Come on, Get Happy
Neil Gaiman describes the flea’s original form as something like a decaying circus tent:
I thought I was looking at a building at first: that it was some kind of tent, as high as a country church, made of gray and pink canvas that flapped in the gusts of storm wind, in that orange sky: a lopsided canvas structure aged by weather and ripped by time. […] Its face was ragged, and its eyes were deep holes in the fabric. There was nothing behind it, just a gray canvas mask, huger than I could have imagined, all ripped and torn, blowing in the gusts of storm wind. (4.56)
It’s kind of an abstract form, so she’s much easier to imagine as Ursula Monkton: the prim, tidy boarder who seduces the boy’s father and enchants his sister.
Appearances aside though, she’s quite the piece of work. Ursula doesn’t want to disrupt the lives of the people she meets, and she’s not trying to be a malicious harpy. To the contrary—her motivation is to make everyone happy:
“She finds what they think they need and she tries to give it to them. She’s doing it to make the world into something she’ll be happier in. Somewhere more comfortable for her. Somewhere cleaner.” (10.88)
The only problem, of course, is that she doesn’t understand how to do it properly. In the beginning, Ursula senses all of the money troubles in the boy’s neighborhood, and so she tries to give everyone money. But as we all know: Mo’ money, mo’ problems—you know, like waking up choking on a vintage coin.
Meanest Circus Tent Ever
Ursula Monkton is a simple creature. Gran calls her kind “fleas” because they’re typically harmless, and a little stupid. Unfortunately though, her simplicity makes her a lot like a petulant toddler: everything is black or white, good or bad, happy or sad. If you thwart her plans she gets nasty real quickly—so when Lettie and the boy come to rain on her parade and send her home, she’s no longer concerned with making people happy. Now she’s prepared to do some really nasty things in order to stay in the little part of the world she’s found:
“I need the boy safe. I promised I’d keep him in the attic, so the attic it shall be. But you, little farm-girl. What shall I do with you? Something appropriate. Perhaps I ought to turn you inside out, so your heart and brains and flesh are all naked and exposed on the outside, and the skin-side’s inside. Then I’ll keep you wrapped up in my room here, with your eyes staring forever at the darkness inside yourself. I can do that.” (10.108)
Yeah, we’re pretty sure that wouldn’t make Lettie happy. It sounds miserable. Add those threats to what she actually does to the poor boy (getting drowned in the bathtub by your own father isn’t exactly joyful) and we’ve got ourselves a villain. So even though she might’ve started out as a relatively benign being (try running that phrase through autocorrect a few times), Ursula Monkton is ultimately only looking after her own happiness—and that means she’s definitely not one of the good guys.
- When the opal miner kills himself, something is triggered that awakens Skarthach of the Keep.
- She tries to make people happy by giving them money, or even just dreams of money—but it all backfires in horrible ways.
- Lettie tries to bind her, but not before she’s able to create a portal in the boy’s foot and heart.
- The boy tries to pull her out of his foot when she’s in the form of a worm, but doesn’t get all of her.
- She recreates herself in the image of Ursula Monkton, tidy boarder and childcare provider.
- She threatens the boy, seduces his father, and then causes him to try and kill the boy.
- Lettie gives her another chance to use the portal to go home. When Ursula tries to use the portal even though it will cause the boy’s death, Lettie summons the hunger birds, which finish her off for good.
Ursula Monkton, a young, attractive housekeeper who is hired by the narrator’s family and is soon working her wiles on his father. A scene where the father, in a fit of maddened rage, almost drowns the boy on purpose in the bath is chillingly rendered.
Later, as our narrator spies on his father and Ursula in an adulterous tryst, Gaiman artfully evokes the pragmatic, moralistic mindset of a seven-year-old. The youngster is neither enthralled nor repelled by what he sees: “I was not sure what I was looking at. My father had Ursula Monkton pressed up against the side of the big fireplace in the far wall. He had his back to me. She did too, her hands pressed against the huge high mantelpiece.” Nonetheless he senses instinctively that there has been a violation of the proper order of things.
