The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer: Chapter 7 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The new year comes, and Hiram feels sure that his “days at Lockless [are] numbered.” Approving of the job Hiram did on the highboy, Howell sets him to work restoring more pieces of furniture. The documents of sale that accompany the furniture give Hiram insight into his own ancestry, to a heritage that will never truly be his. He keeps thinking about Georgie and “what he might know.” One Friday, Hiram drives Sophia to Nathaniel’s house as usual. Sophia used to work as a maid to Nathaniel’s wife, Helen. She tells Hiram that she and Helen were friends, and that she “loved her.”
This passage contains two examples of the unreciprocated attachment enslaved people can end up feeling for enslavers. In the first instance, Hiram is interested in his familial heritage, even though this is a heritage denied to him by his race and slave status. In the second, Sophia expresses love for Helen, despite the fact that Helen was part of a system that holds her in bondage and subjected her to brutal sexual violence.
Themes
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Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Sophia and Helen grew up together and were best friends as children. Hiram thinks about how cruel it is to raise children as equals against the backdrop of slavery. Sophia explains that when Helen died in childbirth, she felt overcome with guilt. She still sees Helen in her dreams, and laments that once she gets a bit older, Nathaniel will discard her for a younger black woman who he will also treat like “jewelry.” With great sadness, she ponders over what it means to have a child who will be born into slavery.
This passage further explores all the ways in which slavery corrupts relations between people (whether childhood friendship or marriage). The novel shows that by participating in a system that dehumanizes others, enslavers render themselves unable to have authentic, loving relationships—even with one another.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Sophia explains that she is telling Hiram this because he knows about the wider world, and because something mysterious happened that enabled him to survive his fall into the Goose. Their conversation is interrupted by their arrival at Nathaniel’s house. As Hiram watches Sophia go inside, he knows that they must escape. Driving away, he feels more determined than ever to speak to Georgie. He understands that Georgie fears for him, particularly after having seen so many people be caught and sent to Natchez, yet he is determined to see him anyway.
The desperation Hiram feels in this passage is understandable. Sophia is forced to endure regular rape at the hands of Nathaniel and is increasingly coming to rely on Hiram as a source of strength and knowledge about the world. It is clear that, on some level, she has invested hope that he will be able to save them somehow, and he wants to live up to this belief.
Themes
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
The next day, Hiram goes to see Georgie, who has a grave air about him. Georgie emphasizes that he likes and admires Hiram, considering him a highly intelligent, respectable man. For this reason, he is baffled by the way Hiram is “looking for trouble.” He tells Hiram to “Go home. And get a wife. And get happy.” Hiram says that he is determined to escape and bring someone with him, Georgie warns him that taking “Nathaniel Walker’s girl” is a highly dangerous move. Hiram denies this, and gets increasingly angry as Georgie insists that Sophia, Hiram, and every enslaved person they know belongs to white people, urging Hiram to accept this fact. Hiram insists that he is going. Reluctantly, Georgie says to meet him in the same spot in one week.
Despite being free while Hiram is still enslaved, it is Georgie who seems to subscribe to conventional ways of thinking far more than Hiram. Perhaps Georgie has simply seen enough of the brutality and horror inflicted on those to try to rebel to want to protect Hiram from this. At the same time, his words leave open the possibility that he has truly been indoctrinated by the system of slavery and believes that it is better to accept one’s lot in life, even if this lot is a lifetime of enslavement. 
Themes
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Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
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Leaving his meeting with Georgie, Hiram passes Amy and Hawkins. Hawkins stops him, asking what brings him to town and then inquiring if he was going to see Georgie. Hiram is suspicious, and Hawkins says he doesn’t mean to pry. At that moment Hiram spots Mr. Fields walking over as if coming to meet Amy. Seeing Hiram, it seems as if Mr. Fields would rather change direction and avoid the encounter, but instead he tips his hat in greeting.
There is something mysterious and suspicious about Corrine, Amy, Hawkins, and Mr. Fields. They are all presented as intelligent people, and it seems that they are up to something below the surface of their seemingly ordinary behavior.
Themes
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Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Hiram suspects that Hawkins has been lying about here he found him after he almost drowned, and that he has somehow caught Hawkins in that lie. He tips his hat at Hawkins, Amy, and Mr. Fields and walks off. Although he doesn’t know it at the time, the fact that these two enslaved people are meeting with “a learned man of the North” should prompt scrutiny. The next day, when Hiram is on his way to Nathaniel’s estate to collect Sophia, he is stopped by “Ryland’s Hounds,” slavecatchers looking for runaways. Although he has his proper documentation, the encounter makes him nervous, because in his heart he has already decided to leave. Hiram and Sophia ride in silence, but when they get back to Lockless, she tells him she has to escape. Hiram replies, “Then let’s get out.”
“Ryland’s Hounds” is a term used throughout the novel to describe slavecatchers (both in Elm County and beyond). They are named after Ryland, the man who controls the jail where runaways are imprisoned, and who appears more as a mythical figure representing the brutal authority of the law than an actual character. Slavecatchers were a pervasive feature of the South (and, to a lesser extent, the North) during this period. They were one of the biggest reasons why escape was so challenging.
Themes
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon