Silent Snow, Secret Snow
By Conrad Aiken (1856-1920)
A Study Guide
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
Type of Work and Publication Year
......."Silent Snow, Secret Snow" is a short story centering on the thoughts of a twelve-year-old boy as he descends into mental illness. It was first published in The Virginia Quarterly Review in October 1932.
.......The story is set in an American town in the early decades of the twentieth century. The time of year is December.
Paul Hasleman: Twelve-year-old boy who becomes fixated on thoughts of snow.
Mrs. Hasleman: Paul's
Norman Hasleman: Paul's father.
Miss Buell: Paul's sixth-grade geography teacher.
Deirdre: Student in Paul's geography class.
Howells: Physician who examines Paul.
Mrs. Kempton: Acquaintance of the Hasleman family.
Point of View
.......The narrator tells the story in third-person point of view, presenting the thoughts of Paul Hasleman as he reacts to the external world and withdraws into his imaginary world.
.......During Miss Buell's sixth-grade geography lesson, twelve-year-old Paul Hasleman indulges in the memory of a December morning a few days before when he awoke to sounds of the mailman tramping through snow. As the snow mounted, he thought, the world would become peaceful and more and more silent. But when he
got out of bed and looked out the window, he saw sunlight and bare streets. He had imagined the muffled sound and the snow. Nevertheless, the comforting feeling that snow had fallen remains with him. His preoccupation with thoughts of snow distract his attention from activities around him.
.......Paul's mother notices the change in him and says, My darling, what has come over you?
.......The geography lesson continues as Miss Buell asks students the difference
between the North Pole and the Magnetic Pole. Deirdre, the girl sitting in front of Paul, has her hand in the air. Paul retires back into his reverie. His sense of the presence of snow is now more acute.
.......When he discovers each morning
that snow has not fallen, he is not disappointed. The snow is inside him, he realizes, and it is growing heavier each day, muffling the world, hiding the ugly, and deadening . . . the steps of the postman.
.......At lunch one day, he ignores his mother when she
asks him to pass a plate. She asks, What has come over you?
.......There is no way to explain to her his pleasant, secret feeling. All he can do is laugh, apologize, and become interested in events discussed at the tablefor example, that the cat
had been out all night and came in with a swollen cheek, that Mrs. Kempton may or may not come to tea, that Paul had a new lamp to study by. (It was thought that Paul's strange behavior might be the result of eyestrain.) On such occasions, Paul would note that school was going well and that he especially enjoyed geography lessons about the North Pole, pointing out that it would be fun to be an
explorer like Peary, Shackleton, or Scott. Afterward, he would drift into a dream of snow.
.......Paul enjoys his new world of snow. It is beautiful beyond beyond
description. But would it be wise to try to explain it to others? Would they understand? Would they think him foolish? In time, the narrator says, the vision of snow, the sound of snow, and the slow, almost soundless, approach of the postman crowd out his perceptions of the real world. He finds it harder and harder to pay attention to his mother and father at breakfast and to remain attentive
at school. But when asked a question about the Hudson River, he stares through the snow towards the blackboard and gives Miss Buell the correct answer. Deirdre turns around and smiles at him. He longs to tell his parents about the snow. At the same time, though, he likes the idea of keeping his secret world to himselfeven when his mother says, If this goes on, my lad, we'll have to see a
doctor . . . .
.......On the way home from school, he looks through the snow at the external worldat dirty sparrows, at a dirty newspaper in the gutter, at twigs on the pavement, at gravel, at mud, at an eggshell fragment, at a broken feather, at
the frozen river. The sun is shining but the snow is falling.
.......At home, his preoccupation with snow makes it a chore to go through his daily routine, especially in the morninggetting up, dressing, washing, going down to breakfast, being
nice to his parents. If he has to see Doctor Howells, he will cooperate, he has decided. But he will be saying nothing about the snow.
.......One evening after supper, he submits himself downstairs to the doctor's examination. The doctor finds
nothing physically wrong with him, then asks him whether anything is worrying him. Paul can see the snow. It promises him new wonders when he is alone with it. It would even pile a drift at his door. The boy tells them that he has no worries. When the doctor questions him further, Paul insists that he feel all right and adds, I'm just thinking, that's all. His mother asks, But, my dear, about
.......Paul answers, Oh, about anything, about nothing, you know the way you do!
.......But further questioning yields the truth: that he thinks about snow. He then asks to be allowed to go to bed, but his father says the matter must be dealt with now. All three of them are staring at him; it is as if he is a monster, he thinks. He begins to hear sounds: the clock ticking, flames fluttering in the kitchen, water flowing in the pipes. A new sound is about
to reveal itself to him, he believes, but he must not hear it in front of the others. He runs upstairs to his room and takes off his clothes in the dark. The floor beneath him is a like a raft riding waves of snow. After he gets into bed, the snow tells him to lie down and listen to a story. The snow begins dancing around the room. Paul feels peace, remoteness, coldness. Suddenly, something
alien enters the room, takes hold of him, and shakes him.
