Water Symbolism in Literature: What Does Water Symbolize?

Typically, water symbolises purification, life, and liberty. Water is a contextual symbol in literature, meaning that its meaning varies depending on the situation in which it is employed. Frequently, the specific meaning depends on the sort of water used as a symbol. For instance, rivers frequently symbolise the flow of life since they are in constant motion and follow a specific direction.

Water’s Significance in Literature

In literature, water can represent grace, fluidity, and ease. It may also represent a driving force due to its constant flow. Different sorts of water have distinct significance. For instance, a swift-moving river frequently signifies strength and concentration. In addition, literary critics throughout history have noted that water, and frequently river water, typically denotes both rebirth and healing.

Therefore, what are some prevalent associations in well-known literary works? Here are some examples of water’s enduring symbolism:

Moby Dick by Herman Melville is one of the most recognised examples of literature saturated with water symbolism. In this classic tale, Ishmael goes on a whaling ship under the command of Captain Ahab. The sea represents the unpredictability of Ishmael’s trip, which transforms him irrevocably.
In Ernest Hemingway’s The Elderly Man and the Sea, water represents rebirth because the old fisherman is able to catch fish once again after being dragged into the sea.
In H.W. Longfellow’s The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls, water represents fluidity; just as the tide rises and falls repeatedly, so does time.
William Shakespeare frequently employed water as a symbol of purification; in Macbeth, Lady Macbeth urgently tries to wipe away an unseen bloodstain in an effort to purge herself of guilt.
Leonardo da Vinci thought water to be nature’s driving force. Henry David Thoreau expressed a similar sentiment, stating, “The life within us is like the river’s water. This may be the dramatic year in which all of our muskrats are extinguished.”

Meaning Symbolic of Water

In the majority of religious traditions, water is a symbol of holiness, rebirth, and fertility. The Bible emphasises the spiritual and physical significance of water through stories of transformation and purification. On exceptional occasions, Jewish tradition requires people to immerse themselves in a bath to purify their souls, whereas Muslims utilise water to purify their spirits and prepare for daily prayer.

In the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, water has healing properties, yet in Taoism, water’s ability to flow despite impediments makes it an agent of wisdom. Due in part to its myriad forms, ancient Greek pagans viewed water as the emblem of transformation and change.

In astrology, Pisces, Cancer, and Scorpio are all water signs, hence the water symbol is also present. Despite being connected by the element of water, each of these signs has unique characteristics. For instance, Cancer is connected with purity, Scorpio with mystique, and Pisces with depth and originality.

Water Visualization

The image of water is frequently utilised to convey a point in written works. For instance, in The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood uses the recurring idea of water continuing to flow regardless of the obstacles it encounters. It is a driving force in all that it does, and perhaps most significantly, it continues to go forward.

Atwood then reminds the reader that they, too, are composed of half water and possess the same strength by adding, “Water is patient.” A stone is worn down by dripping water. Recall this, my child. Consider that you are half water. If an impediment cannot be traversed, one must go around it. Water does.”

Hermann Hesse uses comparable imagery in Siddhartha by associating the river with the ceaseless flow of the present. He observes that the river is everywhere and does not consider the past or the future; it can only manage the present.

Hesse writes, “That the river is everywhere at once, 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 for it, only the present exists, neither the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.”

Life and Death Signs

Water, as we all know, is essential to life. It nourishes, refreshes, and purifies us. However, it also possesses an enormous, potentially dangerous power. While water is important to life, it may also cause drowning.

Stefania Pelfini, La Waziya Photography, Getty Images, provided the photograph.
Jessi Kirby develops intriguing visuals in Moonglass by equating water with a character’s volatile emotions. The character concludes that her mother was overcome by her own feelings, which she was unable to control – a type of symbolic drowning. Kirby writes, “I have read that water represents emotions. And for some time I’ve suspected that my mum drowned in both.”

Additionally, the ocean or sea might bring unexpected and occasionally perilous obstacles. As depicted in flood legends, such as those of Gilgamesh and Noah’s ark, the ocean is occasionally turbulent and deadly. Death can take numerous forms; it is not necessarily represented by a skull, a scythe, or an unlit candle.

But one thing is certain: water is a significant literary symbol that may be interpreted in numerous ways. And, as water itself exists in a variety of shapes, this seems an appropriate symbol in and of itself.


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