The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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Lockless Symbol Icon

Lockless is the plantation where Hiram was born and grows up, and it is a symbol of captivity, injustice, and the ways in which slavery distorts one’s sense of family and home. The name “Lockless” is, of course, ironic: as a plantation where enslaved people are held captive, Lockless is a kind of prison. Yet the name also points to the way in which slavery is so pervasive that it is often literally lock-less, in the sense that actual cages, locks, and chains are not (normally) used to keep enslaved people in their place. Escape is so difficult and dangerous that physical restraints aren’t usually necessary. Lockless is Hiram’s “home” in the sense that it is the place where he was born and where his family lives; for a long time it is the only place he has ever known. The community of enslaved people who live at Lockless (on a part of the property called the Street) are a kind of extended family. Furthermore, Hiram’s father, Howell Walker, is the owner of the property—yet because he was born to an enslaved mother, Hiram inherits slave status and will not inherit any of Howell’s property. (Indeed, Hiram himself is Howell’s property.) As a boy and young man, Hiram is tormented by a fantasy of being named as the “rightful heir” of Lockless. This injustice is made even more pronounced by the fact that the property’s actual heir, Hiram’s half-brother Maynard, is a vulgar and incompetent fool whom everyone predicts will not be able to manage to the estate properly. Yet in a poignant twist, Hiram does end up becoming a kind of “heir” to Lockless, and he uses the property as a station on the Underground Railroad. By the end of the novel, Lockless ends up living up to the literal meaning of its name, transforming from a symbol of imprisonment to a site of justice and freedom.

Lockless Quotes in The Water Dancer

The The Water Dancer quotes below all refer to the symbol of Lockless. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the One World edition of The Water Dancer published in 2019.
Chapter 3 Quotes

It occurred to me then that even my own intelligence was unexceptional, for you could not set eyes anywhere on Lockless and not see the genius in its makers—genius in the hands that carved out the columns of the portico, genius in the songs that evoked, even in the whites, the deepest of joys and sorrows, genius in the men who made the fiddle strings whine and trill at their dances, genius in the bouquet of flavors served up from the kitchen, genius in all our lost, genius in Big John. Genius in my mother.

I imagined that my own quality might someday be recognized and then, perhaps, I, one who understood the workings of the house, the workings of the field, and the span of the larger world, might be deemed the true heir, the rightful heir, of Lockless. With this broad knowledge I would make the fields bloom again, and in that way save us all from the auctions and separation, from a descent into the darkness of Natchez, which was the coffin, which was all that awaited, I knew, under the rule of Maynard.

Related Characters: Hiram Walker (speaker), Rose, Maynard Walker, Big John
Related Symbols: Lockless, The Coffin
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire The Water Dancer LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Water Dancer PDF

