a race as if they were his toys. Similarly, the Quality made Santi Bess tell stories at their parties. When they were amused, they threw coins at her. In this way, Coates demonstrates how the Quality treat the Tasked as objects for abuse and amusement.
Throughout the novel, Coates reflects on the themes of manhood, masculinity, and women’s rights. At the abolitionist gathering, Hiram encounters women who denounce “the vast conspiracy to pillage half the world” by denying women basic rights. As he matures, Hiram realizes that he and the men around him form a part of this conspiracy, and he tries to gain awareness so as to change his ways. This process of transformation comes to the fore in his relationship with Sophia. Hiram realizes that has been thinking of Sophia as belonging to him, rather than as her own person with her own desires. Sophia tells Hiram that to be his she must never belong to him or any other man.
In the novel Coates explores the true meaning of freedom. At first, Hiram holds up Georgie Parks as the ideal of freedom. But eventually, he learns that Georgie isn’t truly free, since he must work handing over fugitives to the hounds. In the Virginia Underground, Hiram comes to understand that their work is more about waging war than it is about freedom. And in the Philadelphia Underground, Hiram learns that even though the agents can physically free the Tasked, they cannot free them from the pain of all they have lost and the heavy weight of knowing their loved ones are still enslaved. Eventually, Hiram discovers the meaning of freedom in the new, more just world that the Underground is trying to build.
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.