Study Guide

The Ocean at the End of the Lane Versions of Reality

By Neil Gaiman

Versions of Reality

"Good question, luvvie. It's electron decay, mostly. You have to look at things closely to see the electrons. They're the little dinky ones that look like tiny smiles. The neutrons are the gray ones that look like frowns. The electrons were all a bit too smiley for 1912, so then I checked the sides of the letters and the old king's head, and everything was a tad too crisp and sharp. Even where they were worn, it was as if they'd been made to be worn." (3.90)

Wouldn't this make chemistry so much more fun? Instead of covalent bonds and measurements mysteriously called moles you'd have "smiley ones" and "frowney ones." We're all for it.

"Mother!" she said. "Giving the boy honey. You'll rot his teeth."

Old Mrs. Hempstock shrugged. "I'll have a word with the wigglers in his mouth," she said. "Get them to leave his teeth alone."

"You can't just boss bacteria around like that," said the younger Mrs. Hempstock. "They don't like it."

"Stuff and silliness," said the old lady. "You leave wigglers alone and they'll be carrying on like anything. Show them who's boss and they can't do enough for you." (3.106-109)

This is yet another moment where we all wish we could see the world like Gran does. She's not worried about dental hygiene, because she's given the bacteria in her mouth a stern talking-to, and that's all that's needed.

Something came up from the earth, and swung around angrily. […]It jumped from my hand to my shirt, I stroked it: a kitten, black and sleek, with a pointed, inquisitive face, a white spot over one ear, and eyes of a peculiarly vivid blue-green. "At the farm, we get our cats the normal way," said Lettie. (4.89)

So according to Lettie, the normal way to get a cat is to pull one up from the ground like a ripe potato. Those of us who went to the Humane Society and rescued one are obviously pretty strange.

"Let's see…" Lettie was talking as she led me through the fields. "You're wet through. We'll need to get you something to wear. I'll have a look in the chest of drawers in the green bedroom. I think Cousin Japeth left some of his clothes there when he went off to fight in the Mouse Wars. He wasn't much bigger than you." (8.126)

Do these Mouse Wars have anything to do with the mouse soldiers in The Nutcracker? Why haven't we heard about them? Was her cousin a mouse? What business did Japeth have fighting mice? So many questions…

"They're fine. Just a little snipping, then a little sewing and it'll all be good as gold." She reached down to the table, pointed to the scrap of faded dressing gown tartan resting upon it. "That's your dad and you in the hallway, and that's the bathtub. She's snipped that out. So without any of that, there's no reason for your daddy to be angry with you." I had not told them about the bathtub. I did not wonder how she knew. (9.54)

So now there are two versions of reality: The boy's, in which his father has tried to drown him in the bathtub, and the parents' version where they drove late at night to the house down the road because their son had forgotten his toothbrush for the sleepover.

There was still a monster in my house, and, in a fragment of time that had, perhaps, been snipped out of reality, my father had pushed me down into the water of the bath and tried, perhaps, to drown me. (9.146)

But has it been snipped from reality? He still experienced it, so it's still a part of his reality, is it not? Does reality have to be validated by others for it to be legitimate? We're starting to get a little dizzy.

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. (13.26)

What a concept. First of all, it almost ruins birthday cake for us (don't worry, we said almost), but what if everything we knew was just a thin veneer of illusion designed to protect us from the dirty reality of the world? Now if you don't mind, we're feeling a little hungry…

Where it devoured the grass, nothing remained—a perfect nothing, only a color that reminded me of gray, but a formless, pulsing gray like the shifting static of our television screen when you dislodged the aerial cord and the picture had gone completely. This was the void. Not blackness, not nothingness. This was what lay beneath the thinly painted scrim of reality. (14.38)

So beneath the layer of our reality is complete and utter nothingness and a "dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger"? Make up your mind, Gaiman.

The voice that was like Old Mrs. Hempstock's said, "Shall I bind you creatures in the heart of a dark star, to feel your pain in a place where every fragment of a moment lasts a thousand years? Shall I invoke the compacts of Creation, and have you all removed from the list of created things, so there never will have been any hunger birds, and anything that wishes to traipse from world to world can do it with impunity?" (14.88)

Talk about changing reality as we know it. Gran is capable of removing the entirety of the hunger birds' existence—and the prospective new reality would be even scarier. Side note: where can we get our hands on that list? Proof of unicorns would be awesome.

"They overstepped their bounds," she said. "They could have hurt you, child, and it would have meant nothing. They could have hurt this world without anything being said—it's only a world, after all, and they're just sand grains in the desert, worlds. But Lettie's a Hempstock. She's outside of their dominion, my little one. And they hurted her." (14.98)

In the version of reality in which the Hempstocks exist, worlds are common and numerous. But they themselves are outside of the dominion of the hunger birds, which seems pretty vast—so what world are they in? And does your head hurt yet? We'll admit ours does a bit.