.......He shouts, "Mother! Mother! Go away! I hate you!"
.......Everything is all right again. Then the snow says it will tell him a story that gets smaller and smaller, as it goes inward instead of opening like a flower. It is a flower that is becoming a little cold seed. The hiss of the snow becomes a roar, and the whole world is a vast moving screen of snow but even now it said peace, it said
remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.
.......The climax occurs when Paul runs to his room after grudgingly telling his parents and the doctor what he has been thinking about. His action, along with his rejection of his mother, signifies his decision to retreat from the world entirely.
.......The main theme of the story is the onset and development of a mental disorder that causes the main character to withdraw into his own inner world. A metaphor in the story compares him to a flower that closes its petals and returns to a seed-like state.
.......Conrad Aiken may have based the story on his family history of mental illness. When Aiken was eleven, his mentally ill father shot his mother, then himself. His sister later suffered serious mental deterioration and required hospital treatment. Aiken worried that
he himself was destined to lose his mind.
.......Paul believes that he cannot adequately describe the ethereal loveliness of his new world. Moreover, he worries that any attempt to describe it would bode ill for him. Would it be safe to explain? he asks himself. Would it be absurd? Would it merely mean that he would get into some obscure kind of
trouble? So he keeps quiet about his inner snowstorm until his mother, father, and family doctor prod him to talk about it. By that time, he has already crossed the threshold into mental illness.
Beauty vs the Beast
.......Paul perceives the real world as ugly, dreary, and broken compared to his new world of pristine snow. Consequently, it becomes a struggle for him to confront reality. Consider, for example, the following passage presenting his thoughts on his walk home from school. Note the highlighted
words. Dirty sparrows huddled in the bushes, as dull in colour as dead fruit left in leafless trees. A single starling creaked on a weather vane. In the gutter, beside a drain, was
a scrap of torn and dirty newspaper, caught in a little delta of filth . . . In the little delta, beside the fan-shaped and deeply runnelled continent of brown mud, were lost twigs, descended from their parent trees, dead matches, a rusty horse-chestnut burr, a small concentration of sparkling gravel on the lip of the sewer, a fragment of egg-shell, a streak of yellow sawdust which had been wet and now was dry and congealed, a brown pebble, and a
broken feather. . . . The elm tree, with the great grey wound in the bark, kidney-shaped, into which he always put his hand to feel the cold but living wood. The injury, he had been sure, was due to the gnawings of a tethered horse. But now it deserved only a passing palm, a merely tolerant
eye. There were more important things. Miracles. Beyond the thoughts of trees, mere elms. Beyond the thoughts of sidewalks, mere stone, mere brick, mere cement. Beyond the thoughts even of his own shoes, which trod these sidewalks obediently, bearing a burden far above of elaborate mystery. He watched them. They were not very well polished; he had neglected them, for a very good reason:
they were one of the many parts of the increasing
difficulty of the daily return to daily life, the morning struggle. The Cause of Paul's Problem
.......Although the narrator does not reveal the cause of Paul's mental illness, he hints that it began with an unresolved Oedipus Complex. Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) introduced this term in 1899 to identify a psychological stage of development in which a male child unconsciously desires sexual
intimacy with his mother (or a female child unconsciously desires sexual intimacy with her father). The child also exhibits hostility toward the parent of the same sexa boy for the father and a girl for the mother. In normal development, a child outgrows this desire. However, in abnormal development, a child may retain his or her fixation on the parent of the opposite sex. As a result, mental
illness can develop, Freud said. "Don't you think this thing ought to be gone into thoroughly, and now?" This was Father's voice. The brown slippers again came a step nearer, the voice was the well-known "punishment" voice, resonant and cruel. .......In addition, Aiken alludes to Oedipus, a
figure in Greek myth who became king of Thebes after unknowingly marrying his own mother. The allusion occurs when Doctor Howells checks Paul for eyestrain by asking him to read the following passage from a book:And another praise have I to tell for this the city our mother, the gift of a great god, a glory of the land most high; the
might of horses, the might of young horses, the might of the sea. . . . For thou, son of Cronus, our lord Poseidon, hast throned herein this pride, since in these roads first thou didst show forth the curb that cures the rage of steeds. And the shapely oar, apt to men's hands, hath a wondrous speed on the brine, following the hundred-footed Nereids. . . . O land that art praised above all lands,
now is it for thee to make those bright praises seen in deeds. This passage is from Oedipus at Colonus, a play by the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles (496-406 BC). It was the second of two plays that Sophocles wrote about Oedipus. The first was Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King). In the latter play, Oedipus is
reigning as king of Thebes when he discovers that the woman he married, Jocasta, is his own mother, from whom he was parted in infancy. His marriage has gravely offended the gods even though Oedipus was ignorant of the true identity of Jocasta at the time that he married her.
