Memoirs of a Geisha

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Water, Rivers, and Streams Symbol Analysis

Water, Rivers, and Streams Symbol Icon
In the Japanese Buddhist tradition, water is one of five elements that make up the fabric of the universe and the personalities of every person. Like water shifting to fit the shape of its container, people with a lot of water in their personality have a tendency towards adaptability and flexibility. Therefore, when characters in Memoirs of a Geisha comment on how much “water” Sayuri has in her personality, they are linking her to these traits. Related to ideas of adaptability, rivers and streams in the novel are mutable and flexible symbols, sometimes representing destiny while other times representing self-determination. Guided by external forces like gravity and wind, running water is not always capable of following a path of its own making. In this way, water represents destiny, because the water has no control over its own movements. Likewise, for most of the novel, Sayuri lets other people determine the direction that her life will take. But the character Nobu introduces the second meaning of water. He suggests that running water is a powerful force that can flow in any direction it wishes. Thus, Sayuri must choose between the two conflicting symbolic meanings of water: the water that lets external forces guide it, or the water that determines its own direction.

Water, Rivers, and Streams Quotes in Memoirs of a Geisha

The Memoirs of a Geisha quotes below all refer to the symbol of Water, Rivers, and Streams. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Destiny vs. Self-Determination Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of Memoirs of a Geisha published in 1999.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Water flows from place to place quickly and always finds a crack to spill through. Wood, on the other hand, holds fast to the earth.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker)
Related Symbols: Water, Rivers, and Streams, Sayuri’s Eyes
Page Number: 9
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sayuri describes her personality by describing her physical appearance. Like her mother, she has blue eyes--a rarity in Japan, and a sign of having "water" in one's personality. Sayuri also notes that her father was slow and deliberate, much like wood. Because of her eyes, however, Sayuri suggests that she takes more after her mother.

The symbolism of the two elements in this passage is clear: Sayuri is both fluid and flexible, like water (always conforming to its surroundings), while her sister Satsu, like her father, is steadfast like wood. The passage is also important because it suggests that Sayuri's life was partly predetermined by her very nature--it was the "water" in her personality that made her the person she is today.

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Chapter 9 Quotes

So many things in my life had changed, even the way I looked; but when I unwrapped the moth from its funeral shroud, it was the same startlingly lovely creature as on the day I had entombed it…It struck me that we—that moth and I—were two opposite extremes. My existence was as unstable as a stream, changing in every way; but the moth was like a piece of stone, changing not at all. While thinking this thought, I reached out a finger to feel the moth's velvety surface; but when I brushed it with my fingertip, it turned all at once into a pile of ash….Now I understood the thing that had puzzled me all morning. The stale air had washed away. The past was gone. My mother and father were dead and I could do nothing to change it.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Minoru Sakamoto , Mrs. Sakamoto
Related Symbols: Water, Rivers, and Streams
Page Number: 107-108
Explanation and Analysis:

One year earlier (around the time she learned of her parents' deaths), Chiyo "buried" a tiny moth and hid it in the foundations of the okiya. A year later, she retrieves the dead moth and finds that it looks exactly the same. In a world in which everything seems to be changing, the dead moth is a symbol of stability and comfort for the young Chiyo. Chiyo has lost her parents, been sent to a new, difficult life, etc.--even the tiniest constant in her life makes her feel better.

The passage is one of the turning-points in the novel: the moment in which Chiyo seems to reach some acceptance with her parents' deaths, and begins to try making a name for herself on her own. Chiyo will not dwell in the past any longer; instead, she'll try to find fortune on her own terms.

Chapter 10 Quotes

“Those of us with water in our personalities don't pick where we'll flow to. All we can do is flow where the landscape of our lives carries us.”

Related Characters: Mameha (speaker), Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto
Related Symbols: Water, Rivers, and Streams
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Mameha offers Chiyo a metaphor for her life as a geisha. Mameha is teaching Chiyo about the geisha's art, and she wants Chiyo to understand the kind of life a geisha with "water" in her personality--like Chiyo and Mameha--will have. Thus she gives us another metaphor connecting water to life: water rushes around, flowing uncontrollably in response to gravity and other forces. By the same token, a geisha can't really control where she's sent or whom she sees--she just goes with the flow.

In this analogy, water is passive--it responds to the powers that be. Mameha is an experienced geisha, and her analogy conveys the contradictions of a geisha's life: geishas are essentially prisoners, and yet they're also freer, more talented, and better traveled than many other women in Japan--they're both free and not free.

Chapter 26 Quotes

“I wish I could believe life really is something more than a stream that carries us along, belly-up.”
“All right, if it's a stream, you're still free to be in this part of it or that part, aren't you? The water will divide again and again. If you bump, and tussle, and fight, and make use of whatever advantages you might have…”

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Toshikazu Nobu (speaker)
Related Symbols: Water, Rivers, and Streams
Page Number: 314
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sayuri responds to Nobu's statements. Nobu is urging Sayuri to take control over her life: to find a way to ensure that she doesn't end up with the General. Sayuri responds with her usual metaphor explaining the "water" in her personality. She says that her life is like a stream--she has no real control over where she's sent, and instead just responds passively to the forces of the universe. Nobu offers a counter-analogy: he claims that if life really is like a stream, then it's possible to move around within the stream.

Nobu's analogy is a good one, because it walks a fine line between the belief in total freedom and the belief in total fate. Nobu seems to believe that some aspects of a person's life are beyond control--and yet other aspects can be controlled. Sayuri is too passive, too willing to believe that life is beyond her own control. Water doesn't always have to be passive--it can be liberating as well. Thus Sayuri, Nobu implies, could control some parts of her life, such as who her danna will be.

