Aging is a natural process that comes with new experiences as one's life moves on. The new encounters obscure the previous ones, often making a person to forget their past. A recall of the past memories rekindles forgotten experiences, making a person to realize how their behaviors and reasoning were primitive in their younger days. Literature is replete with many cases and works that touch on the theme of how childhood memories affect one's life during the adulthood. Adulthood, childhood, and the connection between the two are vivid in Neil Gaiman's Ocean at the End of the Lane. The protagonist in this novel visits his home after 40 years to attend a funeral. His presence in his childhood home revives old memories in a style that the author employs to juxtapose childhood and adulthood. He discovers that some of the things that he considered big were actually small, and her childhood skewed his view of those things. For example, he visits a small duck pond at the back of his childhood friend's house and remembers both of them used to call the pond an ocean. Further, he remembers her awful experiences with his nanny and realizes that adults do not have deep insights as children may have. There are many incidences in the novel that compare adults' and children's worldview, and all of them have a common link. And, all these incidences go on to prove that the world of children is characterized by fear, grief, disbelief, awe and that some adults do not live to the expectation of the children who are in their custody, thus leading to challenges in future between their relationship.
The children in the novel are the narrator and little Lettie Hempstock. The same characters are adults in the same text with additional figures such as Ursula Monkton, the narrator's parents, and the Hempstocks. The children in the text go through an experience that ordinary children do not encounter in normal social settings. These children struggle through childhood as they fight with superhuman beings devouring their flesh and souls. The two children often find themselves helpless as they fight to survive in a world where adults are less concerned about their tribulations. The people they look upon to for protection are absent to offer it, leaving them prone to attack by vicious supernatural creatures that seem to hamper their normal growth. However, two people stand out as reliable custodians. Lettie's mother and grandmother have a better understanding of the creatures interfering with the normal growth of these children. When the "hunger birds" are hell bent to eat the heart of the narrator, Lettie's grandmother repels them off, taking the role of the exorcist who saves the children from the malice of demons. There is an apparent disconnect between the children's and adults worldviews in this scenario. While Lettie and his friend cannot comprehend who these hunger birds are, her grandmother has a thorough understanding of their nature owing her old age. Even Lettie's mother has no role to play in their exorcism, meaning that she was not as experienced in vicious subjects as her grandmother was. Despite Lettie's grandmother's efforts to repel the hunger birds, they succeed in taking away with them the little girl's soul, leaving her at near death at the ocean near the Hempstock's house.
The novel depicts children as hopeless and defenseless beings who long for the often elusive company of their parents and close relations. In his seventh birthday, the narrator does not enjoy the company of his parents, Lettie, or the Hempstocks. Rather, he spends the day alone, nursing a deep void inside him. Despite being the only child, his parents neglect him and eventually employ a nanny to babysit him. The nanny - Ursula Monkton - is a horrific woman who transfigures from a worm removed from the narrator's feet. She manages to pervert the narrator's whole family and turns them against each other. The author creates an irony of adulthood through the narrator's encounter with Ursula Monkton. In the epigraph, Neil Gaiman quotes that "I remember my own childhood vividly ... I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn't let adults know I knew. It would scare them" (Gaiman I) The narrator's knowledge of the monster living in his house was one of the cases where children were more knowledgeable than adults. The narrator understood that Ursula was an evil creature, and he also knew that she seduced his father. However, she avoided the woman at all cost, often spending long hours holed up in his room. The narrator's childhood loneliness was most intense at this moment.
Death is a phenomenon that frightens the children more than adults imagine. There are several cases of death in the novel that the narrator experiences firsthand as a child. There was an opal miner who lived in their house in his childhood. The miner killed the family's kitten and later committed suicide by choking himself with smoke from a car's engine. Additionally, Lettie dies by the ocean after defeating the hunger birds. In yet another encounter, the narrator's father tries to kill him in a bath after being influenced by the evil Ursula. In all these cases, the narrator ends up more frightened and confused about death and its significance in the lives of human beings. He, however, relates death to a cause in his adulthood. For instance, he understands that the opal miner killed himself after killing the cat of his hosts and that Lettie died after a long struggle with monster birds. In his adulthood, the narrator also understands that reincarnation is probable, given that Ursula developed from a worm. Even in his adulthood, the narrator has an unusual understanding of death. Although he remembers that Lettie died as a young girl, he is convinced that she lives in Australia and even asked the Hempstock women to pass his greetings once she calls them.
The author gives insights on exactly how children perceive the world, their family and friends, and how they fit in a society where evil lurks at the core. After immersing his feet in the ocean, the narrator says that "I saw the world I had walked since my birth, and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger" (Gaiman 161) The ocean in the novel is a retrieval cue that the narrator used to rekindle his childhood memories. The ocean was a very significant totem in her village, and it is a reservoir of many sweet and bitter memories of his past. It was the point at which his best friend lost her life and also the source of his childhood horrors. The narrator says that he "understood" the world that he lived in his childhood to be fragile, and how reality in his young years differs from that in his adulthood. In his childhood, however, the world was not fragile. It was a rock under which he sheltered himself from the tribulations of the world. The world in the narrator's childhood was his room, his books, and the Hempstocks. The narrator's room served as a fort and a getaway where he could hide to escape the wrath of his father and nanny. It was not fragile then, but he sees it as so in his adulthood. Perhaps he understands that his father or Ursula could have broken the door to his room with ease if they wished to harm him. The narrator says that the reality he knew as a young boy was a "thin layer of icing" on a big cake that could not fill his stomach. Indeed, the narrator was mesmerized to know that there was a world beyond horror, fear, and anxiety. His childhood prevented him from exploring a world outside his home and village. He only interacted with few people who were evil and committed to annihilating him. After 40 years, he realized that the world is massive to accommodate both evil and magnanimity. He acknowledges the significance of new discoveries and posits that "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" (Gaiman 2) The things he talks about are many life experiences that he gathered in 40 years after his childhood.The society tags adulthood with responsibility especially towards children, resources, and the posterity. In the novel, some adults do not live up to these societal expectations. Precisely, the novel paints the narrator's parents with irresponsibility and malevolence. The protagonist's mother is workaholic and leaves her preschool son in the hands of a stranger nanny. On the other hand, the father is a perverted man who tortures his son to please an evil damsel. The narrator himself describes adults as "People [who] kept pulling their faces off to reveal new faces beneath." The father he knew as loving and caring turns violent over a short period. The author positions some adults as hypocrites and self-seeking beings who do not care about the posterity. Ursula is also an adult being who shifts character depending on the situation. When interacting with the narrator's parents, she is a soft-spoken nanny but becomes a monstrous woman when she deals with the narrator.
In conclusion, children's world is full of nightmares and uncertainties that may prove harmful if adults do not intervene efficiently. The narrator and his friend grow up in a world where evil took the center stage with adults watching at a distance. Neil Gaiman's book is a challenge to parents who fail to be responsible and present in their children's growing up. Children may fail to understand some normal occurrences and take them as harmful. However, it takes the support of the adults to help children cope with forces that are beyond their comprehension. After growing up, people revive the memories of their childhood and criticize the role that their parents and other grownups played in the past. Like in the novel, adults may protect or harm the children, although the latter cherish the benevolent adults regardless of how they were related to them.
Gaiman, Neil. The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Hachette UK, 2013.
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