Close Reading 6 of 12 (Exploring Memory in Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a short novel written by Neil Gaiman, is an almost fairytale-like story narrated from the perspective of a seven year-old boy. The novel opens with an adult man, who goes unnamed through the entire story, which is told in the first person, returning to his old neighborhood after a funeral. The man is compelled to visit his former neighbors, the Hempstock women, who live at the end of the lane. Once there, he bypasses almost all conversation and asks to sit by the pond in their backyard. From there, the story steps backward in time as the man relives his days as a seven year-old, and the reader is taken along for the experience. What the reader doesn’t fully understand at the beginning of the book is that this man is compelled to return to the pond every so often when he is having a hard time with life. As he is drawn toward the pond, his memories of that time return, and when he leaves the pond, the memories fade away, forgotten entirely. Every visit for the man is a journey back into the story and back into himself at seven.

Gaiman accomplishes the transcendence of time and memory in subtle changes in voice and tone of the man. At first, he thinks and speaks like a man. As he goes deeper into remembering the story, the man, while still clearly himself, has the voice of a boy. This shift is seamless to the reader. As the man remembers and drifts backward, the boy in him comes forward.

I had been here, hadn’t I, a long time ago? I was sure I had. Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good. I stood in the hallway and called, “Hello? Is there anybody here?”

Gaiman, Ocean, page 4.

The man has been inexplicably drawn to this house that he does not remember being in until he is inside. He is pulled there by something unconscious and buried within him. This is alluded to not only by his own confusion at being there but by his choice to explain it to the reader as childhood toys not gone but layered underneath. His unconscious is already accepting that this visit is to unearth the past, and Gaiman chooses his words carefully to prime the reader for what is to come. Just as the man has to relive his story and remember it through the reliving, the reader will also live it and take from it.

The prologue ends with the man sitting by the pond and sloughing off what he sees and replacing it with the magic of what he saw when he was seven.

The pond was smaller than I remembered. There was a little wooden shed on the far side, and, by the path, an ancient, heavy, wood-and-metal bench. The peeling wooden slats had been painted with green a few years ago. I sat on the bench, and stared at the reflection of the sky in the water, at the scum of the duckweed at the edges, and the half-dozen lily pads. Every now and again, I tossed a hazelnut into the middle of the pond, the pond that Lettie Hempstock had called…

It wasn’t the sea, was it?

She would be older than I am now, Lettie Hempstock. She was only a handful of years older than I was back then, for all her funny talk. She was eleven. I was… what was I? It was after the bad birthday party. I know that. So I would have been seven.

I wondered if we had ever fallen in the water. Had I pushed her into the duck pond, that strange girl who lived in the farm at the very bottom of the lane? I remembered her being in the water. Perhaps she had pushed me in too.

Where did she go? America? No, Australia. That was it. Somewhere a long way away.

And it wasn’t the sea. It was the ocean.

Lettie Hempstock’s ocean.

I remembered that, and , remembering that, I remembered everything.

Gaiman, Ocean, pages 7-8.

The above passage depicts the ebb and flow of the man’s memory. Gaiman takes his time re-immersing the man. The memory trickles at first, and the more the man connects with the water and with the memory of Lettie, the more comes back to him. Gaiman doesn’t have the man physically enter the water, but he does have him wonder about it, and thinking about falling in the water in the past is a metaphor for actually falling into the memories of Lettie and the man’s seven year-old self now.

The first formal chapter starts off matter-of-factly, as if recalled from the perspective of an adult. There is no confusion or disruption to the memories. The man very detachedly recalls his seventh birthday party, where not a single person attended. Over the course of nine paragraphs in the opening of Chapter One, Gaiman draws on language and words to drag the reader back in time with the man. The man goes from recalling the scene in complex sentences to simple child-like statements over the course of the opening paragraphs.

There was a table laid with jellies and trifles, with a party hat beside each place and a birthday cake with seven candles on it in the center of the table. The cake had a book drawn on it, in icing. My mother, who had organized the party, told me that the lady at the bakery said that they had never put a book on a birthday cake before, and that mostly for boys it was footballs or spaceships. I was their first book.

Gaiman, Ocean, page 10.

Even in paragraph two, the reader can feel the man slipping into his childhood. The paragraph begins with a factual recounting of the party setting and his cake, but it ends with the self-identification of the boy as “their first book.” He has already begun to identify with the child that he once was. By paragraph nine of Chapter One, the man has fully regressed to the voice of a seven year-old. “I do not remember ever asking any of the other children in my class at school why they had not come to my party. I did not need to ask them. They were not my friends, after all. They were just the people I went to school with.” Gaiman, Ocean, page 11.

Gaiman ends chapter two with one last glimpse of the man before he fully slips into the ocean of memory and reverts to boy. “It all came back and even as it came back I knew it would not be for long: all the things I remembered, sitting on the green bench beside the little pond that Lettie Hempstock had once convinced me was an ocean.” Gaiman, Ocean, page 13. From that point forward, there is barely a reference to the adult man as the narrator. The story unfolds as if the narrator himself has receded into the haze of childhood. It is not until the epilogue that the adult version of the man re-emerges, and Gaiman eases us softly back into the present as the man begins to forget the story and we realize that this is a habitual action on his part. The return, the remembering, the immersion, and the forgetting are the cycle that plays out, his homage to the ocean and Lettie Hempstock, but the tenderness with which Gaiman treats the immersion and the forgetting leaves the reader with the sense that they have just been exposed to a cherished secret, one that even the narrator will not remember.

Ocean at the End of the Lane is fantastic for many reasons, but Gaiman’s use of language, tone and internal monologue allow the reader to connect with an unnamed, undescribed narrator on an internal journey back to his childhood, as if the reader and the man together had drifted off to a collective dream and awoken from it hours later, unsure of what was real or not.

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