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The role of water in a scene of Beloved

by stewi87, July 13, 2012

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The scene treated in this analysis is from Toni Morrison's Beloved. It is situated where Paul D, a former slave is captured and deported together with forty-fife other prisoners and where they successfully manage to escape. All quotations will be from the following scene :

It rained.
Snakes came down from short-leaf pine and hemlock.
It rained.
Cypress, yellow poplar, ash and palmetto drooped under five days of rain without wind. By the eighth day the doves were nowhere in sight, by the ninth even the salamanders were gone. Dogs laid their ears down and stared over their paws. The men could not work. Chain-up was slow, breakfast abandoned, the two-step became a slow drag over soupy grass and unreliable earth.
It was decided to lock everybody down in the boxes till it either stopped or lightened up so a whiteman could walk, damnit, without flooding his gun and the dogs could quit shivering. The chain was threaded through forty-six loops of the best hand-forged iron in Georgia.
It rained.
In the boxes the men heard the water rise in the trench and looked out for cottonmouths. They squatted in muddy water, slept above it, peed in it. Paul D thought he was screaming; his mouth was open and there was this loud throat- splitting sound-but it may have been somebody else. Then he thought he was crying. Something was running down his cheeks. He lifted his hands to wipe away the tears and saw dark brown slime. Above him rivulets of mud slid through the boards of the roof. When it come down, he thought, gonna crush me like a thick bug. It happened so quick he had no time to ponder. Somebody yanked the chain-once-hard enough to cross his legs and throw him into the mud. He never figured out how he knew-how anybody did-but he did know-he did-and he took both hands and yanked the length of chain at his left, so the next man would know too. The water was above his ankles, flowing over the wooden plank he slept on. And then it wasn't water anymore. The ditch was caving in and mud oozed under and through the bars.
They waited- each and every one of the forty-six. Not screaming, although some of them must have fought like the devil not to. The mud was up to his thighs and he held on to the bars. Then it came-another yank-from the left this time and less forceful than the first because of the mud it passed through.
It started like the chain-up but the difference was the power of the chain. One by one, from Hi Man back on down the line, they dove. Down through the the mud under the bars, blind groping. Some had sense enough to wrap their heads in their shirts, cover their faces with rags, put on their shoes. Others just plunged, simply ducked down and pushed out, fighting up, reaching for air. Some lost direction and their neighbors, feeling the confused pull of the chain, snatched them around. For one lost, all lost. The chain that held them would save all or none, and Hi Man was the Delivery. They talked through that chain like Sam Morse and, Great God, they all came up. Like the unshriven dead, zombies on the loose, holding the chains in their hands, they trusted the rain and the dark, yes, but mostly Hi Man and each other. (Beloved, Chapter 10, 129f)

In this scene water plays several different important roles. Water has the function of being a symbol of change, liberation and community. On the other hand it represents a part of the Middle passage, a border and danger. This opposition between hope and fear draws a strong parallel to the feelings of former slaves gaining freedom or at least ceasing to be slaves, which is one of the main topics of Beloved. The question raised by this scene and the book is what the slaves have to do to gain freedom and what the gained freedom would look like once they have reached it.

The first function water has, is being a symbol of change and liberation. The first sign of this is when “the two- step became a slow drag over soupy grass and unreliable earth”. The prisoners, or the slaves are not easily led over the ground anymore because something has changed in the surroundings. The rain makes the “soupy grass and unreliable earth” difficult to pass. This change also occurs with slavery. At one point in time, the steady rain, possibly standing for resistance, makes it impossible to keep on going with injustice and oppression, thus “[t]he man could not work”. A different solution has to be found. The second change which is depicted in the scene is when “it isn't water anymore”. The water connects with the ground to form a crossable passage. This “mud” is the connection of earth and water. This connection makes it possible to escape. Before this was possible, long steady raining was necessary, which is represented by “It rained.”, which is repeated three times. But eventually the situation changed. This draws a parallel to the necessity of tenacious resistance to gain the opportunity of liberation for the slaves.

Water does not only represent change and liberation, but also the community existing between the people that share the water, or in other words, share the same miserable conditions. The prisoners “squatted in muddy water, slept above it, peed in it”. They share this water, the conditions are miserable, but hope is in sight as the water is already “muddy”. The connecting function of the muddy water comes even more to the fore whereas “[o]ne by one, from Hi Man back on down the line, they dove”. They “dove” all together which was the only possibility to get through. This shows how important community is to these men to get through the “mud”, to get through slavery. “Hi Man” stands here for the highest man, God. This becomes obvious in the last sentence of the scene above: “they trusted the rain and the dark, yes, but mostly Hi Man and each other”. Therefore they not only trust in “rain”, the revolution, but they know they are one team, and God is with them.

Contrasting this encouraging images, water remembers of the Middle Passage and how dreadful this passage was. The whole scene draws a parallel to the situation on a ship in a sea storm. Not only does it rain, the prisoners are put “down in the boxes”. “Boxes” are narrow, and this was exactly the situation for slaves on ships. Moreover the water is “flowing over the wooden plank he slept on”. This flooding also happens in stormy weather on sea. “The wooden plank” emphasises the impression of being on a ship even more. The fear of not surviving is made clear right from the beginning of the scene: “By the eighth day the doves were nowhere in sight, by the ninth even the salamanders were gone”. “The doves” are usually a sign of reaching land and the “salamanders” could stand for rats which are leaving the sinking ship. “Eighth” and “ninth” may represent the time it takes to cross the Atlantic Ocean with a ship.

Adding to this memory of slave trade is the function of water as danger and border. In this function water produces the dramatic effects needed for the scene to become an equivalent for the frightful life of slaves and the Middle Passage. The claustrophobic atmosphere of being imprisoned in a box is reinforced as “the men heard the water rise in the trench and looked out for cottonmouths”. The water is a danger itself and “cottonmouths” are coming with it. This snake lives in or at the water and could be seen as a pirate ship on sea, another danger existing on waters. The dangerous crossing of water or mud as a border, becomes evident when the prisoners “plunged”, “fighting up, reaching for air”. This “fighting” is an analogy to the fighting necessary to become free. Interesting are also the results of the passage to freedom. The freed prisoners are “zombies on the loose”. These “zombies” are similar to some other characters occurring in Beloved, e.g. Sethe's “zombie” daughter. What is shown by this, is the deformation the slaves have gone through by the slavery and the loss of identity they suffered. They became “zombies” in the process.

Conclusively, one can say that this scene depicts various aspects of slavery and its end. The symbol of water is used in the forms of rain, mud, and flooding water in order to connect the scene with the Middle Passage as well as to create the atmosphere of danger, fear, hope and community. What is striking, is how the prisoners work together to get freedom, only to find out that they have lost a lot of their identity. Therefore identity remains the open question, after this scene as well as throughout the book.

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