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
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.
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
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.
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.