Black Water Summary

Black Water is a 1992 novella about a young woman named Kelly Kelleher who is killed in a car accident. The novella’s events are based on the real-life Chappaquiddick incident.

  • Kelly, who is keenly interested in politics, meets the much-older Senator at a Fourth of July party thrown by her friend Buffy St. John on Grayling Island.
  • Kelly and the Senator leave to spend the night together, but the Senator becomes lost and drives off the road into deep water.
  • While the Senator escapes the sinking car and flees the scene, Kelly is trapped and ultimately drowns.


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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 309

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Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates is a novella based on the tragic Chappaquiddick incident, in which Senator Ted Kennedy drove off a one-lane bridge late one evening in July 1969. Kennedy was able to escape, but his passenger, campaign staffer Mary Jo Kopechne, drowned. In Black Water, Oates changes the names of the characters—Kennedy’s character is referred to simply as “the Senator,” and Mary Jo is Kelly Kelleher. Oates also updates the timeframe from 1969 to the Reagan era.

The version Oates spins delves deep inside the mind of Kelly, summoning her thoughts, hopes, and dreams and imagining what it was like for this young woman to meet an important senator and become the object of his attention. The novella recounts their meeting at a Fourth of July party and how the Senator’s brief attentions and wooing led to Kelly’s fatal attraction to this older man of importance and means.

Through flashbacks to Kelly’s past, we learn how she came to be interested in politics through her family’s connections, her own experiences, and her carefully formed opinions. Just like Mary Jo, Kelly is a young, impassioned woman with the future ahead of her—a future that is shattered with one poor decision to get in the car with a man who has probably had too much to drink.

We learn about the Senator’s background and character mainly through Kelly’s impressions—what she thought she knew before meeting him and his attentiveness to her. Because we never really get into his mind, his character is kept more at arm’s length, which adds to his looming presence in the story. Oates makes the tale even more chilling by recounting the car accident in different ways throughout the story, capturing in excruciating detail how Kelly must have thought and felt during her final moments.


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Last Updated on March 16, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 713

Black Water is a fictional tragedy that refuses to abandon its origins in American political history. “The Senator,” the powerful fifty-something politician whose name is never given beyond his title, arrives at a Fourth of July party hosted by Buffy St. John at her parents’ home on Grayling Island, a twenty-minute ferry ride from Boothbay Harbor, Maine. During the course of this afternoon, which he spends talking, drinking, and playing tennis with the younger people gathered at the party, he captivates Kelly Kelleher, and the two of them leave late that evening to catch the last ferry off the island, to have dinner in Boothbay Harbor, and, presumably, to spend the night at the motel where the Senator is staying.

Yet something goes terribly wrong. The drunken senator misses the ferry road and ends up on a narrow and abandoned track. Kelly says, “I think we’re lost, Senator,” but it is finally Kelly who is lost. In the rush to catch the ferry, the rented car skids off the road and plunges into the deceptively deep Indian Creek. The car overturns in the water; the Senator escapes by scrambling over Kelly, who, pinned in the car with broken bones, slowly drowns. The Senator stumbles several miles to call his friend Ray Annick back at the party for help; the accident, he yells into the phone, was the girl’s fault.

The events follow closely the July 1969 incident at Chappaquiddick, Massachusetts, when thirty-seven-year-old Senator Ted Kennedy left the scene of a similar accident and Mary Jo Kopechne was drowned. The major difference is time; while the model occurred decades earlier, Joyce Carol Oates brings this incident up to the present. Still, readers are witnessing a fictional version of recent political, but very personal, history.

Although Kennedy is never named, many other political players are; the Senator, for example, is described as “eleven years younger than George Bush.” Oates uses undigested political history, discussing the 1988 presidential campaign and its attendant controversies in detail, and she has the Senator tell the younger people around him that “the Gulf War has given your generation a tragic idea of war and of diplomacy: the delusion that war is relatively easy, and diplomacy is war, the most expedient of options.”

The short, 154-page novel is broken into two parts and thirty-two chapters. Part 1 opens with a chapter that gives the core action of the book:

The rented Toyota, driven with such impatient exuberance by the Senator, was speeding along the unpaved unnamed road, taking the turns in giddy skidding slides, and then, with no warning, somehow the car had gone off the road and had overturned in black rushing water, listing to its passenger’s side, rapidly sinking. Am I going to die?—like this?

The following chapters alternate between descriptions of the accident, the Senator’s escape, Kelly’s slow drowning, earlier incidents in the day (a tennis match, their first kiss, his suggestion that she join his staff) and in her young life (snippets of scenes with her parents, with Buffy at Brown University, with her earlier lover). Much of the action is described from somewhere within Kelly’s fractured head; increasingly in part 2, readers get her fantasies of escape and rescue; the first sentence of part 2, for example, reads: “He was gone but would come back to save her.” Almost as a refrain in the novel, Oates repeats that the water is rising: “As the black water filled her lungs, and she died.” This prose has an intense, poetic quality characteristic of Oates at her best; the entire chapter 10, for example, consists of one two-page sentence that provides both momentum to the story and tension to the writing. Metaphors of loss of sight and direction, moreover, reverberate through the short novel.

It is a tribute to the power of this writing that, though the outcome of this story is certain, Oates makes it exciting. In fact, like Ambrose Bierce’s famous short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—in which readers watch a convicted Confederate spy escape only to realize that it was all a dream in the seconds before he was hung—Oates builds the hope that in this version of history, at least, the innocent young woman may in the end escape.


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