Study Guide

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Mortality

By Neil Gaiman

Mortality

I wanted to cry for my kitten, but I could not do that if anyone else was there and watching me. I wanted to mourn. I wanted to bury my friend at the bottom of the garden, past the green-grass fairy ring, into the rhododendron bush cave, back past the heap of grass cuttings, where nobody ever went but me. (1.22)

Part of life is learning how to cope with death. (That's right—we're going deep.) The mourning process is unique to everyone, but it's crucial to understand because until you learn what you need to do to deal with death it will be something that haunts you. So what the little boy is expressing here is an extremely mature instinct—to recognize the need and method of mourning is something most people only develop with time and experience. (And some people never figure it out.)

"That's the trouble with living things. Don't last very long. Kittens one day, old cats the next. And then just memories. And the memories fade and blend and smudge together…" (4.98)

Thanks, Lettie, for injecting some sunshine into the kid's day. He's trying to talk about missing his little kitten and you're waxing poetic about the limits of mortality. Nice.

I was certain that I would die, then. I did not want to die. My parents had told me that I would not really die, not the real me: that nobody really died, when they died; that my kitten and the opal miner had just taken new bodies and would be back again, soon enough. I did not know if this was true or not. I knew only that I was used to being me, and I liked my books and my grandparents and Lettie Hempstock, and that death would take all these things from me. (11.28)

The boy's way of looking at death is pretty simple, but in a refreshing way. He knows what his parents have told him about what happens, and he doesn't know whether or not to believe them, but he also knows that he's not ready to find out. He's happy being alive, thankyouverymuch.

"You're dead," I told her.

"Yes. I was eaten," said Ursula Monkton.

"You're dead. You aren't real."

"I was eaten," she repeated. "I am nothing. And they have let me out, just for a little while, from the place inside them. It's cold in there, and very empty. But they have promised you to me, so I will have something to play with; something to keep me company in the dark. And after you have been eaten, you too will be nothing. But whatever remains of that nothing will be mine to keep, eaten and together, my toy and my distraction, until the end of time. We'll have such fun." (12.77-80)

This is kind of confusing. If she's dead and been reduced to nothing, how have they let her out? How is she threatening him with the nothingness if she herself doesn't exist?

"How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you, as you grow. There can never be a time when you forget them, when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life, until you close your eyes for the final time, until your loved ones give you poison and sell you to anatomy, and even then you will die with a hole inside you, and you will wail and curse at a life ill-lived. But you won't grow. You can come out, and we will end it, cleanly, or you can die in there, of hunger and of fear. And when you are dead your circle will mean nothing, and we will tear out your heart and take your soul for a keepsake." (12.93)

Whoa—the hunger birds know how to issue a threat. Either come out and face a grisly death now, or live a miserable life and die terribly anyway.

At that moment, for once in my childhood, I was not scared of the dark, and I was perfectly willing to die (as willing as any seven-year-old, certain of his immortality, can be) if I died waiting for Lettie. Because she was my friend. (12.95)

This is an interesting concept—he's willing to die because he's certain of his immortality. It almost makes sense in a very contradictory, confusing way. Basically, because he believes that he cannot die, he is willing to do so for a friend.

I opened my mouth to tell her that nothing could kill me, not now, but she said, "Not kill you. Destroy you. Dissolve you. You wouldn't die in here, nothing ever dies in here, but if you stayed here for too long, after a while just a little of you would exist everywhere, all spread out. And that's not a good thing. Never enough of you all together in one place, so there wouldn't be anything left that would think of itself as an 'I'. No point of view any longer, because you'd be an infinite sequence of views and of points…" (13.39)

This is where Gaiman kinda loses us. So he wouldn't be dead, but he wouldn't exist as a single entity anymore—he'd be infinite, instead of a nonentity. But couldn't that be a form of death as well?

"Um. I suppose. If I do. Have to die. Tonight," I started, haltingly, not sure where I was going. I was going to ask for something, I imagine—for them to say goodbye to my mummy and daddy, or to tell my sister that it wasn't fair that nothing bad ever happened to her: that her life was charmed and safe and protected, while I was forever stumbling into disaster. But nothing seemed right, and I was relieved when Ginnie interrupted me. (13.78)

Do you know what you would say if you were facing imminent death? It's kind of a toughie. You could do the standard tell-so-and-so-I-love-them, or bury-me-at-wounded-knee, but our favorite would be my-life-fortune's-under-the followed my nonsensical gibberish.

I did not want to die. More than that, I did not want to die as Ursula Monkton had died, beneath the rending talons and beaks of things that may not even have had legs or face. I did not want to die at all. Understand that. But I could not let everything be destroyed, when I had it in my power to stop the destruction. (14.49)

There aren't many people who actually desire death, and there are even less that would prefer a death like Ursula Monkton's, so the kid isn't all that unusual for feeling this way. But the fact that he makes a conscious decision to sacrifice himself for the good of his world despite knowing that he doesn't want to die makes him pretty darn courageous. Foolhardy, perhaps, and maybe a bit impulsive, but he's genuinely brave, that's for sure.

I only remembered that Ocean had grown into a cat, and that I had adored her for years. I wondered what had happened to her, and then I thought, It doesn't matter that I can't remember the details any longer: death happened to her. Death happens to all of us. (E.2)

And now we've come full circle. We're back to the adult version of the boy, who seems to enjoy wallowing in the morbidity of life. Sure, death does happen to all of us, but to state it in such a resigned way like nothing else really matters makes this guy quite the party pooper, don't you think?