Chapter 34 Quotes

In the instant before that door opened, I could almost sense my life expanding just like a river whose waters have begun to swell; for I had never before taken such a drastic step to change the course of my own future. I was like a child tiptoeing along a precipice overlooking the sea. And yet somehow I hadn't imagined a great wave might come and strike me there, and wash everything away.

Related Characters: Sayuri Nitta / Chiyo Sakamoto (speaker), Chairman Ken Iwamura
Related Symbols: Water, Rivers, and Streams
Page Number: 405
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sayuri is in the middle of having sex with a man she doesn't even like (let alone love): Sato. Sayuri is shocked when Pumpkin, her old "friend," opens the door, leading the Chairman--the actual love of Sayuri's life--inside. Sayuri had planned for Pumpkin to lead Nobu into the room, in a desperate attempt to manipulate him into leaving her, thus allowing her to pursue the Chairman. Here, Sayuri's plan has seemingly backfired in the worst possible way, all thanks to Pumpkin.

Sayuri conveys her anxiety with yet another water metaphor. Previously, water has been a metaphor for destiny, or--at times--freedom. But here, water symbolizes neither: the water in question is a huge, monstrous wave, symbolizing the destruction of Sayuri's plans and--so she thinks--her future with the Chairman.

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Water, Rivers, and Streams Symbol Timeline in Memoirs of a Geisha

The timeline below shows where the symbol Water, Rivers, and Streams appears in Memoirs of a Geisha. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Destiny vs. Self-Determination Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
...blue eyes, a rarity among Japanese people, indicated that they both had a lot of water in their personalities. In contrast, her father Minoru Sakamoto – who was over twenty years... (full context)
Chapter 2
Destiny vs. Self-Determination Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
Sex and Love Theme Icon
Tradition, Ritual, and Gender Theme Icon
...to get undressed. Seeing Chiyo’s eyes, she says that Chiyo must have a lot of water in her personality. When the old woman tells her to spread her legs, Chiyo resists... (full context)
Chapter 3
Beauty, Artifice, and Truth  Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
Sex and Love Theme Icon
Mother approvingly says that Chiyo’s beautiful blue-grey eyes mean that she has a lot of water in her personality. Granny simply says that she looks dull. Mother tells Chiyo that if... (full context)
Chapter 8
Destiny vs. Self-Determination Theme Icon
...away, Chiyo washes the wood floors in the maids’ room. While she cleans, the soapy water snakes across the room. The sight of the water flowing makes Chiyo daydream of flowing... (full context)
Chapter 9
Destiny vs. Self-Determination Theme Icon
Beauty, Artifice, and Truth  Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
...see the moth utterly unchanged. Sayuri feels that her existence is “as unstable as a stream, changing in every way,” but that the moth is “like a piece of stone, changing... (full context)
Destiny vs. Self-Determination Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
...purpose. Feeling her own lack of purpose in life, she sits down by the Shirakawa Stream that runs though Kyoto and begins to cry. (full context)
Chapter 10
Destiny vs. Self-Determination Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
...in life. Mameha also says that Chiyo has yet to make use of all the water in her personality. Mameha says that people with water in the personalities “flow where the... (full context)
Destiny vs. Self-Determination Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
...to understand the ways of the universe so that they aren’t always swimming against the currents, but instead flowing with them. (full context)
Chapter 14
Destiny vs. Self-Determination Theme Icon
Beauty, Artifice, and Truth  Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
Tradition, Ritual, and Gender Theme Icon
...meaning “together,” yu, from the zodiac sign for the hen (in order “to balance the water elements in her personality”), and ri, meaning “understanding.” Sayuri feels odd about her new name,... (full context)
Chapter 23
Sex and Love Theme Icon
Tradition, Ritual, and Gender Theme Icon
Arriving back in Kyoto, Sayuri feels like a lake quivering after being struck by a stone. A few days after her return, Sayuri goes... (full context)
Sex and Love Theme Icon
Tradition, Ritual, and Gender Theme Icon
...falls in love with a dolphin prince. Her costume is a pink kimono with a water design in grey. After she gets ready, Sayuri goes backstage to watch Mameha’s performance. (full context)
Chapter 26
Destiny vs. Self-Determination Theme Icon
Sex and Love Theme Icon
Sayuri responds by saying that life is like stream carrying everyone along belly up. Nobu says that if life is truly like a stream,... (full context)
Chapter 34
Destiny vs. Self-Determination Theme Icon
Beauty, Artifice, and Truth  Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
Sex and Love Theme Icon
...the instant before the door opens, Sayuri can almost sense her life expanding like a river whose riverbanks have swelled, but when she sees the Chairman, she feels only a sense... (full context)
Destiny vs. Self-Determination Theme Icon
Beauty, Artifice, and Truth  Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
Sex and Love Theme Icon
...He tells her that around eighteen years ago, he took a walk by the Shirakawa Stream. Before the Chairman can say any more, Sayuri removes the Chairman’s handkerchief from her sleeve... (full context)
Beauty, Artifice, and Truth  Theme Icon
Tradition, Ritual, and Gender Theme Icon
...for the Chairman. She says that every step she took since that day by the stream has been with the hopes of bringing herself closer to the Chairman. Feeling all the... (full context)
Destiny vs. Self-Determination Theme Icon
...the same look of desperation on her face that she did years ago by the stream. The Chairman says that he told Nobu what happened, because if Sayuri so dreaded being... (full context)
Chapter 35
Destiny vs. Self-Determination Theme Icon
Beauty, Artifice, and Truth  Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
Sex and Love Theme Icon
...however we may suffer them, all too soon they bleed into a wash, just like watery ink on paper.” (full context)