Once More to the Lake: Summary, Theme & Analysis Video

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Anderson
'Once More to the Lake,' an essay written by E.B. White, explores the age-old relationship between a father and his growing son. This transformative essay contains many themes and rich details lurking beneath the narrative. Read on for a summary and analysis of the text.

Summary of 'Once More to the Lake'

In E.B. White's vivid 1941 personal essay, 'Once More to the Lake,' the lake serves as the setting for both the author's past and present. Early on, White reflects on his own childhood when his father would take him to the lake. He then explains that now he is taking his own son to that very same lake.

Throughout the essay, White describes a dual existence that he experiences when spending time with his son at the lake. This dual existence is apparent whenever White has a hard time distinguishing himself from his own son. In some ways, White is lost to the setting, suffering an identity crisis.

The essay moves in a non-linear (non-chronological) way, as White weaves in and out of the past and present, following the flow of his mental process, or as what many would call stream-of-consciousness. By the essay's end, White has come full circle, accepting his own mortality. In his son's image, he no longer sees himself. He is clear that his son's maturation is a sign that White is getting closer to death.

Analysis of Key Passages and Themes

Going back to that idea of dual existence, you can see this concept in action when White and his son go fishing on their second day at the lake:

There had been no years between the ducking of this dragonfly and the other one - the one that was part of memory. I looked at the boy, who was silently watching his fly, and it was my hands that held his rod, my eyes watching. I felt dizzy and didn't know which rod I was at the end of.

In this passage, we see the first of many themes. The word choices 'dizzy' and 'memory' reinforce the idea that this essay is an emotional reflection on the passage of time. The setting of the lake, and White's childhood associations with the lake, demonstrate that White is denying his own mortality.

White's refusal to accept that he is now the father, not the child, demonstrates the theme of man versus himself, since the speaker is facing an internal conflict. An internal conflict refers to a main character's interior mind and his/her hang-ups and neurotic dilemmas. Part of White's conflict is that he yearns to dip back into the past, reliving his adolescence:

I kept remembering everything, lying in bed in the mornings - the small steamboat that had a long rounded stern like the lip of a Ubangi, and how quietly she ran on the moonlight sails, when the older boys played their mandolins and the girls sang and we ate doughnuts dipped in sugar, and how sweet the music was on the water in the shining night, and what it had felt like to think about girls then.

The sensory details, which are details that engage the five senses, pervade this passage, allowing us to hear the sound of mandolins; we can hear the girls singing; we can taste the sugar-dipped donuts; we can see the moonlight sails. White longs to relive these years when he first started to think about girls. In a sense, White may be experiencing what you'd call a mid-life crisis, but by the end of his essay, the crisis is resolved.

While time has preserved White's lake, what he calls a 'holy spot,' there were moments that forced White to acknowledge that, indeed, time had passed. White views this as an interruption to his nostalgia. Nostalgia is a romantic, rose-colored way of looking at the past. This interruption surfaces as he compares how the boats from his childhood sounded compared to modern boats:

The only thing that was wrong now, really, was the sound of the place, an unfamiliar nervous sound of the outboard motors. This was the note that jarred, the one thing that would sometimes break the illusion and set the years moving. In those other summertimes, all motors were inboard; and when they were at a little distance, the noise they made was a sedative, an ingredient of summer sleep.

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