Ocean Symbolism In Storytelling

John Brett - From the Dorsetshire Cliffs

The ocean contains multivalent symbolism — the known and the unknown; surface versus deep.

The Ocean Surface

Overview of Setting in Literature
Overview of Setting in Literature

The thing about the ocean surface is, unlike a landscape equivalent, the desert, you should be a little worried about what’s hiding underneath. That’s because humans are terrified of isolation, and through fable and folklore we populate every imaginary space with creatures and critters: Forests with fairies, homes with hobgoblins, outer space with little green men. We populate our watery depths with mermaids, Lochness monsters and Spongebob Squarepants.

If we divide spaces into ‘striated’ and ‘smooth’, the ocean surface is an example of both.

Regarding the example of the sea, which is the smooth space par excellence, we must consider that it had always been subjected to strict striation; firstly by the astronomical bearings, based on the observation of the stars and the sun, and secondly by the plotting of the known and unknown regions on the map. However, there had also existed a nomadic system of preastronomical navigation, based on the “tactile” qualities of the smooth space: wind, noise, colours and sounds of the sea. … No matter how intensively the sea has been striated, it consistently reimparts a kind of smooth space.

Concepts of Space in Victorian Novels

The author of that paper also points out that the ocean surface gets different treatment depending on the era of the story. “The Victorian novel, in contrast to Romantic literature, does not focus on the presence of the sea to a great extent… For the Victorians the space of the sea would always remain related to the experience of the uncanny and thus attempted to be marginalized, pointing towards the unconscious.”

Other examples of smooth spaces: deserts, steppes and ice.

Examples of Ocean-Scapes


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.

Moby Dick illustration by Rose Forshall

Like deserts, ocean-scapes take you outside society, magnifying your loneliness and vulnerability.


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.)


The film which revolutionised movie merchandising

Dead Calm

The Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill thriller


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.

Neptune’s Horses, illustration for ‘The Greek Mythological Legend’, published in London, 1910 (colour litho) by Crane, Walter (1845-1915)

Ocean Deep

For each of the manmade features, there is a naturally occurring symbolic equivalent. Oceans are connected to cities across storytelling. This is especially so in certain genres — the scary ones. We started out in the sea, and I’m sure there was a scary reason for making it onto land because the imagery of something big and scary floating towards us continues to haunt. Literally — when I think of monsters floating through space I not only think of bigger fish in a sea, but of ghosts. Why do ghosts tend to float? I believe that, too, derives from how ocean creatures move. The slow, floaty monster is almost more scary than the monsters with leonine speed and agility.

Ocean Metaphors In Horrors and Thrillers

Adolf Hoffmeister, V souhvězdí ryb, In the Constellation of Pisces, 1963
Adolf Hoffmeister, V souhvězdí ryb, In the Constellation of Pisces, 1963

The introductory imagery of Broadchurch melds sea and (not-so-) cosy cottage together. Post-processing has given the scene a bluish hue, not only to replicate night-time but also to emphasise the underwater blues of the sea.

Another early sequence of the pilot episode shows an eerie but cosy seaside little town, and the camera floats along the main street of this village in a smooth, floating, creepy fashion, as if a ghost. Or a fish. The fish (camera) follows one of the main characters creepily down the street, offering contrast with the friendliness of the storybook village. The camera might be a fish or might equally be an invisible ghost.

Panic Room

The camera floats through the house, first along the floorboards then up and over, through objects and walls, waiting for the Jodi Foster character to discover her dangerous intruders. The story opens with the camera floating around New York City, establishing the location as Manhattan.

The trailer of Panic Room gives an idea of how the camera moves.

And here’s the ‘camera fish’ moving from a scene in the film:

British detective series is an interesting case. Below is a clip from the pilot episode, in which the camera is positioned from the point-of-view of an omniscient eye (as given to the audience) but moves like a predatory fish underwater. Note that the camera is following the villain in this case, not the potential victims. That’s because The Fall is not a whodunnit, or even a whydunnit. Suspense for the viewer in this case relies upon watching how the hero detective (Stella) solves the mystery of a serial killer. (In a genre which historically relies upon the rape and murder of women, this switch-up makes the detective series feel a little more feminist.)

