Do you remember the past? Are you sure you remember it exactly as it happened? This is a question that children and adults alike ponder throughout their life, as memories of the past are misleading. In Neil Gaiman’s novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the author illustrates the concept that it is difficult, maybe impossible to uncover the truth about the past, because our memories can deceive us. This notion is depicted through the characterization of the boy, the symbolism of the moon, and the symbolism of the cat.
Firstly, the notion of the struggles surrounding uncovering the truth about the past, when one’s memories are hazy and faded, is depicted through the characterization of the boy. In particular, the boy is characterized as an adult looking back on his past while exploring his childhood town. He feels a sense of familiarity in his surroundings, although, the boy does not know how he is connected to this town and the family at the end of the lane, as his memories of the past deceive him.
More specifically, as the boy continues to uncover the truth about his past through conversations with the Hempstock family, he acknowledges that “I still don’t know, why I asked [Ms. Hempstock if Lettie is her daughter]. Perhaps I just wanted to know more about the girl who had saved my life […]. I didn’t know anything about her” (167). This denotes that the boy has no recollection of his childhood with his friend Lettie, as he tells Ms.
Hempstock (i.e., her mother) that he could not remember her.
Thus, this conveys the boy’s curiosity and willfulness to discover the truth about the past events that occurred in his life. However, the boy’s past memories clearly misled him into forgetting who Lettie was and how she positively impacted his life. In addition, Gaiman also characterizes the boy as inquisitive and determined to figure out the truth about what really happened when he was a child, as his memories are swindled. Specifically, the boy contemplates that “[a] small part of my mind remembered an alternate pattern of events and then lost it, as if I had woken from a comfortable sleep and looked around, […] and returned to my dream” (168). This demonstrates that the boy has the tenacity and determination to establish the truth about his false memories, as he has the right to know what happened in his childhood, regardless of the bumpy road ahead, which is buried in his unconscious mind. Thus, this illustrates that, although the boy was unable to recall his memories of Lettie and the events that occurred with Ursula Monkton, his memories are still present deep in his mind, awaiting his drive to unlock the truth. Overall, through the use of characterization of the boy, Gaiman brings to bear the difficulties associated with uncovering the truth when one’s memories are tainted.
Secondly, through the use of the symbolism of the moon, Gaiman conveys how one’s memories may be difficult to uncover, due to the deceptive nature of the past, but can be triggered through recollection. In particular, the moon symbolizes Lettie watching over the boy, in order to protect him and ensure his happiness. The boy knew that Lettie (i.e., otherwise considered a mysterious higher power) was safeguarding him from above, as “[i]t seem[ed] as if two moons hung in the sky above […], like a pair of eyes watching me from above” (178). This represents his unconscious memories attempting to surface, as the boy could not physically see Lettie, but could feel her presence. In this case, the symbol of the moon is indicative of the boy’s past memories of Lettie, which have faded, but are trying to be unveiled.
Moreover, the moon also symbolizes the boy’s memories that are deceiving him. Specifically, when the boy sees the moon, he is drawn to the moon, as he strives to discover the truth about his past. Thus, the moon resembles the light at the end of the tunnel, which helps the boy try to reveal his unconscious hidden memories. The boy looks at the moon and contemplates, “[p]erhaps [the moon] was an afterimage, […] or a ghost: something that had stirred in my mind, […] but now was gone, and faded into the past like a memory forgotten, or a shadow into the dusk” (178). This signifies that Gaiman uses the moon to symbolize that the boy senses a familiar presence, but is incapable of determining the current attachment he was with the moon. However, the boy will never know the truth about what the moon really represents, which is symbolic of the boy’s past memories trying to resurface, regardless of how deceiving it may seem. Therefore, through the use of the symbolism of the moon, Gaiman sheds light on the misleading nature of the boy’s memories of Lettie, which will always be a part of his life. Thus, the boy’s memories are forever stored in his unconscious, waiting to break free, regardless of if he remembers what happened or not.
Thirdly, the cat symbolizes the notion of transference and how the boy’s memories of the past are reemerging into the present, in order to try and uncover the truth. Particularly, the boy is unconsciously remembering his two childhood friends, Lettie and his childhood cat named, Fluffy. More specifically, the cat represents Lettie and her ocean, as the boy acknowledges that the cat “had such unusual eyes. They made [him] think of the seaside, and so [he] called her Ocean, and could not have told you why” (171). In this case, this illustrates that the cat symbolizes Lettie, as she always referred to the pond as her ocean. The boy is transferring his unconscious memories of Lettie onto the cat, as it is not coincidental that he names the cat Ocean. Thus, this represents the boy’s drive to uncover the past, irrespective of the deceitfulness he experienced. Furthermore, the cat also symbolizes the boy’s first friend, which was his childhood cat named Fluffy.
Thus, when the boy sees the cat, he recognizes, “I used to have a cat like this. I called her Ocean. […] I don’t actually remember what happened to her” (177). This demonstrates that Gaiman uses the cat as a symbol of transference between Ocean, Fluffy and all cats in general, as a point of reference of the deceitful memories of the past, which the boy is trying to uncover. The boy is connected with Ocean, because of the strong bond he shared with Fluffy, during his childhood. Henceforth, regardless of the boy’s faded memories, his unconscious mind was strong enough to slip through the cracks, in order to help him remember the truth. Overall, Gaiman used the cat to symbolize the transference of the boy’s memories with Lettie and Fluffy onto Ocean, allowing the boy to have an unexplainable and unbreakable connection with the cat.
In conclusion, Neil Gaiman’s novel sheds light on the notion of how our memories deceive us, as a result of the difficulty and/or impossibility of uncovering the truth about the past. Therefore, the boy’s struggles of trying to decipher his memories was depicted through the characterization of the boy, the symbolism of the moon, and the symbolism of the cat. All in all, regardless of the fact that the boy’s triggered unconscious memories are trying resurge, the boy will never truly be able to remember exactly what happened to him in the past.