The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 29 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Winter comes, bringing a solemn atmosphere. Occasionally Howell’s friends will visit, and they will discuss the old days. The person Howell sees most is Corrine, who he still views as a surrogate daughter. Yet Hiram is responsible for “everyday companionship” with his father. After dinner, they sit together and drink. One night, Howell starts talking about Maynard. He says that his own father never loved him and only cared about “station,” and Howell wanted to be more liberal with his son. Beginning to cry, Howell says the truth is that Maynard was never suited to the life into which he was born. 
There is something disturbing about the contrast between the thoughtful tenderness Howell feels for Maynard (and, to a lesser extent, Hiram) and the brutal cruelties he has inflicted on the enslaved people at Lockless. Indeed, while it would be almost more reassuring to characterize enslavers as straightforwardly evil, the even more horrifying truth is that they were capable of love and care—yet still chose to enact unimaginable horrors on the enslaved.
Themes
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Howell confesses that he is not a “good man,” saying Hiram knows this most of all and that he hasn’t forgotten all the wrong he’s done to him. Hiram knows that this is the closest to an apology Howell will ever get. He was raised in a world where men like him never have to apologize for anything. Howell says that he was personally never skilled at managing the plantation, and always imagined that Hiram was the person best suited to it. After saying this, Howell falls asleep. Hiram finishes his cider and takes out the ledgers documenting the financial status of Lockless. He pours over them until he has them memorized.
In making these late-in-life confessions, it is obvious that Howell is not thinking of Hiram, but rather fixating on his own regrets and guilty conscience. Like Corrine, Howell is capable of sympathy with the enslaved, but this is motivated by egotism, and is thus a thin, and arguably meaningless, gesture. 
Themes
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Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
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While Hiram is taking Howell up to bed, Howell says, “I got plans for you, boy.” He then begs Hiram to tell him a story, which Hiram does—a story about the esteemed families of Quality in Elm County back in the old days. The next day, Corrine comes for a visit. While she is there, Hiram and Hawkins walk down to the Street. Hiram half hopes to see Sophia, although he has always been keeping her “at arm’s length.” Hiram mentions looking at the ledgers, which revealed that Lockless is deeply in debt. Nathaniel has lent Howell a lot of money over the years, which Howell has never paid back.  
Even Howell’s use of the word “boy” has two very different meanings based on the two contradictory sides of his and Hiram’s relationship. Speaking as a father to his son, “boy” is a term of affection. Yet speaking as a white enslaver to a black enslaved man, it is an insult, a term of degradation. Part of what is so traumatizing about their relationship is that each meaning is haunted by the other.  
Themes
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Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
For some people, the bad fortune of Lockless represents an opportunity. Thena has started hiring herself out for laundry work, which will allow her to eventually buy her freedom. One day, while Hiram is driving Thena to one of her laundry clients, they see Sophia standing with Caroline (who is also called "Carrie" for short) on the street. Sophia gets in the carriage, and they drive on. When they get to the destination of Thena’s laundry client, all three adults get out and do the laundry together. Once they are back at Lockless, Sophia says goodbye to Thena then angrily turns to Hiram. She says he was “supposed to be better” and know that she didn’t belong to any man. Furious, she turns around and walks away. 
Sophia is obviously very perceptive and can tell not only that Hiram is avoiding her, but that it is because he can’t handle that Carrie is Nathaniel’s daughter. Her incisive understanding of Hiram’s psychology and willingness to boldly confront him about it underline that she is one of the most admirable characters in the novel—wise, independent, and uncompromising. 
Themes
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After serving Howell dinner, Hiram goes out to the Street to find Sophia. When she sees him she glares at him. He apologizes profusely, for everything he has done to her. He takes her hand and promises that he is trying to be better. Sophia kisses his hand and says she understands that he wants her, but he must learn to understand that she will never belong to any man. Hiram realizes that in all his fantasies about Sophia, she had only ever been an “ornament” to him. Hiram gives Sophia the wooden horse for Carrie, promising that he’s “trying.”
While Sophia is uncompromising in what she wants from Hiram, she has the graciousness and patience to wait for him grow. This is another aspect of her character that makes her so admirable: she combines strong principles and expectations with sympathy and forgiveness of others.
Themes
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Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon