Everything I Never Told You

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Water/Swimming/the Lake Symbol Analysis

Water/Swimming/the Lake Symbol Icon

Undoubtedly the most important symbol in the book is the lake in which Lydia drowns. Located at the end of the Lees’ street, the lake represents mystery—everything the characters cannot know and everything they do not tell each other. In many ways, the lake is a sinister presence; it is both the site and cause of Lydia’s death, and the description of Lydia’s water-logged body in the autopsy report makes the lake into something of a monstrous figure, something that not only kills Lydia but also grotesquely disfigures her. At the same time, the Lee children are all drawn to the lake; it seems to hold a strange power over them, pulling them toward it at critical moments in their lives. Shortly before Lydia’s death, she identifies the time when Nath pushed her into the lake as the moment in which everything in her life started going “wrong.” She decides that she will be able to fix everything as long as she can jump in the lake again and swim back to shore. This desire evokes the Christian tradition of baptism in which believers are “born again” and symbolically washed free of sin by being submerged in water. However, Lydia’s decision to jump is highly risky and irrational; it is the middle of the night, she is alone, and she cannot swim.

Swimming is also symbolically significant in the novel. Both James and Nath are strong swimmers, and when Nath is young James fantasizes that he will grow up to be a popular star of the high school swim team. However, rather than leading to popularity, swimming ends up reemphasizing Nath’s marginalization. When James takes Nath to the Y, the other children abandon Nath in the middle of a game of Marco Polo and shout racist insults at him. The experience of being in water often reminds characters of their own isolation—this happens when Nath swims at the Y, when he pushes Lydia into the lake, and when Hannah pushes him into the lake at the end of the novel. There is also a connection between this isolation and the metaphorical concept of “drowning.” Shortly before her death, Lydia reflects that Nath has been “keeping her afloat.” When he goes to Harvard, she worries that she will permanently “sink” under the pressure of her parents’ suffocating attention and expectations. In reality, this fear leads Lydia to drown in the literal sense.

Water/Swimming/the Lake Quotes in Everything I Never Told You

The Everything I Never Told You quotes below all refer to the symbol of Water/Swimming/the Lake. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Books edition of Everything I Never Told You published in 2015.
Chapter 4 Quotes

So part of him wanted to tell Nath that he knew: what it was like to be teased, what it was like to never fit in. The other part of him wanted to shake his son, to slap him. To shape him into something different. Later, when Nath was too slight for the football team, too short for the basketball team, too clumsy for the baseball team, when he seemed to prefer reading and poring over his atlas and peering through his telescope to making friends, James would think back to this day in the swimming pool, this first disappointment in his son, this first

and most painful puncture in his fatherly dreams.

Related Characters: James Lee, Nath Lee
Related Symbols: Water/Swimming/the Lake
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

James has taken Nath to the Y to encourage his reluctant son to swim with the other kids. However, once Nath is in the pool the other children deliberately desert him in the middle of a game of Marco Polo before taunting him with racist insults. Upon realizing what has happened, Nath furiously rushes to the locker room, refusing to say anything to his father. This passage describes James’ conflicting feelings as a result of the incident at the Y. James feels sympathetic to Nath, particularly as James himself has experienced a lifetime of prejudice, bullying, and exclusion. However, it is this very parallel that discourages James from comforting Nath and instead makes him want to react with violence.

The anger that James feels is arguably not truly directed at Nath, but instead at himself. James is frustrated and disappointed in his own inability to become “normal” and popular, yet he takes these feelings out on his son. This illustrates one of the dangers of parents attempting to live out their own ambitions through their children—it can lead them to blame their children for things that are not their fault.

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Chapter 6 Quotes

The summer Lydia fell in the lake, the summer Marilyn went missing: all of them had tried to forget it. They did not talk about it; they never mentioned it. But it lingered, like a bad smell. It had suffused them so deeply it could never

wash out.