Defeating Ursula entails sacrifice and loss, and so does growing up, and that is whatThe Ocean at the End of the Lane is really about. Our certainties fall away as we age and our innate belief in magic and our love of imagination wanes. Adults really are, as the narrator ponders, merely “children wrapped in adult bodies, like children’s books hidden in the middle of dull, long books. The kind with no pictures or conversations.”
- Abusive Parents: The narrator’s father isn’t abusive at first. He said that he would never hit his children, since his father hit him, although he does yell… but after he is influenced by Ursula Monkton, the father finds a way around this by attempting to drown his son in the bathtub.
- Adult Fear: Your spouse will start cheating on you with an attractive younger person, who will, in turn, start mistreating your children. Although it’s told from a child’s perspective, and among many more immediate threats, part of what makes Ursula Monkton so horrifying is that she can make the narrator’s father do terrible things, possibly without any overt mind control at all.
- Alas, Poor Villain: The Hempstocks make it clear that they don’t hate the “fleas”, who only act in accordance with their nature and without full understanding of the harm they cause. They’re less forgiving of the “varmints”.
- Babysitter from Hell: Ursula Monkton, although only to the protagonist and not to his sister, who loves her.
- The Eldritch Abomination that’s been haunting the narrator is defeated, but the hunger birds try to devour the narrator’s heart, forcing Lettie to sacrifice herself. She’s not technically dead, but she’s been healing for over forty years and still isn’t well enough to talk. The narrator can only remember tiny fragments of what had really happened, except when he’s visiting the ocean.
- Blue and Orange Morality: The hunger birds don’t care about anything except “cleaning” up after the fleas. That means eating not only the thing that escaped and her way home, but also the last piece of the hole inside the narrator’s heart. They aren’t ‘evil’ or ‘good’ – they just are. Lettie also implies this is the case for the fleas themselves – that they don’t mean to harm, they are just doing what is part of their nature. They can’t help it.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Lettie gives Ursula every chance to surrender and do the right thing. And Ursula at one point seems to agree, only to attempt a double-cross. Fortunately, Lettie was Genre Savvy enough to see it coming.
- Color Motif: The flea, in all its forms, has a predominately pink and grey colouration, with variations (such as platinum-blonde hair). Disturbingly and inexplicably, the same colours dominate the narrator’s parents’ bedroom.
- Did You Just Romance Cthulhu??: A Humanoid Abomination has sex with the narrator’s father.
- Distracted by the Sexy: The narrator’s father, and Ursula Monkton herself, were distracted from the narrator’s escape by…other activities. At one point the narrator lampshades this, wondering what might have happened if he had been old enough for Ursula to seduce.
- A Form You Are Comfortable With: Ursula (who actually looks like a mass of rotten gray cloth)
- Full-Name Basis: Ursula Monkton is always given her full name, at least when the narrator thinks of it. Out loud, he mostly refers to her as “her”.
- Growing Up Sucks: A theme – the narrator often sees things better because he is a child and wonders why adults act the way they do. Lettie later tells him, however, that all adults are really only children swaddled in layers and that they get scared as well.
- Humanoid Abomination: The thing that calls itself Ursula Monkton… at least until it abandons its disguise. Also, perhaps all of the Hempstocks, although they are a benevolent version of the trope.
- Human Pet: Ursula Monkton says she considers the narrator’s family members her pets.
- I Know Your True Name: Never specifically comes into play, but Ursula chides Lettie for trying to seal her without knowing her name and Lettie goes to a lot of trouble to find it out. She finally does find out what Ursula’s real name isSkarthach of the Keep and is able to make Ursula behave herself more after she figures this out.
- Loophole Abuse: Ursula Monkton tries to invoke this when she follows the narrator onto the Hempstocks’ property. Lettie orders her to get off her land, to which the “flea” replies she’s not technically on her land, as she’s floating in the air. Lettie isn’t having any of this, though, and chases her off.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Skarthach’s last words: “I never made any of them do anything.” A last mental barb at the narrator? Or was a father really willing to drown his son for a pretty smile?
- Terms of Endangerment: Ursula Monkton calls the narrator “sweety-weety-pudding-and-pie” right before threatening tolock him in the attic and then make his own father drown him.