Study Guide

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Time

By Neil Gaiman

Time

It was only then that I realized where I was going, where I had been going all along, and I grimaced at my own foolishness. I had been driving toward a house that had not existed for decades. (Prologue.2)

Time can be kinda funny like that. When you revisit a place that you knew a long time ago, your brain sometimes sends you back in time and you start to follow old habit patterns that you might've thought were long forgotten.

Soon I was driving, slowly, bumpily, down a narrow lane with brambles and briar roses on each side, wherever the edge was not a stand of hazels or a wild hedgerow. It felt like I had driven back in time. That lane was how I remembered it, when nothing else was. (Prologue. 11)

Can you think of a place like that? Where no matter how much time has passed, nothing has changed? It's getting rarer and rarer to have anywhere untouched by the progress of time.

As we age, we become our parents; live long enough and we see faces repeat in time. (Prologue. 22)

It's a scary thought, but it's been proven for generations: many of us do become our parents. Sometimes it takes becoming a parent yourself, but the first time you hear the words "Don't make me come back there!" come out of your mouth during a road trip will be a huge ah-ha moment.

"It is an ocean," she said. "We came across it when I was just a baby, from the old country." […]

"But Hempstock Farm is in the Domesday Book," I said. "Your mum said so. And that was William the Conqueror."

"Yes," said Lettie Hempstock. (2.86-88)

The Hempstocks play pretty fast and loose with the progression of time. Lettie's nonchalant "yes" about being around since before William the Conqueror tells you exactly how ancient she is—and yet they don't really try to hide their peculiar brand of immortality. They just allude to it like it's no biggie.

"Once you've been around for a bit, you get to know stuff." I kicked a stone.

"By 'a bit' do you mean 'a really long time'?"

She nodded.

"How old are you, really?" I asked.

"Eleven."

I thought for a bit. Then I asked, "How long have you been eleven for?"

She smiled at me. (3.64-70)

So if she's been eleven for some undeterminable amount of time, is she really eleven? Or does she just say that to make the boy feel more comfortable?

>"Old enough," she said. "I remember when the moon was made."

"Hasn't there always been a moon?"

"Bless you. Not in the slightest. I remember the day the moon came. We looked up in the sky—it was all dirty brown and sooty gray here then, not green and blue…" (3.95)

Gran's take on the whole immortal thing is the best—she just lays down what sound like nonsensical stories and then pities the kid when he gets confused. (Note: "Bless you", when used in this context, is a lot like saying "Aw, you poor thing. Too dumb to know any better.")

"You were a little momzer," several aunts told me, on different occasions, once I had safely reached adulthood and my dreadful infant deeds could be recalled with dry amusement. (6.1)

You know the saying time heals all wounds? It also heals one's sense of embarrassment and shame. What was horribly humiliating when you were little takes on the element of humor a little later in life as you gain perspective.

Adults follow paths. Children explore. Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands; perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the space between fences. I was a child, which meant that I knew a dozen different ways of getting out of our property and into the lane, ways that would not involve walking down our drive. (6.48)

Gaiman likes to point out the differences between children and adults for many reasons, but one that he emphasizes is the change that occurs with the passage of time. As we grow older, he asserts, we lose our sense of wonder and independence, and so blindly follow roads and paths like sleepwalking sheep.

I stared at her: at her short brownish-red hair, her snub-nose, her freckles. She looked three or four years older than me. She might have been three or four thousand years older, or a thousand times older again. I would have trusted her to the gates of Hell and back. (10.74)

It is the fact that she might be thousands of years old that makes him trust her so implicitly? Or is it despite the fact that he has no clue how old she really is?

"It's really hard, snipping things out of time: you have to make sure that the edges all line up, and even Gran doesn't always get it right. And this would be harder than that. It's a real thing. I don't think even Gran could take it out of you without hurting your heart. And you need your heart." (14.14)

Obviously, when you mess with the sequence of time you are doing something really difficult and persnickety—and of course the edges need to line up perfectly, or else the people will have that odd sense of something not being quite right.