“The coffin” is a phrase many of the characters in the novel use to describe slavery (particularly as it exists in the Deep South), and is thus a way in which the novel characterizes slavery as a kind of living death. When characters are sent, kept, or returned to “the coffin,” their fates are mourned in a manner similar to if they had actually died. Indeed, many of the characters in the novel suggest that being enslaved (especially in the Deep South, where slavery is more brutal) is actually a fate worse than death. The coffin is also a significant metaphor because of how it evokes confinement. As the novel shows, to be enslaved is to be totally imprisoned, with one’s actions and movements so severely restricted that it is as if one were living inside a coffin.
The Coffin Quotes in The Water Dancer
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.