Fiction Analysis: The Arboretum

“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”

– Elie Wiesel

This is an analysis of the fiction piece The Arboretum.  If you haven’t yet read this story you can do so here.


Like most of my angstier stories this one was written during and inspired by my tumultuous first year of University, specifically when I fell in love with a girl and everything went to shit.  I remember feeling like nothing had hurt more in my life, and wishing that I could just be numb.  That feeling inspired this story’s plot/message, and my University’s arboretum inspired the setting.


The story starts with a boy, talking to his therapist about a girl he’s fallen in love with.  I never actually had a therapist to talk to about such problems in real life (nor did I want one), so the conversation they have is based around similar conversations I’ve had with myself.  Essentially the issue is this: the protagonist is so wrought with self-pity and self-loathing (sound familiar?) that he is convinced she could never feel the same way, and even if she did he wouldn’t be able to handle the emotional volatility that comes with being in a relationship.

Feeling overwhelmed with emotions and the pain they bring, the boy mentions that he would rather feel nothing at all.  The therapist asks him if he’s sure, and while he admits that he isn’t sure, he says that if he didn’t feel anything then he wouldn’t have to be sure.  After a moment of silence the therapist asks him if he’s been to the University’s arboretum, and when he says he hasn’t he suggests visiting it.

We then flash forward to him doing just that, and as he takes his first steps into the park his mind wanders back as he contemplates how he came to this point.  He recalls his final meeting with his old therapist, and contemplates how much different his new therapist is.  He lists off his new therapist’s personality traits: detached, cold, distant, something that will be important later.

He then moves on to thinking about the girl he’s fallen in love with, recalling how he met her and so on.  This part is important in establishing his character and provides some helpful backdrop, but there’s nothing that really needs to be unpacked with further detail so we’ll skip ahead.

As he ventures further into the arboretum he forces his mind away from his problems and away from the girl, and before long he gets lost in the experience.  He observes and contemplates all the things the arboretum has to offer, snapshots of a life outside of his head.  There is a moment when he realises he wants to share this with someone, and naturally his thoughts first turn to the girl, but something stops him from contacting her and he ends up going on alone.

The idea here was that he’d achieved something that few people achieve or even strive for in life: a sense of pure contentment with himself.  He’s learnt to enjoy his own company, to think in terms of himself rather than through the eyes of a nonexistent lover.  Unfortunately this revelation pushes him to the brink of a very thin line, and he ends up off the deep end.  Something about the arboretum has changed him; from these snapshots of life he has gleamed some all-important truth, one which shakes him down to the very core of his being.  The opposite of empathy is apathy, and he gets exactly what he thought he wanted: he feels nothing at all.

Six days later he is back in his therapist’s office, and the therapist confirms that he knew what would happen.  In the conversation that follows the therapist shifts in his chair:

The therapist shifts in his chair, and the resulting sound of leather rubbing against leather is reminiscent of an awkward childhood that no one will ever talk about, that no one will ever acknowledge, will ever make eye contact with. Sometimes it’s just too late for a wound to be bandaged. Sometimes when it heals it becomes a callus, and nothing more ever comes of it.

This paragraph is meant to confirm what was hinted at earlier in the story: the therapist, just like the boy, went through a troubled youth which stemmed from feeling too much.  His emotions are the wound which has become a callus (sounds a lot like callous… see what I did there?), and as a result he is detached, cold and distant, just as the boy is now.

“It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t know what I wanted,” the boy says, his voice quiet and submissive and indifferent. “I didn’t know.”

Eventually, maybe in another week or two or even three, The Arboretum will grow cold, and people will stop coming, and it will be empty. And even when spring rolls around again, something will have changed, something that the returning warmth will never be able to thaw.

Those of you who read The Woods and the Way may have noticed similarities between the boy in that story and the boy in this one (at least, I hope so).  That’s because it’s the same character.  This story takes place after the boy in TW&TW goes off to University, wedged in right before the final chapter of TW&TW.

So you’ll be happy to know that he ends up getting a happy ending after all.



There are accounts which, if we open our hearts to them, will cut us too deeply.  Look – here is a good man, good by his own lights and the lights of his friends: he is faithful and true to his wife, he adores and lavishes attention on his little children, he cares about his country, he does his job punctiliously, as best he can.  So, efficiently and good-naturedly, he exterminates Jews: he appreciates the music that plays in the background to pacify them; he advises the Jews not to forget their identification numbers as they go into the showers — many people, he tells them, forget their numbers, and take the wrong clothes when they come out of the showers.  This calms the Jews.  There will be life, they assure themselves, after the showers.  Our man supervises the detail taking the bodies to the ovens; and if there is anything he feels bad about, it is that he still allows the gassing of vermin to affect him.  Were he a truly good man, he knows, he would feel nothing but joy as the earth is cleansed of its pests.

No man, proclaimed Donne, is an island, and he was wrong.  If we are not islands, we would be lost, drowned in each other’s tragedies.  We are insulated (a word that means, literally, remember, made into an island) from the tragedy of others, by our island nature, and by the repetitive shape and form of the stories.  The shape does not change: there was some human being who was born, lived, and then, by some means or another, died.  There.  You may fill in the details from your own experience.  As unoriginal as any other tale, as unique as any other life.  Lives are snowflakes: forming patterns we have seen before, as like one another as peas in the pod (and have you ever looked at peas in a pod?  I mean, really looked at them?  There’s not a chance you would mistake one for another, after a minute’s close inspection) but still unique.

Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead, ‘casualties may rise to up to a million’.  With individual stories, the statistics become people – but even that is a lie, for the people continue to suffer in numbers that themselves are numbing and meaningless.  Look, see the child’s swollen, swollen belly, the flies that crawl in the corners of his eyes, his skeletal limbs: will it make it easier for you to know his name, his age, his dreams, his fears?  To see him from the inside?  And if it does, are we not doing a disservice to his sister, who lies in the searing dust beside him, a distorted, distended caricature of a human child?  And there, if we feel for them, are they now more important to us than a thousand other children touched by the same famine, a thousand other young lives who will soon be food for the flies’ own myriad squirming children?

We draw our lines around these moments of pain, and remain upon our islands, and they cannot hurt us.  They are covered with a smooth, safe, nacreous layer to let them slip, pearl-like, from our souls without real pain.

Fiction allows us to slide into these other heads, these other places, and look out through other eyes.  And then in the tale we stop before we die, or we die vicariously and unharmed, and in the world beyond the tale we turn the page or close the book, and we resume our lives.

A life, which is, like any other, unlike any other.

This is an excerpt from Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods.