The Water Is Wide features a large cast of characters. Pat Conroy remains the main character who narrates in first person this autobiographical novel. He does not attempt to mask the autobiographical content; he even uses his own name for the protagonist. Pat remains the novel's only rounded character, undergoing a gradual change due to his exposure to the isolated island culture and the slow but steady realization that idealism does not always have a place in real life. He begins the novel as a Southern teacher who wants to take on the job of teaching the black children of Yamacraw Island, a part of the school district of Beaufort, South Carolina, in an effort to rid himself of the guilt he feels over the prejudices with which he was raised. Framed by the time period of the early seventies, Pat evinces all the emotions incurred by the more liberal, antiwar, pro-human rights spirits of the time. His enthusiasm over helping the children, however, is no match for the enthusiasm of the school board members who want to fire him following a year of his unusual teaching methodology practiced upon the black island children. Upon discovering that the children remain illiterate after years of the white system's education,
Pat decides to educate them in areas to which they can better relate to their own world as well as that away from their island. His methods scandalize the other school teacher who observes him employing profanity, calling the students "punks," and allowing them to dance and sing in the classroom. Pat's major nemesis is Ezra Bennington, the elderly deputy school superintendent. The narrator says of him, "Ezra looked, talked, and acted like a huge southern cliche, a parody who was unaware that his type had been catalogued and identified over and over again." Bennington develops a hatred for Pat's new approach to education on Yamacraw.
The superintendent of schools, Dr. Henry Piedmont, begins the novel as Pat's supporter, mentioning that he sees himself in Pat's enthusiasm and yearning to help others. His support for Pat dissolves, not so much due to racism, as due to Pat's breaking the normal routine of the teachers under Piedmont's power. In a later hearing regarding Pat's dismissal, a judge asks Piedmont, "what other punishment could you have levied against this young man besides firing him?" Piedmont replies, "We have no other punishment . . . our teachers obey all the rules. We never have to discipline them."
The character who represents those teachers who never need discipline is Mrs. Brown, a black who has taught at Yamacraw for years. Pat views her ultimately as the saddest character involved with his life. She does as she is bid by the white establishment, betraying her own race. Full of self-importance when Pat first arrives to teach, she informs him that he is "overseas now," and he will have to use different teaching methods than those to which he may be accustomed. Her methods involve liberal beatings of students who do not behave themselves. She frowns upon Pat's approach to sharing music and art with the children, admonishing him that their main objective is to get through the text books which the school board provides. Pat finds this ironic, as few members of his junior high level class can read or write their own names. In his final analysis of what he terms "the masque on Yamacraw," Pat says of Mrs. Brown that she "was a woman victimized by her own insecurity. She wanted so badly to be accepted by whites. She luxuriated in the praise freely heaped upon her by Ezra Bennington . . . she learned to hate me because I did not agree with her opinion of the island people."
Each student has a distinct personality. Mary, as the eldest, becomes the interpreter of the strange dialect some of the...
(The entire section contains 964 words.)
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