Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
of Work and Publication Year
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.
story is set in an American town in the early decades of the twentieth
century. The time of year is December.
Twelve-year-old boy who becomes fixated on thoughts of snow.
Paul's sixth-grade geography teacher.
in Paul's geography class.
Physician who examines Paul.
Acquaintance of the Hasleman family.
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.
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.
mother notices the change in him and says, “My darling, what has come over
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.
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
lunch one day, he ignores his mother when she asks him to pass a plate.
She asks, “What has come over you?"
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 table—for
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,
or Scott. Afterward, he would drift into a dream
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 himself—even when his mother says,
“If this goes on, my lad, we'll have to see a doctor . . . ."
the way home from school, he looks through the snow at the external world—at
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.
home, his preoccupation with snow makes it a chore to go through his daily
routine, especially in the morning—getting 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
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 what?"
answers, “Oh, about anything, about nothing, you know the way you do!"
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.
shouts, "Mother! Mother! Go away! I hate you!"
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."
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
of Paul's Problem
of the daily return to daily life, the morning struggle.
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 sex—a 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.
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."
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.
"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
gouges out his eyes, renounces his marriage, and goes into exile. In Oedipus
at Colonus, the story continues. After atoning for his sin, Oedipus—now
an old man—travels to the town of Colonus, a suburb of Thebes. There, he
dies as thunder roars.
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 “roar"—like the thunder that roared when Oedipus died.
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
abundant, so formidable, so
imminent, so appallingly present here
in this very room, could they believe it?
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.
the thoughts of trees, mere
elms. Beyond the thoughts of sidewalks,
stone, mere brick, mere
Following are examples of
figures of speech in the story.
he did in a sense
These thoughts came
and went . . . ; their presence was something almost palpable, something
he could stroke with his hand. . . .
Comparison of the thoughts
to a tangible object
The snow was laughing:
it spoke from all sides at once
Comparison of the snow
to a human
He could hear the
soft irregular flutter of the flames;
the cluck-click-cluck-click of the
clock; a murmur of water in the pipes;
advanced once more
The 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
Comparison of eyes to
In Greek mythology, ruler of the universe. He is overthrown by Zeus, his
eczema: Skin disorder
causing inflammation, scales, and itching.
otherworldly; having to do with the celestial regions.
Half-Moon: Ship of
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 Pole.
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.
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.
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.
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.