Down to a Sunless Sea by Neil Gaiman

6 June 2016

Down to a Sunless Sea is short story written by Neil Gaiman and published in the British newspaper The Guardian on March 22nd 2013. Taking place in London, this story describes a rainy encounter on the banks of the Thames which unlocks a tale of loss and grief.

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The setting is London. Presumeably 18th or early 19th century based on how the Thames is described as extremely filthy and filled with the bodies of cats and dogs. Also the mention of the so-called mudlarks: people who scavenge in river mud for items of value. This term is especially used to describe those who scavenged this way in London during the late 18th and 19th centuries. So, on the docks of Rotherhithe a woman encounters you.

She tells you the story of how her son left her to go explore the seas on a ship. The ship he gets on is hit by a storm and he is left on a rescue boat with eight men. As the inevitable hunger sets in, the men eat the boy and toss his remains in the sea. The ship’s mate, Jack – a former lover of the boy’s mother – manages to get a single bone from the boy, a bone which he brings to the mother when they finally reach land. The woman then informs Jack that the boy was in fact his own son. After hearing this, the ship mate fills his pockets with stones and walks into the sea, and thus killing himself.

Most important for the short story is of course the woman, as she is the one doing the monologue and telling her story. Having lost her son, her husband and her lover to the sea, the woman is heart-broken. She does not care about the rain or anything else for that matter. She walks the docks, staring at the sea that has taken everything she loved. There is no description of how the woman looks. All we get is the sensation that she is completely and utterly broken and has nothing to live for. The author of the story also manages to merge you, the reader, into the story by making you the person the woman is telling her story to. This helps getting the reader more involved in the story.

The language of the story is very descriptive, yet very superficial.
Descriptions of essential things for the story like the constant rain, that really helps set the mood for the reader, and the extremely important monologue of the woman, is very well described. Descriptions of how the characters look are however left out completely. This style of writing is very typical for short stories. The focus is on describing the elements that are really important, and the reader therefore has to imagine by themselves the things that are left out. Most of the locations in the story are mentioned by their actual name, for example the Rotherhithe docks1, adding to the realism of the text and making it easier for people who know these places to visualise the story. Gaiman utilizes plenty of linguistic tools in his short story. Right off the bat in the first line, we are thrown into the first metaphor. “The Thames is a filthy beast: it winds through London like a snake, or a sea serpent.” This metaphor is obviously filled with negative connotations.

“A filthy beast” sounds very dirty and unpleasant and the comparison between the river and a snake – an animal that has been frowned upon for millennia due to its role in the Bible. Also in the very last line, Gaiman throws in another metaphor: “… and the water of the rain runs down your face like someone else’s tears.”

Throughout her story, the woman refers to the sea as ‘cruel’ more than once. This last line could mean that the rain is the tears of the ocean. Raining is the ocean’s way of crying. Although it might not shed tears as it received the bones of the boy, it still shows regret by raining and crying later on. The last line could also mean that rain running down your face symbolizes the woman’s tears.

She has cried so much and she is unable to cry anymore. By sharing her story, she has also shared her sorrow and grief. The language of the text is characterized by being rather sophisticated, yet also influenced by spoken language, as seen in line 12 on page 2: “And then she sees you. She sees you and she begins to talk, not to you, oh no, but to the grey water from the grey sky into the grey river.”, where we see repetitions in both the first and the last parts of the sentence.

The narrator of Down to a Sunless Sea is an omniscient third-person narrator. He or she knows everything. For example in the beginning of page 2, where we are told that “… there are no mudlarks over fifteen years of age.”. Knowledge like this wouldn’t be available to the normal person, but becausethe narrator is omniscient, he or she knows this. Another example is seen right below our first example.

The woman walks the Rotherhide docks as she has done for years and decades – nobody knows many years, because nobody cares. The role of the narrator is to convey the story to the audience. Had the narrator of this story been a first-person narrator – something that could have been done very easily by removing the you and replacing it with a first-person narrator – it would have changed the very feel and mood of the story.

Down to a Sunless Sea is quick and chilling read that does its job well. The ending, perhaps, left a little bit to be desired but also has its charm in that the reader has to interpret the open ending by him or herself. A short, eerily creepy and chilling to the bone read that benefits from its extremely descriptive language and clever use of interpreting the reader into the story.

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