Related Characters: Lydia Lee, Marilyn Lee
Related Symbols: Water/Swimming/the Lake
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

This is the opening passage to Chapter 6. At the end of the previous chapter, Nath told Hannah that Lydia fell in the lake once before and when Hannah said she couldn’t remember that happening, Nath explained that it was before Hannah was born. In this passage, the narrator makes an explicit connection between two disappearances: Marilyn’s flight to Toledo and Lydia’s far briefer “disappearance” into the water. Although the details of these events have yet to be revealed, it is clear that they are traumatic memories that the Lees have attempted to suppress in order to maintain the appearance of happiness and normalcy.

However, as the narrator’s words suggest, the attempt to suppress these memories is inherently doomed. Even though the Lee family does not talk about Marilyn and Lydia’s disappearances, these events have become a part of them. Denying the fact that they happened thus becomes a way of denying who they really are as a family.

She followed him all the way to the lake and to the end of the little pier. The houses on the other side of the water looked like dollhouses, tiny and scaled-down and perfect. Inside, mothers were boiling eggs or baking cakes or making pot roasts, or maybe fathers were poking the coals in the barbecue,

turning the hot dogs with a fork so that the grill made perfect black lines all over. Those mothers had never gone far away and left their children behind. Those fathers had never slapped their children or kicked over the television or laughed at them.

Related Characters: Lydia Lee, Marilyn Lee, James Lee, Nath Lee
Related Symbols: Water/Swimming/the Lake, Eggs
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

James has driven Marilyn back to Toledo to collect her belongings from the apartment she’d been renting, leaving Nath and Lydia with Mrs. Allen, who promptly falls asleep in front of the television, leaving the children to wander off to the lake unaccompanied. This passage describes what Nath and Lydia can see when they gaze across the lake—rows of “dollhouses” in which the children imagine happy families free of abnormality and strife. Note that this domestic happiness is imagined in terms of food, a recurrent theme throughout the book. Although making eggs and grilling hot dogs are simple, everyday acts, they represent the stability, care, and normalcy that are missing from Nath and Lydia’s lives.

The fact that the houses are on the other side of the lake emphasizes the notion that the Lees are barred from accessing this happiness and normalcy by a mysterious and powerful force. However, this distance also means that Nath and Lydia do not see the real truth of the lives of the people who live on the other side of the lake. Although the houses look idyllic from a distance, this appearance could be deceiving. In all likelihood, the families in those houses may be suffering from similar problems to the Lees.

Chapter 11 Quotes

That long-ago day, sitting in this very spot on the dock, she had already begun to feel it: how hard it would be to inherit their parents' dreams. How suffocating to be so loved. She had felt Nath's hands on her shoulders and been almost grateful to fall forward, to let herself sink… Don't let me sink, she had thought as she reached for his hand, and he had promised not to when he took it. This moment, Lydia thought. This is where it all went wrong.

Related Characters: Lydia Lee, Marilyn Lee, James Lee, Nath Lee
Related Symbols: Water/Swimming/the Lake
Page Number: 273-274
Explanation and Analysis:

After learning about Jack’s love for Nath, Lydia reaches a kind of breaking point. That night, at 2am, she sneaks out to the lake. While sitting on the dock, she thinks about the day when Nath pushed her into the water, concluding that “this is where it all went wrong.” Lydia’s thoughts in this passage reveal a curious mix of perceptiveness and irrationality. On the one hand, Lydia has a sharp understanding of the way in which her parents’ attention has been “suffocating,” such that she has crumbled under the pressure of James and Marilyn’s love. On the other hand, her interpretation that the day in which Nath pushed her into the lake was the single moment “where it all went wrong” is arguably naïve; as the book shows, the problems in Lydia’s life originated decades before she was even born.

