This article will be presented in two parts: the first is an interpretation of Gaiman’s book; the second will be my commentary on the book in terms of the sacramental Christian worldview.
In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman investigates the ways in which we interpret and assimilate events and memories, and how our ability to incorporate our past affects and determines our present understanding of our selves and the world around us. Gaiman re appropriates disparate myths and symbols in a complex manner; the unifying theme is Jungian psychology, brought to life through traditional symbols the author has synthesized. Reading Ocean is a bit like watching Christopher Nolan’s movie Memento, wherein the character and audience experience the events of his life in reverse, and each slide back into the past presents a different aspect of key events of the protagonist’s life, because we can only cope with the harsh realities of life when they are put into context with the present. In Ocean, though, we are left not solely with the conclusion to a specific story, but rather, the working out of a theory as to how our minds and memories adapt as we grow up and learn about evil in the world and the failings of those we love. It is a book about how we help ourselves understand the vagaries of existence.
The plot revolves around an unnamed artist’s return to his family home in the British countryside which jettisons us into a flashback; our artist is a bookish boy, aged 7, in the 1960s, alienated in his life with his parents and sister, none of whom are sympathetic to his sensitive, artistic nature. Not exactly original—but Gaiman uses the boy’s sense of disjointedness, of not belonging, to introduce the broader theme of the individual’s psychological journey into self integration. Carl Jung posits that the self can only become whole by assimilating past experiences with personal values and desires. In Ocean, the artist must recall his past in order to incorporate his understanding of painful memories into who he is now. (Though the boy is only 7 years old, that number is probably symbolic; his internal conflicts are those of an adolescent who is trying to “complete” himself and come to an adult understanding of the world.) The book investigates the traumatic events which led to the boy’s entrance into adulthood, and therefore, full personhood, but ultimately, we learn that he has returned many times to the ocean; i.e., we all must go back to revisit our memories periodically if we are to continue the process of understanding who we are, and in order that we may make sense of our personal “worlds” within the context of our larger reality.
Ocean is a full blown myth which explores our subconscious and conscious motivations and memories; Gaiman questions the validity of our recollections while at the same time affirming the importance of them as the fabric by which we know ourselves. However–and this is the crucial conflict in the book–we cannot directly access our painful experiences–the “raw” data–without experiencing a disintegration of the self; we can only accept and integrate major changes in our lives through symbols and archetypes, which facilitate the integration of these occurrences and memories into the “self.”
Jung’s anima or animus is the vehicle through which experiences are sorted, interpreted, and assimilated into the self, and in Ocean, the Hempstock family, and particularly Lettie, play that role. The name Hempstock points the reader clearly in the direction of alternative understandings of reality, since the women, like a drug, help him access hidden recesses of the mind. If the boy allows them to, the Hempstock anima will lead him into fully integrating all of his experiences, both negative and positive. Lettie, her mother and grandmother are guides to the personal unconscious. As the young boy’s personal anima, Lettie is his Beatrice, his psychological guide.
The boy initially meets the Hempstock women because he and his father discover the body of a man they know who has committed suicide in their family car–down the lane. The three women take the boy through the perilous waters of coming adulthood, self-understanding and acceptance of reality. They give him safe harbor–a psychological safe “place” which is apart from his increasingly unpleasant and unacceptable home life. They feed him comfort food, a stark contrast to the “burned toast” of his home, and in their role as anima they bring maternal support, teaching him psychological boundaries, “dressing” him in the clothes of his anima— the feminine (opposite) side of his self which must be unearthed and appropriated in order for him to “find” himself.
Throughout the book, Lettie Hempstock asserts that she will keep the boy safe, and it is only when he lets go of her hand while traveling on her land that his foot is invaded by the “wormhole” that allows Ursula Monkton into his world. A cursory reading might seem to indicate that Ursula is evil personified, but that is not the case: several times, Lettie and her relatives state that Ursula must be “contained,”and “sent home,” not destroyed. She must be “put in her place”–categorized and restrained– but the women will not confirm that she is evil, and even assert that she is just doing what she was created to do. When the boy lets go of Lettie’s hand during their initial confrontation with Ursula, he is allowing his raw memories to invade his consciousness; this is why he asserts over and over that it is “his fault” that Ursula has appeared. His recollections will only be put into context when Old Mrs. Hempstock is able to take a needle, dig deeply into his foot, extract the invader, and close the hole up–after which Ursula will soon lose her power. Whatever ways in which he has ignored his anima, the “other side” of his soul, have caused destructive, unprocessed memories to invade and poison him. Only through excising such raw memories can he/we have unity and understanding of “self.”
While Lettie’s farm contains the friendly pond she calls an ocean, and it is a place of solace, the boy’s home down the lane is inhabited by a family that expresses no love, and presents meals of burned toast which his father alone cooks. In his home, water becomes a force of destruction when his father, in a rage, nearly drowns the boy in the bathtub in reaction to his son’s lack of acceptance of Ursula as nanny and apparently, as the father’s lover. This event may or may not have occurred, but the symbolism of it is key: the boy’s emotional break with his father, his realization that his father is fallible, signifies the boy’s entrance into the adult world. He has been “baptized” in the painful waters of recognizing that his parents, who have been his refuge, are imperfect, and will not always be able to guide and protect him. The “fabric” of his childhood has been ripped apart, leaving him afraid and vulnerable, but in accepting the help of the Hempstocks, he will eventually come to terms with reality.
When Lettie first takes the boy for a walk on her farm, they meet the piece of ugly canvas fabric which is Ursula, waiting to be “set free” to enter the boy’s world. Because he lets go of Lettie’s hand, the fabric is able to enter into the sole of his foot. Lettie has used a divining rod, and the two of them have found “something brown and furry, but flat, like a huge rug, flapping and curling at the edges, and, at the front of the rug, a mouth, filled with dozens of tiny sharp teeth, facing down” (38). They immediately see a manta wolf, and Lettie says they have “gone too far out”–they are past the bounds where the boy’s psyche can integrate the dangerous events into his memory safely. This is when he lets go of Lettie’s hand, and the fabric of Ursula reveals herself and invades him and his world.
The middle section of the book consists of Ursula’s ripping apart the fabric of his family in a series of gripping and painful events that leave the reader drained as Ursula emotionally abuses the boy and locks him in his room. As he writes after seeing Ursula and his father embracing, “My parents were a unit, inviolate . . . the train of my life had jumped the rails and headed off across the fields and was coming down the lane with me, then” (80). He escapes down the drainpipe and makes it to the Hempstock farm–to the safe “place” in his mind–and there his anima (the Hempstocks) treats him to a warm bath–a stark contrast to the life-threatening, cold dunking his father has just given him. It is at this time that Old Mrs. Hempstock pulls the wormhole out of him.
But we soon discover that part of the path Ursula has used has inexplicably gone to his chest–he can feel it there. This never leaves him, even when Ursula is banished, because the blithe innocence of his childhood cannot return. Instead, he must learn as he grows to adjust his view of reality by incorporating aspects of the painful until they no longer dominate him.
The last section of the book is a battle wherein Ursula attempts to stay, and the boy must decide to choose whether or not to live in the protection of the “fairy ring” of self-assimilation. It’s worth a read to find out the conclusion, if you like myths, and Neil Gaiman. Not recommended for children.
(Picture of Ursula is from facebook.com/LinkLovesColouring)
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Cindy C. Lange, MA