Water Symbolism in Literature: What Does Water Symbolize?

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Most often, water represents cleansing, life and freedom. Water is a contextual symbol in literature, however, meaning that it can symbolize many things depending on how it is used in a story or poem. Often, the particular meaning hinges on the type of water being used as a symbol. For example, rivers often represent the flow of life because they are constantly moving, following a distinct path.

Significance of Water in Literature

In literature, water can symbolize ease, grace, and fluidity. It may also be the symbol of a driving force due to its continuous stream. Different types of water come with different meanings. For example, a fast-flowing river often indicates strength and focus. Moreover, throughout history, literary critics have pointed out that water — and often river water — typically represents both rebirth and healing.

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So, what are some common associations in well-known works of literature? Here are some enduring examples of water symbolism:

  • One of the most common examples of literature infused with water symbolism is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. In this classic story, Ishmael sails under Captain Ahab on a whaling ship. The journey Ishmael takes changes him forever — and the sea symbolizes the unpredictability of that journey.
  • In The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, water symbolizes rebirth as the old fisherman is able to catch fish again after being dragged into the sea.
  • In The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls by H.W. Longfellow, water symbolizes fluidity; in the same way the tide rises and falls, time moves on again and again.
  • Finally, playwright and poet William Shakespeare often used water as a symbol of cleansing; in Macbeth, Lady Macbeth desperately tries to wash away an invisible bloodstain, eager to cleanse herself of guilt.

Leonardo da Vinci believed that “water is the driving force in nature.” Henry David Thoreau shared a similar thought, saying, “The life in us is like the water in the river. It may rise this year higher than man has ever known it, and flood the parched uplands; even this may be the eventful year, which will drown out all our muskrats.”

Symbolic Meaning of Water

Water is a sacred symbol in most religious traditions, often referring to purity, rebirth, and fertility. Water’s significance as a spiritual and physical entity is highlighted in the Bible by stories about transformation and cleansing. Jewish tradition calls on people to immerse themselves in a bath on special occasions as a means of cleansing their spirits, while Muslim people use water to purify their spirits and prepare for daily prayer.

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In the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, water possesses healing powers, while Taoism considers water an agent of wisdom, because of its ability to flow, regardless of any obstacles. Finally, the pagans of ancient Greece used water as the symbol of transition and metamorphosis, due in part to its many forms.

The water symbol can also be found in astrology, with the signs Pisces, Cancer, and Scorpio all being water signs. However, despite being linked by the element of water, each of these signs has its own features. For example, Cancer is associated with purity; Scorpio is considered mysterious; and Pisces is linked with depth and creativity.

Water Imagery

The image of water is often used in works to illustrate a point. For example, in The Penelopiad, author Margaret Atwood relies on the recurring image of water continuing to flow — no matter what challenges it faces. It’s a driving force in everything it does, and, perhaps more importantly, it keeps going.

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Atwood then reminds the reader that they, too, are half water and have that same strength, writing, “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.”

Interestingly, Hermann Hesse presents similar imagery in Siddhartha by equating the river with an endless flow of the present. He notes that the river is everywhere and it doesn’t focus on the past or future — all it can control is the present.

Hesse writes, “That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”

Life & Death Symbols

As we all know, water is a catalyst of life. It fuels, renews, and cleanses us. However, it also has an immense — and potentially dangerous — power. While water is essential to life, it also has the ability to drown.

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In Moonglass, Jessi Kirby creates interesting imagery by connecting water with a character’s turbulent emotions. The character then comes to the conclusion that her mother was a victim of her own emotions, which became too much to handle — a kind of symbolic drowning. Kirby writes, “I read once that water is a symbol for emotions. And for a while now I’ve thought maybe my mother drowned in both.”

More specifically, the ocean or sea can also present unexpected, sometimes dangerous, challenges. At times, the ocean is full of turbulence or death, as seen in flood stories, from Gilgamesh to the tale of Noah’s ark. The point is, death can take many forms; it may not always be characterized by a skull, scythe or unlit candle.

But one thing is for certain: water is an important symbol in literature, one that can be interpreted in many ways. And, since water itself comes in many forms, this feels like an apt symbol in and of itself.