Lydia articulates two contradictory feelings about the prospect of “disappearing” into the lake; she feels relieved to disappear even as she also resolves to take Nath’s hand and let him pull her to the surface. These conflicting feelings provide an insight into why—in only a few minutes from this scene—Lydia jumps into the lake and drowns herself. Part of her hopes to “stay afloat” using the support of her brother, as well as her own determination, to survive. However, throughout her life the lake seems to have been pulling her toward it, beckoning her with the temptation to escape everyone’s attempts to control her life and to succumb to the mysterious power of the water.

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Water/Swimming/the Lake Symbol Timeline in Everything I Never Told You

The timeline below shows where the symbol Water/Swimming/the Lake appears in Everything I Never Told You. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
...Middlewood Lake is “really just a glorified pond.” The narrator corrects her, emphasizing that the lake is both large and deep. Marilyn keeps looking through the house but finds nothing, and... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
...notices that the rowboat used by the community is sitting in the middle of the lake. At night, the police call to ask if Lydia has ever “played with” the boat.... (full context)
Chapter 3
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...On the way to the cemetery, Marilyn turns her head to avoid looking at the lake, and Nath and Hannah wonder if she will do this for the rest of her... (full context)
Chapter 4
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...is coming home. James takes Nath to the Y, leaving Lydia—who hasn’t yet learned to swim—with Mrs. Allen. James has been looking forward to spending time alone with his son and... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...Marco Polo, but that the children are quickly deserting him and getting out of the pool. Nath is still calling out “Marco” when an older girl shouts, “Chink can’t find China!”... (full context)
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...Marilyn comes home, James dismissively tells her that Nath was teased by kids at the pool and that he “needs to learn to take a joke”—intentionally omitting any mention of the... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...and starts driving away, telling herself she needs to “clear her head.” She circles the lake twice before driving through Middlewood to the hospital. She sits in the waiting room, watching... (full context)
Chapter 5
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
...and angry. She wants to ask Lydia what it was like to disappear into the lake. On what would have been her last day of school, Hannah lies awake before sneaking... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...happy” and “loved school.” She insists that Lydia would not have gone out on the lake by herself and urges the officer to look for the “psycho” who must have kidnapped... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
Without verbally agreeing to do so, both Nath and Hannah head to the lake. Meanwhile, James circles the lake in his car, replaying Marilyn’s words in his mind and... (full context)
Chapter 6
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
...family rarely leaves the house, and one day Nath begs to be taken to the lake. James refuses, saying he doesn’t want to “play lifeguard” to Lydia, who can’t yet swim.... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...Lydia asks where he is going, before eventually following him. They walk out to the lake and Nath looks at the houses on the other side of the water, imagining that... (full context)
Chapter 8
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...Lydia, and that she, Marilyn, knows that Lydia would not have gone out on the lake alone. She accuses James of agreeing with the police and adds that if Lydia had... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
...that this is mistaken. The previous summer, the three Lee children were all at the lake, and while Nath was swimming Jack appeared and sat next to Lydia. Walking toward them,... (full context)
Chapter 10
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...realizes that perhaps the pressure she put on Lydia was what forced her into the lake. A small girl walks in, and for a moment Marilyn believes it is Lydia; upon... (full context)
Chapter 11
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...for them to do together. On Sunday afternoon, Hannah suggests that they go to the lake, and Lydia suddenly notices that Hannah is wearing her silver locket. Hannah quietly confesses that... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...went wrong. At 2am, she is suddenly seized by the impulse to go to the lake. Sitting on the dock, she reflects that this is the closest she’s been to the... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
The day Nath pushed her into the lake was also the day that Lydia first realized how “suffocating” it was to be loved... (full context)
Chapter 12
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
...runs out after Jack. As he darts out of the front door and toward the lake, Hannah follows him, shouting that Jack is not to blame. Nath yells at Jack that... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...the water, Nath thinks of Lydia, falling beneath the surface to the bottom of the lake. He wants to feel himself sinking, to experience firsthand what Lydia went through, but his... (full context)