Fish camera follows the villain

It’s possible to achieve this ‘floating camera’ technique in writing. Take The Tricksters, a 1980s New Zealand novel for young adults — a ghost story set by the sea. A family gathers in a haunted house. Below, different members of the household think they feel a presence. Notice what the ‘camera’ does:

In the kitchen, Naomi wrapped cheese in a plastic bag, put empty bottles down beside the fridge and put new bottles in to chill. An ordinary, pleasant, unexciting Christmas is what we need, she thought, and then–who knows? “Wet towels on the verandah rail!” she said aloud, reminding someone she felt come into the room behind her, someone smelling of the sea. However, when she turned around, the kitchen was quite empty.

Emma, sitting with Tibby, drowsy at last and almost asleep, thought Naomi was looking in at the door.

“What’s so strange about it all is that it really feels like coming home,” she said uncertainly. “I thought it might have changed.” There was no reply. “Are you absolutely sure it’s OK for me to be here, baby and all?” She turned, but the room and the doorway were both empty.

Suppose, thought Harry, sitting at her peaked window, suppose I was accidentally welcoming someone through when I took that hand.

The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy


Shukan Shincho cover
An illustration from ‘Alfie and the Ferryboat’; written and illustrated by Charles Keeping (1968)
Czech children’s book featuring some fantastic collages and illustrations by Václav Sivko, 1967

Quoting Sheila Egoff, Naomi Hamer writes:

In the enormity of the city, the child protagonists often find themselves in a playground full of caricature-like characters that are often adults. In early works of enchanted realism, “childhood is seen as a state separate from adulthood and the adventures the children encounter are a product of their own devising, their own serious play and imaginings

Naomi Hamer

Maurice Sendak’s In The Night Garden is a very good example of a picture book with a city setting and a floating child.

Metropolitan kids float above the Night Kitchen [referencing Sendak], deprived of milk cows and turtles and tree houses and fishing holes. They swim in an ocean of adults, sometimes remarkably alone.

Mary Beatty, “Lullaby of Broadway”

Numerous picture books have taken a child’s bedroom and turned it into a night-time playground. The most famous in Australia is undoubtedly There’s A Sea In My Bedroom by Margaret Wild.

The Night-fish by Helen McCosker is another more recent one, because the child brings a piece of the ocean into the bedroom. (With disastrous consequences.)

These stories, in which the child enters the depths of the ocean, even metaphorically, are quite different to stories in which the character travels over the surface of the ocean, as in Where The Wild Things Are or Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea. Consider the ‘sea surface’ a different setting from ‘sea depths’. The sea depths are analogous to outer space in storytelling.

Though not specifically for children, artist Nicoletta Ceccoli has a series of paintings with girls interacting with fish who float through rooms.

I’ve written a separate post on Ocean Symbolism in Children’s Stories. For other symbolic archetypes in children’s literature, see this post. And for more on the country/city dichotomy, I offer you this post.

Don’t mistake the ocean for the beach, either. Consider them separate, as metaphors. (Naturally, they may be linked.)

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.

Illustration from Pool by Jihyeon Lee

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
Finding Nemo
Finding Nemo underwater
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.

ponyo and sousuke

See my post on Ponyo for Miyazaki’s strong sea symbolism.

The music video today blends an underwater setting with reggae culture and also Western tropes.


Littoral refers to the space on the shore of the sea or a lake.

‘The Residents of the Littoral’ Illustration by G.B. Bertelli, 1965
Alfred Bestall (1892 – 1986) illustration for The Rupert Annual 1971

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.

Alan Lee – The Mabinogion
It turned out fine by M. E. Host by Leslie Sheperd

For more on tunnel and cave symbolism, see here.

Paintings by Canadian self-taught painter Maud Lewis

Header painting: The British Channel Seen from the Dorsetshire Cliffs 1871 John Brett 1831-1902 Presented by Mrs Brett 1902