Lockless Symbol Timeline in The Water Dancer

The timeline below shows where the symbol Lockless appears in The Water Dancer. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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...his “people,” including Aunt Emma and Uncle John. Rose had been the best dancer at Lockless, though Hiram didn’t inherit her talent. (full context)
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...pick up a fancy girl. They are now heading home, to the big house at Lockless. Maynard is Hiram’s brother, and also his master. Consumed by thoughts about those who have... (full context)
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Certain that he is about to die, Hiram thinks about his loved ones at Lockless: the elderly Thena and the young Sophia. He feels calm, convinced that he is “going... (full context)
Chapter 2
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...from a place of pain. He reasons that “she [is] not the meanest woman at Lockless, but the most honest.” After he knocks and gets no answer, Hiram enters the cabin... (full context)
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Thena reminds Hiram that all the wealth of Lockless comes from the tobacco fields. John was favored by the white bosses, but he insisted... (full context)
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Hiram’s father, Howell Walker, is the master of Lockless. When Hiram occasionally sees him riding through the plantation on his horse, Howell tips his... (full context)
Chapter 3
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...is not his “family,” but also cannot help but fantasize that he truly belongs at Lockless, and that he will one day inherit the property. Yet Hiram is also haunted by... (full context)
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...is sold. Hiram continues to feel both “horrified” and envious of the white people at Lockless. From working there, Hiram has come to learn just how dependent the functioning of the... (full context)
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...as exceptional, he can see signs of “genius” among all the enslaved people living at Lockless. A year after he first starts studying with Mr. Fields, Hiram goes to his lesson... (full context)
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...relatives lament his existence behind his back, predicting that he will cause the downfall of Lockless.   (full context)
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...relationship. By this point Howell has sold off so many of the enslaved workers at Lockless that the house has a deserted feel. Now, Howell urges Hiram to take good care... (full context)
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...so clearly as a result. That night, Hiram dreams that all the enslaved people at Lockless are extremely old and standing in the tobacco field. They are chained to Maynard, who... (full context)
Chapter 4
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...of food before returning inside. Hiram asks how he felt when Georgie walked off of Lockless after buying his freedom, and Georgie replies, “Like a man,” adding, “Which is not to... (full context)
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...no one really gets out, although he is glad that he is not captive at Lockless anymore. As Hiram gets ready to go, he tells Georgie that he has begun to... (full context)
Chapter 5
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 6
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...his own status as property and worries that this means he will have to leave Lockless, the only home he’s ever had.  (full context)
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Maynard’s body is never found. The enslaved people at Lockless work hard restoring the house in preparation for Christmas and the arrival of the extended... (full context)
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...full of desire for Sophia. He worries that Corrine may soon take him away from Lockless. He and Sophia link arms, and they gaze up at the starry sky together. (full context)
Chapter 7
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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... (full context)
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...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.” (full context)
Chapter 8
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...meeting, he feels removed from the physical reality around him. Although his body remains at Lockless, his heart is already free.  (full context)
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...into Thena. He suddenly feels very different from Thena and the other older people at Lockless, who have permanently given up any hope of freedom. Thena follows him back to his... (full context)
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...doing laundry, and feels angry and indignant toward her. He watches the sun rise over Lockless and thinks about the unknown adventure lying before him. He speaks briefly with Howell, who... (full context)
Chapter 11
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...ground. He calls out the lyrics of a song he remembers from his days at Lockless, singing not to the men around him but to someone else. As he sings, the... (full context)
Chapter 12
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Corrine continues that they suspected Hiram might have conducted himself back to Lockless, and had agents waiting to see if he showed up there. She says she will... (full context)
Chapter 15
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...a bite he is gripped by a sudden memory, transported all the way back to Lockless. He is in the kitchen in the house, and a woman asks him why he... (full context)
Chapter 17
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...that Bland owes Hiram an apology. Raymond then admits that he knows where Sophia is: Lockless. Corrine persuaded Howell to take Sophia back. The Underground has not gone to rescue her... (full context)
Chapter 20
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...by name. She introduces herself as Kessiah, saying that she also used to live at Lockless and that Rose used to leave Hiram with her to look after. She is Thena’s... (full context)
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...Kessiah that Thena looked after him, adding, “For me, Thena was the best part of Lockless.” (full context)
Chapter 26
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...connection back to Virginia and to Rose. He realizes that his old fantasies about inheriting Lockless and seeing Howell as his “savior” meant that he had been forgetting Rose. After all... (full context)
Chapter 27
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...He feels he owes it to her after how she took care of him at Lockless. He promises, “I will get her out.” Kessiah says she would love to see Thena... (full context)
Chapter 28
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The next day, Hiram heads to Lockless, feeling overwhelmed with emotion. To his shame, he finds himself praying that Lockless has somehow... (full context)
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...Hiram can stay in Maynard’s old room. Howell says that everything is very different at Lockless, and that in his old age he has become very concerned with finding a suitable... (full context)
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Sophia tells Hiram about the vast number of people who have been sold from Lockless. Looking at Caroline, Hiram sees from the color of her eyes that she must be... (full context)
Chapter 29
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...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. (full context)
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...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,... (full context)
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For some people, the bad fortune of Lockless represents an opportunity. Thena has started hiring herself out for laundry work, which will allow... (full context)
Chapter 30
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Hiram, Thena, Sophia, and Carrie are the only enslaved people at Lockless who are not in danger of being sold. The four of them form a “unit”... (full context)
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...how he always wanted him to. Caroline provides hope in the increasingly desolate atmosphere at Lockless. Sometimes Thena takes care of her and does so that Sunday. After doing some repair... (full context)
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After Sophia returned to Lockless, Corrine would sometimes come down to the Street and ask her who had been sold... (full context)
Chapter 31
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...him unless he tells her his entire plan in full. When they get back to Lockless, they find Thena with a bandage around her head. When they ask what happened, she... (full context)
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During Christmastime, Corrine comes to stay with Lockless, bringing a great number of servants as well as guests with her. This greatly cheers... (full context)
Chapter 32
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 33
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 34
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...a year passes before Hiram realizes what she means. Howell dies in the fall, with Lockless deeply in debt. However, before his death, Corrine arranges to buy it all and make... (full context)