.......In an interview with Aiken, Robert Hunter Wilbur said, Some of your stories, like Mr. Arcularis and Silent Snow, Secret Snow, have become classics. Where did you get the ideas for these stories? Dreams? Did
reading Freud have anything to do with them? Aiken replied, Of course Freud was in everything I did, from 1912 on."
.......Although it is by no means clear that Paul suffers from an Oedipus Complex, he does think more often of his mother than his father.
The word mother or mother's appears twenty-eight times in the story. The word father or father's appears fourteen times. Moreover, the following passage suggests that Paul harbors some negative feelings for his father.
.......Oedipus gouges out his eyes, renounces his marriage, and goes into exile. In Oedipus at Colonus, the story continues. After atoning for his sin, Oedipusnow an old mantravels to the town of Colonus, a suburb of Thebes. There, he dies as thunder roars.
.......It is interesting to note that in the conclusion of Silent Snow, Secret Snow, Paul goes to his room but does not turn on the light (a suggestion, perhaps, that he is now blind like Oedipus). He then goes to bed and withdraws into his inner world (a suggestion, perhaps, that he is going into exile, like Oedipus). When his
mother enters moments later, he renounces her, saying, I hate you, (a suggestion, perhaps, that he is renouncing his marriage to his mother). As he enters his fantasy world, the hiss of the snow becomes a roarlike the thunder that roared when Oedipus died.
.......Aiken read and imitated Edgar Allan Poe. The latter's influence is apparent in Aiken's creation of a mentally unstable character and an eerie atmosphere. Also, like Poe, Aiken frequently used anaphora, a figure of speech involving repetition of a word, phrase, or clause at the
beginning of word groups occurring one after the other. Following are examples of Aiken's use of anaphora. Its beauty was paralyzing beyond all words, all experience, all dream.
Why . . . with the proof so abundant, so formidable, so imminent, so appallingly present here in this very room, could they believe it?
One must get up, one must go to breakfast, one must talk with Mother,
the sound of its seething was more distinct, more soothing, more persistent
The garden walls too were various, some of wooden palings, some of plaster, some of stone.
Miracles. Beyond the thoughts of trees, mere elms. Beyond the thoughts of sidewalks, mere stone, mere brick, mere
cement. Figures of Speech
Following are examples of figures of speech in the story.
Alliterationfrosty far-off voice
he did in a sense cease to see,
bare bright cobblesAnaphoraSee Poe's Influence.MetaphorThese thoughts came and went . . . ; their presence was something almost palpable, something he could stroke with his hand. . .
Comparison of the thoughts to a tangible objectMetaphor/PersonificationThe snow was laughing: it spoke from all sides at
Comparison of the snow to a humanOnomatopoeiaHe could hear the soft irregular flutter of the flames; the
cluck-click-cluck-click of the clock; a murmur of water in the pipes;
seamless hiss advanced once moreSimileThe bare black floor was like a little raft tossed in waves of snow
Comparison of the floor to a raft
eyes that swam very brightly, like little minnows Glossary of Terms
Comparison of eyes to minnows
Cronus:In Greek mythology, ruler of the universe. He is overthrown by Zeus, his son.
eczema: Skin disorder causing inflammation, scales, and itching.
ethereal: Heavenly, otherworldly; having to do with the celestial regions.
Half-Moon: Ship of Hendrik Hudson.
Hudson, Hendrik (1565-1611): Explorer of the Hudson River while attempting to find a Northwest Passage to the Orient.
Little Kay: Character in the Snow Queen, by Hans Christian Andersen.
Magnetic Pole: Force at the North and South Poles to which a magnetic compass points. This force is not the same as the geographic North or South
Nereids: In Greek mythology, benevolent daughters of a sea god named Nereus. There were fifty of them by some accounts and one hundred by other accounts. They inhabited bodies of water.
Northwest Passage: See Hudson, Hendrik .
Peary: Robert Edwin Peary (1856-1920), who led an expedition that reached the North Pole in 1909. He claimed to be the first explorer to reach the pole, but Frederick A. Cook
claimed to have reached the North Pole before him in the same year.
Poseidon: In Greek mythology, the god of the sea.
Scott: Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912),
who reached the South Pole in January 1912 only to discover that Norwegian Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) had accomplished the feat in the previous month. Scott froze to death on his return to his starting point, Cape Evans.
Shackleton: Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922), who led
an expedition between 1907 and 1909 that reached within 97 miles of the South Pole.
The Snow Ghost: Probably a reference to an ancient Japanese folk story.
Study Questions and Writing Topics
- Do the twigs in the following sentence symbolize Paul? "In the little delta, beside the fan-shaped and deeply runnelled continent of brown mud, were lost twigs,
descended from their parent trees. . . " Explain your answer.
- Is the Hasleman family close-knit? Explain your answer.
- Write an essay defending the thesis that Paul represents the author, Conrad Aiken.
- Write an essay attacking the thesis that Paul represents the author, Conrad Aiken.
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