As symbols in stories, consider the ocean as two distinct places: the surface and the deep.
The surface is the ultimate two-dimensional landscape, the flat table as far as the eye can see. This makes the ocean surface seem abstract while also being totally natural. This abstract flat surface, like a huge chessboard, intensifies the sense of the contest, a game of life and death played out on the grandest scale.
— John Truby, Anatomy of Story
But the thing about the ocean surface is, unlike the desert, you should be a little worried about what’s hiding underneath.
Moby-Dick — a great example of a character who the author sets us up to believe is going to be the hero, but then kills him off for some weird reason. Moby Dick has also been rewritten for children, as many of the classics have. See, for instance, the version by Geraldine McCaughrean.
Titanic — based loosely on historical events, with a great example of a refrigerator ending (you realise afterwards, when you’re looking in the fridge for a snack, that Rose probably could have saved Jack.)
Jaws — the film which revolutionised movie merchandising
Dead Calm — the Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill thriller
Bloodline — Cissy Spacek’s TV series about a black sheep brother who returns home
All Is Lost — the Robert Redford (almost) wordless movie
Open Water — a 2003 American psychological horror drama film loosely based on the true story of an American couple, Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who in 1998 went out with a scuba diving group, Outer Edge Dive Company, on the Great Barrier Reef, and were accidentally left behind because the dive-boat crew failed to take an accurate headcount.
The Seaside Cottage
A house or cottage by the sea probably indicates a cosy setting but with an underlying threat of danger. After all, anything can come out of the sea.
The Seaside Holiday
When the story has Victorian tropes, the characters may well take a holiday near the sea at some stage, as to The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place, in book five. This is in keeping with Victorian ideas about health — without modern medicine, sometimes the best a doctor could recommend was a trip to the seaside. Even without any imminent death, a trip to the seaside was thought to have hugely restorative benefits. Ironic, then, when a restorative trip to the seaside results in near death, in a mystery which must be solved by the main characters.
The ocean deep is the ultimate three-dimensional landscape where all creatures are weightless and thus live at every level. This weightless, floating quality is a common element when the human mind imagines a utopia, which is why the ocean deep has often been the place of utopian dreamworlds.
But the ocean deep is also a terrifying graveyard, a great, impersonal force quietly grabbing anyone or anything on the surface and pulling it down to the infinite black depths. The ocean is the vast cavern where ancient worlds, prehistoric creatures, past secrets, and old treasure are swallowed up and lie waiting to be discovered.
— John Truby
Ocean Deep At The Pool (Children’s Literature)
Sometimes the excitement of the ocean can be achieved in a swimming pool which, to a child, can seem just as scary.
Ocean As Utopia
In stories for children, the underwater world is most often a type of utopia.
The Stream That Stood Still by Beverley Nichols
Modern audiences may not have heard of this story, the second of Nichols’ Magic Woodland trilogy, as it was first published in the 1940s, and hasn’t been made into a movie. The main message in it is that concerted action and goodwill of many weak creatures will sometimes overthrow a single, strong, well-armed tyrant. The underwater world is obtrusively humanised: the sticklebacks belong to a regiment, the minnows are a ladies’ finishing school. The fish have police and magistrates.
The Little Mermaid
Sponge-Bob Square Pants
The comedy in this TV series works (for both children and adults) because the social structure is mimetic of (North American) human society. The underwater setting allows for wacky characters, a novel setting and lots of gags based on sea creatures.
See my post on Ponyo for Miyazaki’s strong sea symbolism.
THE SEA CAVE (LITTORAL CAVE)
Another wonderful advantage of sea settings is that the writer might make use of the caves formed by the nearby wave action to turn the ocean into a vast labyrinth where characters can easily get lost both laterally and vertically. One of the most terrifying passages I’ve ever read in fiction is the scene in The Beach by Alex Garland where the main character is swimming underground and almost runs out of breath while lost in the network of sea caves.