In On Golden Pond, what symbolism does the dead loon that Billy catches represent?

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Ernest Thompson’s 1979 play On Golden Pond, later adapted to film, focuses on an aging couple, Norman and Ethel Thayer, who return every year to their cabin on Golden Pond. Norman, whom we eventually learn has dementia-like memory issues and a heart condition, is seemingly obsessed with the process of dying and death, a theme that is brought up early in the play:

Norman: Maybe he was trying to kill himself. Maybe he wants to be cremated. Maybe he got    cancer or termites or something.

Ethel: Are you hungry, darling?

Norman: No. It wouldn’t be a bad way to go, huh? A quick front flip off the mantel, a bit of a kick at the last minute, and end up right in the fire. Nothing to it.

 Ethel: Shut up, Norman!

 Norman: When my number’s up, do that for me, would you? Prop me up on the mantel, and point out which way is down. I may even try for a full gainer with a half twist.

 Ethel: Norman Thayer, will you shut up? Your fascination with dying is beginning to frazzle my good humor.

 Norman: It’s not a fascination. It just crosses my mind now and then.

 Ethel: Every five minutes. Don’t you have something else to think about?

 Norman: Nothing quite as interesting. (Thompson, 1979, p. 11)

Alongside Norman and Ethel, their daughter Chelsea, her fiancé Bill, and Bill’s son Billy, the loons of Golden Pond play a significant part. So significant, in fact, theater goers are introduced to the loons in the first line of the play:

 Ethel: Norman. The loons. They heard me! Hello, Golden Pond. We’re here. (Thompson, 1979, p. 4)

 On their first evening at the lake, Ethel talks Norman into taking the canoe out, and during their trip, they spot a couple of loons, which Ethel decides are husband and wife (p. 20). As they watch the loons, Norman and Ethel become aware of a speedboat that speeds by so quickly, and right over where the loons were swimming, it nearly swamps them (p. 21). Norman and Ethel search the water for any sign of the loons and are rewarded when they resurface safely. This scene sets the parallel between the couple Norman and Ethel and loon couple, and the lonesome, mournful call of the loons is a prevalent character in the rest of the play.

 Later, after Chelsea and Bill have gone off on what turns out to be their honeymoon, leaving young Billy in Norman and Ethel’s care, Norman and Billy head out on a rainy evening to try to catch Walter, Norman’s piscine rival. Instead, Billy catches a dead loon, which unsettles them both. Billy asks Norman is he’s afraid to die, a question that initially makes Norman mad and one he never answers (pp. 116-117). It is in this moment that we make the strongest connection between the dead loon and Norman. We have been introduced to the loons as a couple, and although we know there are more than 2 loons on the lake, it is impossible not to wonder if a loon has lost its mate. Given Norman’s obsession with dying, it is equally impossible not to wonder if the dead loon is predicting Norman’s death. When Norman has his angina attack (p. 141), it’s hard not to recall the dead loon and wonder if Ethel will also be left without her mate. While Norman is still lying on the porch where he fell and Ethel is cradling him, they have a conversation about the reality of death, about what Norman looks like laid out in his coffin in his suit, and how that all feels (pp. 144-145). But Norman recovers quickly enough, and the couple walks to the lake where the loons come to say goodbye (p. 146). Norman and Ethel have a discussion about how the loons probably have children who have moved away, too, and they say goodbye to the lake (p. 147). It is in this last appearance of the loons and the final goodbye that we wonder if it truly is the final goodbye.

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