Study Guide

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Memory

By Neil Gaiman

Memory

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. (Prologue. 16)

This just makes sense, but it's beautiful imagery too. Think about some of your oldest memories—it's hard to, right? Unless you're thumbing through an old photo album, or digging through your parent's attic, memories tend to lie dormant until something triggers them, though then they're right there.

If you'd asked me an hour before, I would have said no, I did not remember the way. I do not even think I would have remembered Lettie Hempstock's name. But standing in that hallway, it was all coming back to me. Memories were waiting at the edges of things, beckoning to me. Had you told me that I was seven again, I might have half-believed you, for a moment. (Prologue. 31)

This is a phenomenon that becomes truer the older you get. Someday you might return to your high school for a reunion, and although your memories are a bit hazy, you will step inside and suddenly boom—you remember those hallways like the back of your hand, and you remember things that happened there as if it were yesterday. Places where you spend a ton of time, especially during formative years, will remain ingrained in your mind for far longer than is really necessary. Memory is funny that way.

Lettie Hempstock's ocean. I remembered that, and remembering that, I remembered everything. (Prologue. 42)

Sometimes your memories just need a little nudge, and then they'll come pouring forth faster than you can process them. For the boy (who's now a middle-aged man), seeing the pond and remembering that Lettie called it her "ocean" was the opening of those flood-gates… or there's more of a supernatural element to it all. Maybe just physically being present on the farm makes the memory-wipe that Ginnie performed temporarily lift. Which do you think?

Nothing I had ever drunk had ever tasted like that before: rich and warm and perfectly happy in my mouth. I remembered that milk after I had forgotten about everything else. (2.58)

While it's a perfectly romantic notion, doesn't this seem a bit unlikely? Like, you really remembered some warm milk but you forgot all about the evil creature that was trying to kill you for a couple days? Hmm…

I was staring at the sole of my right foot. There was a pink line across the center of the sole, from the ball of the foot almost to the heel, where I had stepped on a broken glass as a toddler. I remember waking up in my cot, the morning after it happened, looking at the black stitches that held the edges of the cut together. It was my earliest memory. (5.4)

What a strange earliest memory to hold onto. What about this incident do you think makes it so memorable? Is it just the fact that he has a scar to remind him of it regularly? Perhaps it has something to do with the pain he must've felt too.

"If I burn this," I asked them, "will it have really happened? Will my daddy have pushed me down into the bath? Will I forget it ever happened?"

Ginnie Hempstock was no longer smiling. Now she looked concerned. "What do you want?" She asked.

"I want to remember," I said. "Because it happened to me. And I'm still me." (9.89-91)

That's pretty awesome if you ask us. If you had the choice to completely forget one of your worst memories, would you do it? It shows huge strength of character to decide that you want to remember something as horrible as your father trying to kill you, because you can recognize that it is part of what has shaped you as a human being. You go, kid.

(A ghost-memory rises, here: a phantom moment, a shaky reflection in the pool of remembrance. I know how it would have felt when the scavengers took my heart. How it felt as the hunger birds, all mouth, tore into my chest and snatched out my heart, still pumping, and devoured it to get at what was hidden inside it. I know how that feels, as if it was truly a part of my life, of my death. And then the memory snips and rips, neatly, and—) (14.60)

Here we don't even have a memory, we have the ghost of a memory. The "snipping" and absence of a logical order of events indicates that Gran might have worked some of her magic. But once again, we are left to kind of revel in the ambiguity of the moment: did some old woman really "snip" the memory of his violent death and alter his perception of reality? Or is this part of the manifestation of a false memory that he believed in so hard that he made it true? So many questions in this book.

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, pulled the bedclothes over me, and returned to my dream. (15.30)

We've all had moments like this. You're walking down the street, holding hands with Benedict Cumberbatch, and all of a sudden your alarm goes off and you're dragged back into the reality of getting up and having to live normal life. Boo. So you bury your face back into the pillow and try really hard to get back to old Benedict, but it's just not the same. You're awake, and you can't quite remember enough specifics of the dream to get back to it…

I was awash in memory, and I wanted to know what it meant. I said, "Is it true?" and felt foolish. Of all the questions I could have asked, I had asked that.

Old Mrs. Hempstock shrugged. "What you remembered? Probably. More or less. Different people remember things differently, and you'll not get any two people to remember anything the same, whether they were there or not. You stand two of you lot next to each other, and you could be continents away for all it means anything." (Epilogue.8-9)

Gran is just a wealth of knowledge, isn't she? It's so true that no two people will remember an event the same way—so who will have the "true" recollection? Are memories just lies that we all tell ourselves, since they are so subjective? It's interesting that memory plays such a big part in this book. Memories are stories we tell ourselves, after all, and not only are we told a story in this book, but books are means of telling stories in their own right. Stories, stories, everywhere…

I wondered where the illusion of the second moon had come from, but I only wondered for a moment, and then I dismissed it from my thoughts. Perhaps it was an afterimage, I decided, or a ghost: something that had stirred in my mind, for a moment, so powerfully that I believed it to be real, but now was gone, and faded into the past like a memory forgotten, or a shadow into the dusk. (Epilogue.78)

Here—in the last paragraph of the book—Gaiman is doing the ultimate did-he-or-didn't-he trick. Did he make up all of those events with Lettie Hempstock, and convince himself out of boredom that they were real? Or did Gran really snip his memories, altering them so that he wouldn't go around in life knowing about fleas and varmints? Is the second moon the one that Gran likes to have shining in the hall window every night?

One thing's for certain: It's a very uncertain note to end the book on.