The Uses of Water in Fiction (by Sheila Kohler)

Here’s another insightful post by award-winning author and teacher of creative writing, Sheila Kohler. Her most recent novel is the thriller Open Secrets, published by Penguin in 2020. Publishers Weekly said of the book: “The plot moves swiftly amid luxurious settings to a closing twist . . .” One of Sheila’s recent short stories, “Miss Martin,” was selected for the 2020 volume of Best American Mystery Stories. As in last week’s post by Michael Cebula, the work of author Patricia Highsmith is examined here—a timely tribute as it is the centenary of Highsmith’s birth this year. —Janet Hutchings

As a symbol, water has many connotations. It is life giving, sustaining, and dangerous. It immediately creates suspense, and fear of death: plunged under water, bereft of air, one drowns. Water boarding is probably one of the most effective methods of torture, we are told. Yet we begin our lives in water or certainly liquid—in the amniotic fluid in the comfort and security of our mothers’ wombs.

Water, too, perhaps for this reason, is used in many religious ceremonies. John the Baptist baptized Jesus with water, and water is at the center of the Christian baptism, which is considered a new birth, a ceremony that brings the baby into the congregation, into the church, giving the child a name, an identity, as holy water is sprinkled on the head. Judaism too has a ceremony of purification with the immersion in water.

Thus water has a double symbolism, representing both renewal, life, and death.

It is not surprising then that it is used as a central image in so many books and stories, only a few of which I can mention here. One that comes to mind immediately is “Black Water,” a novella by Joyce Carol Oates. Here the young heroine, Kelly, leaves her friend’s party to accompany the famous “Senator” whom she admires, hoping for a love affair with the handsome older man. Instead of love she finds death, trapped in his car, which he carelessly drives off a bridge and into the watery marshlands in Maine. The heroine, abandoned by the Senator, who escapes the car, is flooded by memories, remembering her life, as the author’s language rushes at the reader and the water floods into the car. Eventually, bereft of the bubble of life-giving air, she drowns.

Here, too, in a literary baptismal service, the author renames the places and people involved in the Chappaquiddick incident, when Mary Jo Kopechne was abandoned by Edward Kennedy, who drove his car off the bridge and into the water.

In The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith, we know from the start that Tom Ripley fears water. His parents have drowned in Boston Harbor, leaving him—an orphan—to the tender mercies of his Aunt Dottie, who calls him a sissy and bullies him, making him run by the car to fetch water on a hot day in moving traffic. Yet it is on the water that Tom Ripley takes on a new identity. He kills Dickie Greenleaf, the boy he has been sent to bring home. In the motorboat with an oar, Tom bashes Dickie over the head and after a struggle—Tom, unable to swim, almost drowns as he tries to control the madly spinning boat—Tom acquires a new life. Eventually, dressed in his clothes and taking his place in society, Tom Ripley becomes Dickie Greenleaf. 

Water here is both dangerous, bringing death and violence, but also a new birth. Tom Ripley is reborn as the wealthy and enviable Dickie whose fortune he eventually inherits in a false will. Secretly, shamefully, we root for his success.

In my own “Open Secrets” I used many of these motifs: Alice’s husband, a Swiss banker and a good sailor, is last seen when he leaves in the boat which belongs to his bank, the Circe. He goes sailing with a Russian client in Beaulieu sur Mer. A body is eventually found in the sea, wearing Michel’s clothes and his gold watch. Michel is presumed dead. Alice and her daughter attend the funeral together in deep sorrow. In her search for the reasons for her husband’s death, Alice is lured to swim out across the sea and onto her husband’s boat, the Circe, where she discovers the reasons that explain both his life and the death of his Russian client.

In Alice Munro’s wonderful story “Child’s Play,” a woman remembers a moment from her childhood during a stay in a camp at the sea. In an act of retribution she pays for this joint crime committed in the water in her youth.

Water thus combines for us all our hope for a new life, for a rebirth, and our ancient ancestral despair. It enables the writer to portray our joy in the value of each and every life, and our deepest sorrow and fear in the knowledge of the dangers which lap around us at all moments, threatening what we know must come to all of us some day.

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