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Dealing with Childhood Trauma in Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Childhood seems apparently the most simple and uncomplicated part of a human life. But, in reality, childhood is not that ideal and untainted as popularly believed to be. An adult person deals with trauma or psychological incompetence by applying his/her experience in life. But, a child does not have that experience to understand what is going on and how he/she is being affected by the unconscious and unrealized fear (Krabbendam 328). Trauma is the result of a dreadful incident and it plays the significant role in shaping the childhood of a person. The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013) is a novel by Neil Gaiman where he has used an unnamed narrator for developing and narrating the story.
The protagonist is highly imaginative and his imagination is the dominating content of the novel. Being an introvert, he has developed his own defense mechanism to prevent the fear of darkness and loneliness in his childhood. However, the novel is a flashback. The idea of other world generated within him from his several real and figurative encounters with death. At that tender age, he did not understand the logic behind the death. Being an imaginative fellow, the ignorance about death led him to personify death in terms of monsters. His perceiving power informs about himself that he culminates those things from several story books as monsters, flowers, a parallel world and imaginary places have that mythical essence of fairy tales. Supernaturalism is a medium used by the author to delineate the unique psychology of childhood trauma. It can be stated that fairy tales get inverted and can appear to be detrimental for a child if he or she has an abnormal childhood.
Death initiated the novel by introducing the protagonist as an adult in the novel. He came back to his hometown to attend the funeral after many years. The identity of the dead person is not revealed. It is death that compelled him to recognize the house of his childhood playmate Lettie Hempstocks and from that point, he time-travelled back to his childhood and started the story from the viewpoint of his 7 year old self. The treatment of the theme supernaturalism is somehow perceived in terms of magic realism. The main indication contained within it is the disintegrated psyche of a young boy. The reason may be his back to back experience with deaths and distance with his mother. According to Nader (259), children suffering from childhood trauma most of the time cannot convey their problem clearly to their parents or the parents are unable to decipher the signs of psychological problems in their children and this gap leads the children to create their own world with imaginary beings including angels and monsters. His parents, in the novel, are pretty messed up with the financial crisis and forced to rent rooms to boarders for some extra income. Moreover, the protagonist has a baby sister. All these lead to sheer negligence of that boy.
Due to being introvert he does not have friends and eventually created a world of monsters symbolizing his insecurity and fear. After the suicidal death of their former boarder, Ursula Monkton replaces him. To him, she was a monster from other world though her motive was not that explicit. He projected her as a demonic figure causing harm to him. As his foot is her gateway to her other world, she never allowed him to live home. It has a simplified explanation of childish freedom. Ursula used to babysit his sister and him and his wondering soul never quite like the idea of being detained at home and as the strict rule is implemented by Ursula, she became an evil monster to him (Krabbendam 329). Moreover, his mother started working outside and inevitably Ursula became the mother figure for the two children. As an illicit affair is developed between her and his father, he perceives this incident as his family is falling prey to that evil witch. Being a child then, he did not have the wisdom to know illicit affair. Apart from that, he is physically and verbally tortured by his father in the presence of Ursula. All these precedence led him to figure Ursula as a monster.
However, the childhood projection of good and evil carries an implicit sense of good and bad of the child. The protagonist child in this novel must have been wronged by his family as it is a duty of the parent to take care of their children delicately in the initial years of life. But he receives no such things and instead is dismissed neglected and misunderstood by his parents. Generally, children have a tendency to express their fears figuratively and it is often found a friend or partner is able to comprehend the issues in much better way as seen in this novel. Lettie in spite of having magical powers understands the internal fear and insecurity of him. This theme of friendship is found to be echoed in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum. In spite of having a century gap, the essence of friendship among children has not much changed yet. Dorothy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is also a lonely child raised by her uncle and aunt came to the state of Oz from the gloomy and vicious Kansas. For Dorothy her childhood was painful but not traumatic. She was not psychologically damaged like the boy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. In this context, it can be said that death is a brutal projection of absolute darkness, loneliness and end and if a child experiences it alone then most of the cases, the child enters into a traumatic phase by believing supernatural beings, monsters and an eventual end of his/her own life (Krabbendam 331). Child of The Ocean at the End of the Lane is delineated in this way whereas Dorothy is very much matured, realistic and sensible in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
The discussion so far thus inculcates that the protagonist of this novel has created a fictional world on his own in order to escape his traumatic childhood. In the novel it can be seen that as an adult the protagonist remembered nothing of his childhood and was only able to retrieve memories by viewing an agent of his childhood world Gran Hempstock, grandmother of Lettie. At the very tender age, he got dissociated with his mother and instead of that was forced to have Ursula as a foreshadowed figure. On the contrary, he encountered mother of Littie, Ginnie Hempstock. He found her very appealing and enigmatic as a mother and in comparison to his parents’ and Ursula’s brutal treatment, he was more inclined to Littie’s family (Nader 361). For a child childhood abuse is enough to push him into a traumatic phase and in that phase he was welcomed by her mother, grandmother and Littie.
Moreover, to him Littie’s family is very much connected with each other for example in terms of magical power. He never saw her family maltreat or abuse her physically or verbally whereas he was almost drowned to death by his father in the presence of Ursula. These kinds of experience are very much fatal for such a tender soul (Krabbendam 335). He returned to his native place for attending the funeral. It can be seen that the reason for returning to his place not at all a happy one. The entire description of his childhood is very dark and pessimistic which is quite abnormal for a 7-year-old kid. Therefore, it can be concluded that the narrator created this fictional world full of monsters in order to escape his despicable childhood trauma.
Neil Gaiman has depicted an inverted childhood in his novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The narrator seems to be a bit schizophrenic as he could not accept the death of his friend Littie and still believes that she lives in Australia. Similarly, in spite of recollecting his entire childhood, at the end he dodged all his memories as time spent at Littie’s farewell party. Thus, it can be said that Neil Gaiman very successfully has made uneasy with this inverted childhood narrative in order to express the dark side of apparently idealized phase of life, childhood.
Krabbendam, L. Childhood Psychological Trauma and Psychosis. Psychological Medicine. 2008. Print.
Nader, Kathleen. The Assessment of Associated Features Important To Understanding Childhood Trauma. Journ Child Adol Trauma. 2011. Print.