Literary Techniques

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The general form of The Water Is Wide is that of the autobiography. The novel is told in first person, with the author as the narrator; he also identifies himself as the main character. The novel might more firmly be placed within the tradition of "memoir," as it covers less than two years of the author's experiences. The first-person approach creates a limited point of view, but that works well for this particular novel, in which exist the parallel themes of academic education of the children, and social and political education for the author. Although the main character is not a child, the novel could still be classified as a coming-of-age novel, in which the narrator learns through bitter experience the realities of a world directed by superstition, prejudice and ignorance.

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Conroy seems to present an honest picture of his efforts, emphasizing the self-aggrandizing aspects of his personality at the novel's opening, and his own ignorance in dealing with what amounts to a different culture than his own. In dealing with first person narration, the reader should always suspect the narrator's trustworthiness. Such trust seems warranted in the instance of Conroy's novel.

In his novel may be seen many aspects of that type of writing which has been labeled "Southern." The themes, including religion and prejudice, are typical of the Southern novel, as are some of the more outlandish characterizations. Southerners are typically accepting of those among them with aberrant personalities; this shows up in Conroy's presentation of the island's perpetually grim victim of insanity, who smiles only when galloping horseback about the grounds. The author's characters find themselves embroiled not only with modern-day struggles, but also with problems inherited from a troubled regional past. The Southern attitude toward blacks, which might be summed up as "love the individual, hate the group" is most apparent in this book.

Yet Conroy manages to avoid the cliches which might dull his presentation. This is accomplished as he sees the long-time Southern situation through new eyes. The character Conroy is an idealist, but he is also a realist. While he craves the vision of the better life he imagines for the island children, he realizes that defeat constantly lurks around the corner in the form of the prejudicial Southern school system. He remains naive enough to allow the reader to support his hopes for a better future for the downtrodden, yet real enough for the reader to share his frustrations over encountering the proverbial brick wall.

Social Concerns

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In The Water Is Wide, Conroy allows the reader a glimpse of his own experiences as a young Southern teacher who attempts to affect changes among virulently prejudiced South Carolina whites in the early 1970s. While his first person account serves as a journal of sorts, emphasizing Conroy's own emotional reactions to the conditions he must overcome to serve as an effective teacher, it also speaks to his personal development. He allows his own developing self awareness to contrast with the stagnation of attitudes that represents the resistance to change in the early days of integration. Raised as a racist himself, Conroy frankly confronts his own often misplaced feelings of guilt over his unenlightened past in a present in which he desperately wants to help correct what he sees as an abhorrent social system. The local superintendent's words upon learning that Conroy wants to teach at the all black school on Yamacraw Island, "Jesus made you come to me today," foreshadows the narrator's future struggle in distinguishing between his own destiny and that of the island's children.

Through his...

(The entire section contains 876 words.)

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