The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 32 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Forced to work alone, Hiram realizes that he will have to tell the full truth to both Sophia and Thena. He tells Sophia first, while Thena is sleeping. After filling her in on everything that happened with the Underground and Philadelphia, he explains that he is planning to conduct both her and Thena to freedom. Sophia reacts with anger, resentful that Hiram left her down in Lockless and unsure if she can trust him. He takes her to the Goose and begins reminiscing about the Christmas when the big group sat around the fire and discussed the story of Santi Bess. He squeezes the wooden horse in his pocket while he is talking. Immediately, Sophia jumps, because the Conduction has already begun.
Perhaps Corrine can’t be blamed for keeping secrets from Hiram because, as this passage shows, Hiram has done the exact same thing to Sophia and Thena. Furthermore, he has done it for seemingly similar reasons—in order to protect the eventual success of the mission and maintain control. Indeed, maintaining such control has proven to be a vital aspect of being a successful Underground agent.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
The people sitting around the fire that Christmas Day appear as visions over the water. Hiram lets go of the horse, and they fall down onto the other side of the riverbank. He tells Sophia, “It’s like dancing.” He shows her again and again, performing short Conductions to prove how it works. The final vision he summons is of a woman water dancing. The next night, Hiram asks Sophia if she’d ever seen someone water dance before. She says she knows where the tradition comes from. An African king was captured and brought onto a slave ship with his people. They revolted, killed the white people, and tried to turn the ship around. However, they were quickly surrounded by a white army, and the king told his people to walk out onto the water, saying the water goddess would bring them home.
This is another crucial passage in the novel, where water dancing’s poignant connection to rebellion and freedom is finally revealed. Indeed, it is significant that for most of the narrative, this connection has not been discussed openly. This replicates the manner in which rituals and myths are a part of daily life even when their actual meaning is not always apparent. Learning the meaning of water dancing helps Hiram understand why it is such an important tradition, and how it connects to Conduction. This is therefore a crucial reminder to trace the historical origins of rituals.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Hiram says that Santi Bess didn’t walk into the water—she danced into it. He says he’s learned that the “deeper” the memory he recalls, the farther Conduction takes him. The problem is that he needs an object linked to a memory that was further back in the past. Sophia asks what Hiram will do after he conducts her to the North, and he says that he will set her up somewhere and come and visit when he can. In response, Sophia says that she and Caroline aren’t going anywhere without him. She tells Hiram that he is Caroline’s father, “more of a daddy than that girl would ever have.” Hiram warns her that she is “chaining” herself, but Sophia replies, “Ain’t a chain if it is my choosing.”
The happy ending to Sophia and Hiram’s romantic narrative ties together many of the novel’s main themes in a cathartic, redemptive manner. Both Hiram and Sophia heal from the trauma of broken families by making their own, new family unit. Meanwhile, knowing that she has access to a life of freedom allows Sophia to shed her resistance to romantic coupledom and attach herself to Hiram, an attachment that doesn’t worry her because he respects her independence and agency.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
The next day, Sophia pretends that Caroline is ill so that Thena and Hiram will get time alone together while doing the laundry. While they are working, Hiram tells Thena that he has seen Kessiah. Thena’s initial response is to ask, “Who?” Hiram explains that Kessiah lives just outside Philadelphia, free, with a husband who loves her. Thena becomes lost in thought, recalling memories about Kessiah, whom she last saw when she was only a small child. She starts crying and asks if Hiram saw any of her other children. Apologetically, Hiram says he didn’t, and Thena grows angry. She asks why he told her this. She starts shouting at him, telling him to leave her alone, and that he is “done” to her. Hiram reflects that he should have expected this reaction. 
This is one of the most emotionally disturbing passages in the novel. In an ideal world, the prospect of being reunified with a lost family member would bring instant joy and relief. But the reality is that the psychological scars of separation are so deep that it is essentially a form of harm that cannot be undone. Indeed, Thena obviously feels re-traumatized simply by Hiram reminding her that her children are alive and presenting her with the possibility of reuniting with Kessiah. It is simply too much for her to handle.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
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