WATER AND LITERATURE
The holy books of the Hindus explain that all the inhabitants of the earth emerged from the primordial sea. It means the earliest life forms appeared in water and the same is the source of all life. The entire universe is largely composed of water and that’s why it can’t exist without it. Leonardo da Vinci is of the view that ‘Water is the driving force in nature.’ According to Thoreau ‘Life in us is like the water in a river.’
Water has always fascinated humankind. As a result, it plays a very prominent and recurrent role in literature. It gives constant fuel to the fires of imagination. According to Githa Hariharan, ‘Water, the fountainhead of civilization as of life, flows through human expression through the ages.’ Given the importance of water to life, it is not surprising that as a potent symbol it flows through literature.
Water is often used to symbolize various things in literature. The use of it as a symbol clearly has no set rules. Authors use it in different ways, representing different things, to make different points.
The symbolism of water has a universal undertone of purity, clarity, refreshment, mystery and fertility. As water is essential to our very existence, it is no wonder; the symbolism of water is so far-reaching and profoundly deep. Water is symbolic of motion, emotion, intuition and reflection. Water is, of course, mutable and sublime, sustaining and destructive, and throughout literature water serves as a representation not only of birth but of death, not merely of placidity but of violence. It holds the promise both of freedom and of enslavement, its shimmering surface inviting, and its depths mysterious and daunting. It is a universal symbol of change and is often present at turning points in a piece of art. Fresh water represents good health and polluted water symbolizes bad health.
In literature the river is a sign of ease, grace and fluidity. It is used to represent the calm beauty of nature. Certain types of rivers are often described as auspicious and healthy. A fast-flowing river is often used to symbolize strength; sometimes calamity. To Mark Twain water represents a boy's dreams, and a future of success. According to him ‘High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water.’
The Ocean is a sign of power and strength, dominating all other symbols of water, due to its immensity. All life was Ocean-born and life still exists in the Ocean; therefore it represents life. This source of water is known for being unpredictable and uncontrollable, hard to navigate in time of storm and sometimes known for being beautifully calm. Sometimes, it is referred to as being a tear of God or the sorrow; a place where you leave your bad memories and sadness. The ocean is also known to symbolize hope, truth, and in some cases, mystery and magic.
It is water in the form of the sea that has most captured the imagination of authors. The sea ‘keeps eternal whisperings around / Desolate shores,’ the poet John Keats observed, and those ‘eternal whisperings’ have been deciphered by writers for centuries, from Homer and Daniel Defoe to Walt Whitman and Edgar Alan Poe and Joseph Conrad, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and Herman Melville's Moby-Dick and Stephen Crane's ‘The Open Boat’ to Charles Johnson's Middle Passage and John Barth's The Tidewater Tales. ‘Surely the sea / is the most beautiful face in our universe,’ the poet Mary Oliver declares. ‘The sea is History,’ writes Derek Walcott. In literature, the sea is whatever we dream and desire and fear.
William Shakespeare’s beautiful play The Tempest deals with the sea:
‘Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell: Ding-dong
Hark! now I hear them,—Ding-dong, bell.’
In The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls by H.W. Longfellow, water in the form of the ocean becomes a symbol for time, never ending and never changing, even as the things around it become different due to its existence. This is shown by the constant refrain, ‘The tide rises, the tide falls.’ In a more recent short story, Average Waves in Unprotected Waters, Anne Tyler writes: ‘Everything had been ruled by the sea.’
Using Water as a symbol in Hamlet, William Shakespeare says, “Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia, And therefore I forbid my tears.”
Sherlock Holmes held that ‘From a drop of water, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other.’
In a beautiful composition Margaret Atwood mentions: ‘Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.’
To conclude, water is part and parcel of literature. The above mentioned examples clearly declare that it really plays a very prominent role in literature.