The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Hiram is in the water, seeing the blue light and being “guided by [his] dancing mother,” and then suddenly is standing in a field. He recognizes the part of Lockless where he stands without understanding how he got there. Hiram spends three days unconscious with a fever before he awakes, paralyzed, in a sunny room. Sophia is sitting near him, humming a song and knitting. Over time, Hiram moves his body again, and begins to remember what happened with the bridge and the water. When he tries to speak to Sophia, she tells him not to, warning, “You may think yourself out of the Goose, but the Goose ain’t yet out of you.” 
Hiram’s brush with death has profound symbolic importance. Indeed, it can even be read as a kind of resurrection. This interpretation is supported by the fact that Hiram is unconscious for three days, which is the length of time between Jesus’s death and resurrection according to the New Testament. Furthermore, the fact that Hiram was submerged in water further links this experience to rebirth through baptism.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Hiram falls back asleep and dreams that he is in the water, still trying to save Maynard, who is drowning. When he next awakes, Howell is standing before him, sobbing. Howell tells Hiram that Maynard is dead, squeezing Hiram’s shoulder as he does so. He explains that they have not been able to find Maynard’s body, and laments that Maynard was the only memory he had of his dead wife. He tells Hiram that Maynard loved him, and that he suspects Maynard sacrificed his own life so that Hiram could survive. Hiram is astonished that Howell believes this. He reflects on the horrific contradictions of Virginia, a place “where a man could profess his love for you one moment and sell you off the next.”
It is significant that Hiram doesn’t feel anger toward Howell’s hypocrisy so much as bewilderment. He simply cannot fathom how Howell holds such contradictory thoughts in his head, or how he is capable of thinking as delusional as the belief that Maynard “loved” Hiram and would have sacrificed his life in order to save him. Bizarre as it may seem, this kind of paradoxical, delusional thinking was what defined the mindset of many enslavers.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
After speaking with Howell, Hiram finds Sophia talking to Thena, who greets him gruffly. He embraces Thena, and although she walks away from the hug without a word, Sophia assures him that Thena knows she loves him. She jokes that it was hard for her to cope with Hiram’s brush with death, and she doesn’t even “like [him], much less love [him].” During a pause in their conversation, Hiram invites Sophia to his room. He reaches into his pocket to rub the coin but realizes that it’s not there. Sophia tells him that it was Hawkins who saw him drowning in the Goose, which led to his rescue.  
Sophia is constantly teasing Hiram by pretending not to like him, but her behavior indicates that this does not accurately represent the truth of her feelings. Hiram, however, seems to have taken her teasing at face value, and this is why he believes that she doesn’t love him.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Later that evening, Hiram walks out of the house, passing Pete, who greets him warmly, yet whose words barely register. Hiram feels sure that the experience of being in the field near Lockless was real. He finds Sophia sitting by the grass, and when she speaks to him in the dazed voice she sometimes has, he offers to leave her alone. However, she explains that she has a habit of getting lost in thought and forgetting where she is. They walk together, and Sophia confesses that she used to have “big dumb dreams,” which she’s now let go. When Hiram asks what these dreams were, she simply replies, “breathing.”
Both Hiram and Sophia have found ways to travel outside the physical limitations imposed on them by slavery. Hiram has done so via Conduction, an as yet largely unexplained phenomenon that has something to do with the fact that he was mysteriously able to escape the Goose (and show up in an entirely different field). Sophia, meanwhile, induces out-of-body experiences through the power of thought alone.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
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Sophia tells Hiram that she’s from Carolina, and that she had family down there, and a man, with whom she used to dance. When Hiram says he didn’t inherit a talent for dance, Sophia replies that there is no need for talent; the point of dancing is just to do it. She observes that Hiram reminds her of her man, whose name was Mercury. Like Hiram, he was quiet and observant. Sophia suddenly gets self-conscious about telling Hiram so much about herself, but he is used to it—people are always telling him their stories. The next morning, Hiram walks out into the field and sees something glinting, which he immediately realizes is his coin. It becomes clear that this is his ticket into “the Realm—but not the Realm [he’d] long thought.”
As is obvious by now, the past plays a vitally important role in the novel. Indeed, in this passage alone, different personal histories—taking the form of memories, anecdotes, and mementos—are braided together to provide a rich but mysterious backdrop to the action taking place in the present. While the past is always prominent, its meaning is not necessarily clear, and it is up to the characters to decode this meaning themselves. 
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon