The Water Dancer

by

Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Coffin Symbol Analysis

The Coffin Symbol Icon

“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

The The Water Dancer quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Coffin. 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:
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
). 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:
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The Coffin Symbol Timeline in The Water Dancer

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Coffin appears in The Water Dancer. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 13
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
...of Conduction. The current techniques they possess are not enough to rescue people from the “coffin” of slavery in the Deep South. Hiram asks what will happen if he is never... (full context)
Chapter 18
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
...Hiram suddenly feels a powerful surge of anger at Corrine, who left Sophia in the “coffin” and pretended not to know where she was. This anger brings on the blue light... (full context)
Chapter 20
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
...a campfire and start singing “the songs that could only be made down in the coffin.” Hiram thinks about how slavery is the root of all evil, as revealed by the... (full context)
Chapter 21
Broken Families Theme Icon
Stolen Skills, Power, and Knowledge Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
...to stay standing. He announces that Bland is dead, and Lydia is back in the “coffin.” Raymond and some other men take Otha away, trying to calm him. (full context)
Chapter 22
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
...the area. Bland could have left them but refused. Hawkins says sending Bland into the “coffin” to get “some babies” was foolish. (full context)
Chapter 27
Memory vs. Forgetting Theme Icon
Broken Families Theme Icon
Water, Movement, and Freedom Theme Icon
Humanity vs. Inhumanity Theme Icon
Before going back into the coffin, Hiram goes to see Kessiah. She asks how he is doing, and he replies, “Lotta... (full context)