What Lurks Beneath the Surface: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Dark nooks and crannies inhabited by ghouls, trolls, and hags, the monsters under the bed, the suspicious stranger in the street, the thing that creeps outside the window as soon as the night falls – do any of these ring a bell? Numerous highly individualised and vivid fears worm their way into the mind of a child. The fact that the adults do not have the time to listen to your theories and even take into consideration that they might be true does not make things any better. You are left to your own devices, and finding ways to cope with your fears and keep the monsters at bay is definitely one of the challenging phases of growing up. You can consider yourself lucky if you have a friend who will lend you an understanding ear, otherwise you are in a very vulnerable and precarious position. The children’s vulnerability, the ability to see through the adults surrounding them, and the invisible supernatural ties palpable only to the child’s fingers are used in Neil Gaiman’s works to convey a deep message that does not divulge itself easily to an adult eye.the_ocean_at_the_end_of_the_lane_by_neil_gaiman

In The Ocean at the End of the Lane the narrator returns to his hometown for a funeral and finds himself randomly revisitingsome key places from his childhood. The perception changes significantly upon one’s transition to adulthood and everything that had once seemed large and significant now assumes a somewhat shrunken and drab appearance. Thus the narrator comes to the ‘ocean’ at the end of his lane and finds that it is but a duck pond. However, the ocean at the end of the lane has a much larger significance as a trigger for all the memories from long ago to start flooding back. The childhood reminiscences and perceptions are seen through the prism of both the narrator’s and the reader’s adult perception and an excerpt from the narrator’s family story is revealed in a somewhat different light.

ocean-3The narrator was a lonely child. Nobody came to his seventh birthday party. He was not close to his parents or siblings. The only source of comfort came from the Hempstock family whose farm was at the end of the lane. The Hempstocks (Lettie, her mother, and grandmother) not only understood the narrator’s nightmarish fears but they themselves seemed to be tied to the supernatural cosmic life force that resided within their ‘ocean’. They guided Lettie and the young narrator in their efforts to ‘bind’ and overcome the undefined malevolence that seemed to be threatening them. The malevolent monster was summoned by the suicide committed at the end of the lane by one of the boy’s parents’ lodgers. It is described as ‘a lopsided canvas structure aged by weather and ripped by time’ that does not get completely destroyed by Lettie’s spell but manages to plant a worm of malevolence into the boy’s foot. The seed germinates and it eventually takes the form of Ursula Monkton, the live-in-nanny that enchants the boy’s entire family, leaving him as the only one who can see through her facade and into her ragged cloth eyes. Is this just a case of childish dislike and hatred of the nanny, or is there something more?

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The boy decides to show blatant disobedience to the intruder by refusing to eat what she
made for dinner. This particular scene occurs on a day that the boy’s mother is away on a meeting and the father has brought flowers for Ursula and she is sitting beside him at the table.  The boy claims that she is ‘not a human’ but a monster, a ‘flea’ and the father’s face turns red with rage. The boy tries hiding in the only room that can be locked from the inside, the upstairs bathroom, but this proves to be a mistake. The father breaks down the door, fills the bathtub with cold water, and inflicts a horrible punishment.  The boy looks ‘at the intent expression on his face’ and realizes that his father ‘had taken off his jacket before he came upstairs. He was wearing a light blue shirt and a maroon paisley tie. He pulled off his watch on its expandable strap, dropped it onto the window ledge. Then I realized what he was going to do.’ The father’s terrible intention can be read from his calculated moves. The words that resound in the boy’s mind are ‘wrong’, ‘cold’, ‘death’, but he does not surrender easily.  He decides that he is going to live and fights with all his might to stay afloat.  The horrifying realism, the minute descriptions of this scene hold the readers in a tight grip and make them feel and believe. The scene is straightforward, there is no magic here, no pretense, but the most straightforwardly narrated experience in the whole book. 
ocean-2Imagination is the tool that children use to explain and interpret reality. Is this merely a fear induced by a child’s trauma due to the suicide of someone that he used to know? Did the dive into the duck pond revive the boy’s memory of being submerged in the bathtub grappling for his life, and thus causing some kind of metaphysical experience that was supposed to have a healing effect? Is the novel a very subtle representation of a child’s psyche and its coping mechanisms? Or do we take the magic at face value? I will leave that to you.

© 2017 Erna G. – All Rights Reserved

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