The Farming of Bones: the Symbolic Portrayal of Water’s Relation to Death vs. Life
“Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live. ” (Norman Cousins) Death comes to us all, for some it marks the end of a life, for others it reveals the road to a new path in which the soul travels. However it leaves behind a trail of darkness regardless for those who have experienced the loss. Through enduring the death and tragedies of those around us, we are tested by our emotions. The character Amabelle experiences the trauma of death and tragedy many times through water in her journey and Danticat shows us how it affects her in the novel.
In a time where there was much death and tragedy, Danticat’s depictions gives us insight into just how horrific the events were that took place during the period of the novel. In Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones, water is viewed upon as a symbol of death vs. life and is a common theme in the novel especially in reference to the Massacre River. The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat revolves around the true events that occurred in 1937 in the Dominican Republic. The dictator at the time was a man named Rafael Trujillo who ordered his troops to massacre as many as 15,000 Haitians living in the Dominican Republic.
The killings were brutal and left survivors with psychological trauma after experiencing the massacre. (Hewett 123) In The Farming of Bones, Danticat does an exceptional job with supplying the reader with details of just how horrific this massacre was, giving us an imagery of death by Trujillo’s soldiers and the brutal acts done upon Haitians living in the Dominican Republic. The character Amabelle shares her story and sorrow through her memories and present as she makes her way to the border in hopes of surviving the struggle.
The loss of Amabelle’s parents in the Massacre River is the first hint Danticat gives us to support that water has a negative symbolism in the novel. As the narrator in the novel, we as the reader get a more personal in depth understanding of how the Massacre River has brought sorrow and death into her life. Amabelle dwells a great deal on the death of her parents. She has many memories and dreams that are thrown into the story and give us a greater insight to the development of her as a character. Her dreams are recollections of her mother and father drowning in the river that is on the order between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. She watches them drown but does not cross the river in which they are taken from her. “The ongoing trauma of her parents drowning manifests itself in recurring dreams about these events as well as Amabelle’s attitude towards water-rivers, waterfalls, and lakes, which can be understood not just as a symptomatic repetition of loss but also her own desire for a place of safety. ” (Heather Hewett) We can see how water here plays a role in the book as a symbol of death through Amabelle’s experiences.
Danticat repeats this theme of water being the bringer of death throughout the story. Danticat symbolizes water once again as a means of death when Trujillo’s soldiers have Haitian captures at the edge of a cliff, with jagged rocks and the sea beneath them. The bodies that lay motionless at the bottom of the cliff, scarred and torn with cuts, men and women cried in terror for their lives, for if they did not meet there end at the bottom of the sea, they surely would by the soldiers machetes.
The choices that had to be made were far greater than anything most of us could understand, however Danticat gives us verbal imagery of just how horrific it must have been to make such a decision and knowing that one way or another, death was on the way. Dealing with the death of Odette, and taking her life to save her own, Amabelle’s character was forever changed. In some aspects, Amabelle never made it out of the river herself because she is forever changed after the trauma. She takes the life of Odette in order to save her own when crossing the river.
There are guards standing with guns on top the river bridge, and this is where the life of Odette along with Tibon and Wilner are taken. Odette begins to choke under the water after Wilner is shot, which in turn is causing her cover to be blown, and in an attempt to save herself from being discovered, Amabelle shoves her head under the water so that the guards would not hear the noise. This scene marked a great change in Amabelle’s character. Taking a life for the first time, and the irony of it taking place in water, drowning the way her parents had drown support the idea of water being a symbol of death and tragedy in the novel.
The event causes Amabelle to distance herself even more from the events that take place, and numbs her to the surroundings. When Sebastian does not return to the waterfalls, Amabelle becomes instilled with a sense of reality that her lover is truly gone and water once again is portrayed as a symbol of death and sorrow. Before the massacre takes place, Sebastian and Amabelle fall in love and help one another heal from the earlier tragedy. They become engaged and make love at the site of the falls. The water again here is present and can be symbolized as an element of two people coming together.
However when Amabelle returns to the same falls in hopes of meeting Sebastian, she is sadly disappointed. Her hopes of Sebastian surviving the massacre are still embedded deep within her, but the truth is that he had passed and all that was left for Amabelle was the presence she felt when revisiting the memories they had made at the waterfall. “Water the destroyer, in the form of the river – ironically named Massacre – in which Amabelle’s parents drown, and in which, later, many of the escaping Haitians loser their lives. But there is also the waterfall on the Dominican side, behind which Amabelle and Sebastian make love for the first time. (Divakaruni 1) The waterfall cannot symbolize a happier time because it will be a constant reminder of Sebastian and only feed Amabelle’s pain of loss. The water constitutes as a symbol of death here again in Danticat’s The Farming of Bones. Amabelle has always been one to hold onto her dreams and past because she feels it is all she has to remember where she has come from. Amabelle comments “You may be surprised what we use our dreams to do, how we drape them over our sight and carry them like amulets to protect us from evil spells. (Danticat 265)
Amabelle dreams symbolize her way of dealing with death and how she is able to hold onto the past. She continues to dream despite the sorrow and loss of her parent’s and Sebastian’s death. She feels she must do so because it is the only story she holds that is completely hers, and wants to hold onto that for as long as she can. Towards the end of the novel when Amabelle revisits the Massacre River where so many were killed along with her parents. The water here is very symbolic and can be looked upon as a symbol of death vs. ife because of the actions taken by Amabelle. She lays her body in the water as she slips herself into the current. “I looked to my dreams for softness, for a gentler embrace, for relief from the fear of mudslides and blood bubbling out of the riverbed, where it is said the dead add their tears to the river flow. ” (Danticat 310) Amabelle at this point is ready to be reunited with her parents and Sebastian. She is allowing the water to once again play its role as a symbol of death and bring her peace after living a life of loss and struggle.
She was “looking for the dawn” (Danticat 310), a new beginning, and would find it only in death. The irony of the novel is that water had taken the lives of so many in the story, and in the conclusion of it all, Danticat allows its heroine Amabelle to pass away in it. “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live. ” (Norman Cousins) Amabelle’s character was in constant change throughout the novel, and as the story progressed, we as the reader could make the depictions in her change and how after each loss, she died a little more inside.
The death of her parents and Sebastian leaves Amabelle torn, and suggests that she is emotionally removed from everything that is occurring around her. At the end of the story, she gives her life to the Massacre River because she has nothing more to live for. In Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones, water is viewed upon as a symbol of death vs. life and is a common theme in the novel especially in reference to the Massacre River. Research Paper on The Farming of Bones: The Symbolic Portrayal of Water’s Relation to Death vs. Life By Habib Agha Literary Perspectives Professor Nevarez April 29th 2010