The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 33 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The next morning, after serving Howell breakfast, Hiram goes up to Howell’s study and writes a brief, coded letter to the Philadelphia Underground. He informs Harriet that he is going to try and get Thena and Sophia out using Conduction. Hiram then helps Howell with his own correspondence and waits for him to have his afternoon nap. While Howell is asleep, Hiram returns to his study and opens an ornate box he has noticed previously. Inside is a shell necklace, which he instantly recognizes as the one around Rose’s neck in the visions of her water dancing
The fact that Hiram has chosen to act alone is highly dangerous, although having the Philadelphia Underground’s support could prove transformative. The narrative is obviously building to a climactic conclusion, wherein the main characters will either successfully escape to freedom, be re-enslaved, or—perhaps even worse—separated.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Suddenly, all of Hiram’s forgetting dissolves, and he is finally gripped by the full memory of his mother. This knowledge makes him want to murder Howell immediately. Instead of doing so, he tucks the necklace under his shirt and walks into the kitchen, remembering that Howell is due to see Corrine that evening. After dinner, Corrine mentions that Hawkins wants to speak with Hiram. Going to see Hawkins, Hiram says he knows that he’s going to try to stop him freeing Sophia and Thena, but that he won’t succeed. Hawkins offers Hiram a cigar and talks about the profound gratitude he feels for Corrine.
Not only does Hiram have all the usual problems to worry about when attempting to convey people from freedom to slavery, but he is also facing the opposite of the Virginia Underground. Considering that Corrine has thus far proven herself to be the most powerful character in the book, this opposition is distinctly formidable, and threatens to unravel his whole plan.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Yet Hawkins then says that it can be easy to forget that the whole aim of the Underground is to fight for freedom, and that means that a person should be able to do whatever they want. Hiram’s plan might not be what Hawkins himself would do, but Hiram is “free and must act according to [his] own sense.” The next Sunday, Hiram and Thena load the crates of laundry together in silence. Eventually, Thena begins to cry, and begins speaking about how hard it was for her to love Hiram after her children were taken away. She managed to love him anyway, but then he left, too. Sobbing, she asks what she will say to Kessiah, and what she will do when she looks at her and cannot help but see her “lost ones.”
Hawkins’s words are very important. He subtly indicates that Corrine may at times lose sight of the fact that the Underground is an organization whose purpose is to fight for freedom. Indeed, considering Hiram’s earlier reflections about Corrine, this is likely because freedom doesn’t have the same meaning to her as it does for the formerly enslaved. While her own egocentric motivations for fighting take center stage, for Hiram and Hawkins, freedom what matters most. 
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
Related Quotes
Hiram knows they cannot wait much longer to get Sophia and Thena out. He waits two weeks for a response from Harriet, but doesn’t receive one, and thus knows he must press on alone. He arranges to conduct Thena on a Saturday night. He, Sophia, and Thena eat a “feast” together and then say goodbye; taking Thena first, Hiram tells Sophia to wait for him back in their cabin. Hiram leads Thena to the River Goose, and as they walk out the North Star shines brightly above them. Hiram dedicates the Conduction to Rose and to all mothers who have been taken or who have had their loved ones taken for them. 
The ritual of dedicating one’s Conductions to particular people is moving. It is a reminder that each Conduction is not an individual act, but one involving many people—indeed, a whole world of people. The power of memory is only important because of the way it connects people to one another across space and time. Without this communal element, memory and Conduction wouldn’t have the same profound meaning.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
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Hiram then turns to Thena, and says he is about to tell her something that he has never told her before. He says that for a long time he could not really remember Rose, but now he does. He remembers what she looked like, and that she used to tell him stories about Africa at night, and about their ancestors who now live “in that paradise under the sea.” Hiram then recalls when tobacco prices started falling, and the enslaved people of Lockless began to be sold off. He remembers that one night, Rose woke him up and carried him away with her. They travelled for three days, sleeping in the daytime and running at night. This was just after Emma had been sold.
This important twist shows that Hiram’s desire for flight was shared by Rose, establishing a continuous chain of connection between Santi Bess’s escape, Rose’s, and Hiram’s. Moreover, his memory that Rose used to tell him stories about Africa makes explicitly clear that Hiram’s loss of Rose and his memories of her is a metaphor for the loss of Africa and ancestral lineage that happened to all enslaved people and their descendants.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Ryland caught Rose and Hiram and brought them to the jail. Howell came to the jail looking “pained,” and asked Rose why she ran. He then grew angry, and Rose immediately knew that he was going to sell her as punishment. Rose took the shell necklace and gave it to Hiram, telling him to “Forget nothing of what you have seen.” Shortly after, Hiram was pulled away from her, and she was carried off. Back at Lockless, Howell took the necklace from Hiram and Hiram, despairing, fled into the stable. There was a water trough there, and it was via this water that he first experienced Conduction.
Hiram’s suppression of the memory that Howell sold Rose out of bitterness is perhaps the product of Hiram’s own lingering loyalties to his father despite the fact that Howell betrayed Rose (and Hiram) so terribly. Indeed, Howell’s pain upon learning that Rose ran away suggests that he was the victim of his own delusion. He tricked himself into believing that Rose loved him, when in fact she was, of course, his captive.
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
However, because the memory of all this was so painful, Hiram forgot it. He continues talking until he is no longer able to—Conduction overcomes them, and he is lost in a swirl of visions. A green light appears, and when Thena asks what’s happening, a voice replies, “It is Conduction, friend. It is the old ways, which shall and do remain.” Harriet is now there, apologizing for the delay. They arrive in Philadelphia, and Kessiah is there, telling Hiram he can go back because Thena is with them, safe.
Harriet’s words make it explicitly clear that Conduction is a practice inherited from Africa. Although enslaved people were denied the right to practice their own African religions, cultures, languages, and rituals, they managed to find ways to do so surreptitiously—and hence some of the “old ways” were able to “remain.”
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