WATER: Rebirth in Literature

By Jo Phillips

Water is so commonplace in literature, but do people really understand what its purpose is?  From the Romantic era to the present-day, water is a timeless symbol that has been continuously used by writers.  But what does it represent?  Literary critics have deduced that water is representative of rebirth – usually mental – or some type of cleansing or healing process.  With these concepts inevitably comes change, and this idea is conveyed by books written throughout the centuries.

To go in chronological order, let’s start with Moby Dick by Herman Melville, which was written in 1851.  This Romantic-era novel recounts the adventures of the narrator Ishmael as he sails on the whaling ship Pequod under the command of Captain Ahab.  Ishmael believes he has signed onto a routine commission aboard a normal whaling vessel, but he soon learns that Captain Ahab is not guiding the Pequod in the simple pursuit of commerce but is seeking one specific whale, Moby-Dick, who is infamous for his giant proportions and his ability to destroy the whalers that seek him.  Ishmael changes dramatically as a result of his treacherous journey at sea, and he realizes his future is as unpredictable as the sea itself.

Skipping forward to 1952, we still see water as a prominent symbol in classical literature with The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.  An old Cuban fisherman’s dry spell is broken when he hooks a gigantic fish that drags him out to sea.  When he goes out into the water again, the old man is able to regain his pride as a fisherman and therefore changes as a person.

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A couple of decades later, Jaws by Peter Benchley came out.  In 1974 the novel was published, and the film adaptation is well known as one of the first outstandingly successful horror films.  It tells the story of a great white shark that preys upon a small resort town and the voyage of three men trying to kill it.  When the men journey out into the water to hunt down the shark, they face life-or-death situations, and this causes them to have a mental rebirth, or change of perspective on life.

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Books from the early 21st century demonstrate this trend as well.  Soul Surfer, an auto-biography published in 2004, is about Bethany Hamilton and her transformation from a young surfer, to an amputee after her arm gets bitten off in a shark attack, and eventually to a healed soul who helps others and inspires them with her story.  Where did her life change because she lost her arm?  Where was she when she realized she could still surf with one arm and inspire others to pursue their dreams no matter what their handicaps?  The water.

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Another contemporary novel in which water represents a change of mind is Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, written in 2006.  A veterinary student named Jacob abandons his studies after his parents are killed and joins a traveling circus as their vet.  The story is told as a flashback from him in his old age at a nursing home, and when old-Jacob hears a man lying about how he used to bring water for the elephants when he was younger, Jacob confronts him, demanding he tell the truth since you cannot bring elephants water because an elephant drinks too much.  After this moment, Jacob begins to remember his past; the thought of water takes him on a mental healing process, as he comes to terms with his past that he had been concealing since his wife died.

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An even more recent release, Burying Water by K.A. Tucker, published in 2014, depicts a young woman left for dead in the fields of rural Oregon who defies all odds and survives—but she awakens with no idea who she is, or what happened to her. Refusing to answer to “Jane Doe” for another day, the woman renames herself “Water” for the tiny, hidden marking on her body—the only clue to her past.  Water, is a saviour; it will help heal her from her near-death experience as well as bring back her memory.

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Water’s symbolism continues to be used effectively to this very day; in the beginning of July 2015 (perfect timing for our monthly theme of water!) Deep Water by Lu Hersey was published. In the novel, when Danni’s mother vanishes, she moves to a tiny Cornish fishing village with her father – where the locals treat her like a monster.  As the village’s dark, disturbing past bubbles to the surface, Danni discovers that she’s not who – or what – she thought she was.  And the only way to save her family from a bitter curse is to embrace her incredible new gift.  Danni uses water to help her embrace a new path of her life, and it is her interactions with water that change her life and show her what she is capable of.

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The use of water as a symbol of rebirth has lasted for centuries… and it is here to stay.