Buddhist Themes in Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”

[Spoilers either the size of a pond or an ocean ahead.  This post will be less sociological than some of my usual posts.]

Neil Gaiman’s lovely, wise new novel, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” meditates on the ebb and flow of memory, power relations between adults and children, as well interconnectedness and the nature of the universe.  I’ve been awaiting this book with giddy anticipation, and it was even better than I expected.  Elements of the book remind me of aspects of Gaiman’s other works like the gods (or in this case, goddesses) wandering among us in “American Gods” and the horrifying “other mother” with buttons for eyes in “Coraline.”  (These are fantastic books, if you haven’t read them.) While I noticed these parallels with previous stories, this story still felt unique and deeply true in a mythical sense.

Although it isn’t usually relevant to my blog, I’ve practiced meditation on and off for nearly a decade.  In my early twenties, I stumbled across a couple of books by Thich Nhat Hanh, an internationally known Buddhist monk. His books on a variety of topics relating to meditation helped me to better understand my own mind and the world better.  In terms of podcasts, I really enjoy Buddhist Geeks episodes, and the episodes have improved over the years.  They look at the intersection of modern culture, globalization, technology, and Buddhism.  As with most topics, there are different schools of Buddhism, and people vary in terms of what they believe.  However, these differences are not the point of this post.  Years ago, when I read Neil Gaiman’s book, “American Gods,” it reminded me of Buddhism, although I’ve never tried to more formally analyze it.  “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” reminded me more strongly of Buddhist themes like suffering, craving, sitting with difficult thoughts and emotions, Bodhisattvas, as well as experiencing interconnection.  Buddhism suggests the end of suffering is possible.

The framework of the narrative in Gaiman’s novel is that the unnamed main character returns for what is likely a funeral based on his attire, and he returns to a place that allows him to remember the fantastical events of his childhood.  After a tragic event occurs, the narrator meets a girl, her mother, and grandmother: the Hempstock family.  They are powerful goddesses, in addition to appearing as somewhat odd, mortal women.  Around the same time, a villainous creature encounters them. It gives the other characters what they think they want regardless of whether it helps or harms them.  At first, it gives people money in terrifying ways like the narrator awakens choking to death on a coin.  People often crave money, and it makes them act in strange and selfish ways, creating a kind of suffering.  The creature tears the narrator’s  family apart by giving them the things that they crave beyond money.  For example, the narrator’s father has an affair with the creature when it appears to be a beautiful woman.  Most of the action in the book deals with escaping and defeating this monster, which isn’t actually the biggest danger the narrator faces in the book.

On a return flight from Boston to Raleigh, I got to a part of the book that gave me shivers and would have brought me to tears if had I been alone. The main character has been pulled into the pond/ocean of Lettie, the girl/goddess his age, after passing a test of various tricks and temptations.  Lettie asks him to step into a bucket which contains her ocean.  Her ocean, mind you, appears like a pond to the narrator’s eyes when he first sees it.  He complies and then experiences vast interconnectedness:

“The second thing that I thought was that I knew everything.  Lettie Hemstock’s ocean flowed inside me, and it filled the entire universe from Egg to Rose.  I knew that. I knew what Egg was—where the universe began, to the sound of uncreated voices singing  in the void—and I knew where Rose was—that peculiar crinkling of space into dimensions that fold like origami and blossom like strange orchids, and which would mark the last good time before the eventual end of everything and the next big bang, which would be now, I knew now, nothing of the kind.” (143)

He realizes that Old Mrs. Hempstock existed at the beginning and would exist at the next beginning.  The rest of the passage is gorgeous, and the narrator realizes that he knows everything and wants to stay in the ocean.  Lettie informs him that he can’t stay there.  His sense of self would dissolve.  In the end, sacrifices are made by the characters for other characters, reminiscent of the sacrifice of a Bodhisattva, an enlightened being, for other people.  This passage contains beautiful prose, in addition to showing interconnectedness—those fleeting moments when one understands interbeing.  Interbeing is Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea that all people or things are dependent on everything else.  We are not independent.  In the epilogue, the narrator’s memories of Lettie and his experiences during his seventh year are fading again, a testament to the delicate nature of memory and how we construct identity.

While I don’t know if the references to Buddhism were intended, I found this book to be an intriguing look at the nature of craving, suffering, sacrifice, and interconnectedness.  Later, I’ll write a separate post on power and age privilege in the book.  “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is a fantastic adventure story with deep wisdom about memory and interconnectedness.


(1) Did I miss any important Buddhist related themes?  What are they?

(2) What do you think the ultimate nature of the universe is like?  Is Gaiman correct in that it is like an ocean that ebbs and flows?

(3) How did you like “The Ocean at the End of the Lane?” How did you think it compares to Gaiman’s other works?  Is it a Hugo contender for next year?




Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy

8 responses to “Buddhist Themes in Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”

  1. Kelly

    His parents speak of death being a change of form from one life to the next life without saying actuality saying”reincarnation”. I think you are right on the money. Gaiman is surely someone who has at least read Buddhist philosophy.

  2. Pingback: Craving and Alienation in Neil Gaiman’s “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” | Jackofallbooks

  3. I haven’t read much Buddhism , So I couldn’t take all the events that you described but the line “Everything whispered inside me. Everything spoke to everything, and I knew it all.” sure took my attention and I sensed Buddhism in the whole event with the ocean

  4. Pingback: Fairy Tales and Feminist Themes in Neil Gaiman’s “The Sleeper and the Spindle” | Jackofallbooks

  5. Pingback: Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology | Jackofallbooks

  6. Pingback: Socialization and Values for Fantasy Writing and Life: Neil Gaiman’s and Charles Vess’ book “Instructions” | Jackofallbooks

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