Water, in its many forms, is a force to be reckoned with. It can give life, or it can take it; it is the foundation of our planet, and a meaningful factor in human existence. Of all the naturally occurring entities in the world, water – embracing the earth with oceans, rivers and lakes crossing and dotting the land, the atmosphere emptying itself upon all from above in the form of precipitation – presents as the most mysterious, the most unpredictable, and the most paradoxical. Therefore, it is not surprising that this simple substance is rich with symbolism in both real life and literature. Water symbolism consists of two opposing images. First, there is the concept of water as a catalyst of life; it is the fuel of organic survival, and it renews and revives the damaged and dirty. Baptism and the use of water as an instrument of cleansing, physically and spiritually, coincide with this viewpoint. However, the contrasting perspective cannot be ignored. Water also has a dangerous energy with the ability to drown life in its excesses faster than it can create it, swallowing up into its depths what cannot stay afloat and wiping away all traces of what lay in its path on occasions of complete annihilation.
In Celeste Ng’s harrowing contemporary novel Everything I Never Told You, the rain, the lake, and other water-related symbols demonstrate both angles, representing death and rebirth be it literal or figurative. This story of a Chinese American family in the 1970s tells of a heart-wrenching tragedy that ultimately dismantles the carefully constructed front keeping the characters together, and it is the integral setting for loss and starting anew. The Lee family loses their favorite child Lydia to a mysterious drowning in a nearby lake, and then they must learn how to forgive their mistakes and put the pieces of their shattered lives back together again. While water is certainly an entity of dual purpose, Ng combines the image of it as a restorative life force with that of it as a destructive and deadly energy to provide a keen insight on the cyclic nature of human life.
Throughout the novel there are times when water comes into play after an internal conflict is resolved to represent a positive change in a character, a rebirth or renewal of spirit. This symbolism even manifests itself in Lydia Lee’s inability to swim because she “would not even come near the water”, representing this lack of spiritual growth and positive change in Lydia (Ng 24). In literature, when one is submerged in water and lives, this is a sort of baptism, and “the self who bobs to the surface and clings to the sailboat is a new being” (Foster 83). Lydia’s refusal to accept this potential baptism by not learning to swim is reflected in the stubborn stasis of her character’s persona of subservience to her parent’s wishes. In contrast, even when Lydia’s brother Nath wills himself to die by drowning when he falls into the lake during his fight with Jack, he realizes “It’s too late. He’s already learned how not to drown” and he lets himself float to the surface (Ng 290). Nath’s submersion represents a change in his demeanor, and the feelings of anger and confusion have figuratively been washed away. At this point, he accepts that Lydia is gone and acknowledges that he must move on with his family and his own future endeavors. Once this symbolic baptism has taken place and Nath surfaces, he focuses on his youngest sister Hannah so as to not lose sight of her and to maintain his new convictions (Ng 292).
Likewise, after going to her childhood home to make sure her recently deceased mother’s things are in order, Lydia’s mother Marilyn accepts her shift in principles as she stands in the road on her journey back to let the rain drench her completely, demonstrating that “rain can be restorative and cleansing” (Foster 84). Marilyn has a revelation on her drive back to her family; the only memorable thing about her mother was the meals she prepared. Fearing that she will ultimately become like her mother whom she looked down upon, a housewife only to be valued for her domestic servitude, Marilyn vows, “Never. I will never end up like that” (Ng 86). She voluntarily allows the heavy rain to douse her, and even claims the drops sound like an applause. When she gets back into her car, she removes her clothes, shedding her old complacency for a new conviction. She is unclothed, vulnerable, and exposed as one is in birth, but instead of being embarrassed by this denudation, she admires it as she is proud of her new self (Ng 86). This is the beginning of a new chapter in Marilyn’s life during which she vows to be professionally significant in the medical field currently dominated by men, or else force Lydia into this role so that she may live vicariously through her. Ironically, Marilyn’s fervor in her reborn identity is in part what drives Lydia to venture out onto the lake that fated night and experience the other more negative side of water symbolism.
Although water has the ability to give new life and meaning to a person, it can also suddenly and mercilessly take it away. Each drowning in literature serves its own specific purpose, and in some cases can be symbolic of character revelation and failure (Foster 85). In Lydia’s case, she realizes she has been drowning figuratively for quite some time as she tries to fulfill the conflicting wishes of each of her parents in her everyday life without taking a moment to consider her own happiness. Her life is pulled to and fro by a current of fear – fear of losing her father’s love, of her mother leaving their family again for good, of her brother forgetting about her in college across the country. It is only a matter of time before she cannot keep herself afloat with this false identity and gets swallowed up in the depths of her misery. There is no where for Lydia to turn; she has waded too deep into a tide of falsities, and so on her final night: She looked down at the lake, which in the dark looked like nothing, just blackness, a great void spreading beneath her. It would be all right, she told herself, and she stepped out of the boat into the water. (Ng 276). Lydia comes to terms with her mistakes, but for her it is too late. The lake erases all evidence of the complexly fabricated life she lived out of fear of abandonment, and ultimately she must die to be rid of the painful phony parallel of how she should have lived.
Everything I Never Told You explains the duality of water, and its power to give and take life illustrated by the convoluted lives of the Lee family. In all its forms, water is a cleansing entity that changes the prevalent flaws in literary figures, typically by correcting and adjusting the flaw or eliminating that damaged figure altogether. There is a certain fluidity to human nature, a pattern of ups and downs reflected in the way people in literature are affected by the precipitation and bodies of water in their setting, which can be sustaining and destructive alternately and without warning. Imagery and symbolism having to do with water have such a prominent and recurring role in literature because its significance in terms of survival and change can take on a multitude of meanings. With the power to be both inhibiting and freeing, water is an especially vital life force.
Foster, Thomas C. “If She Comes Up, It’s Baptism.” How to Read Literature like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading Between the Lines. New York: Quill, 2003. Print.
Ng, Celeste. Everything I Never Told You. New York: Penguin, 2014. Print.