Critics do not interpret Conrad Aiken’s short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” (1934) in a literal way. Upon initial examination, they consistently regard the story as something other than what it is. Thomas L. Erskine, for example, in his 1972 psychoanalytical interpretation of the story, claims that “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” is about the “balance” between “two worlds” and the “discovery” that results by leaving one to enter the other. For Erskine, each of young Paul Hasleman’s deformed or defamiliarized perceptions of the world amount to an “epiphany,” an intense vision with deep symbolic meaning.
Appreciating the story on purely aesthetic grounds, Elizabeth Tebeaux calls attention to Aiken’s work, stating that he “enables us to feel some of the magic and terrifying wonder that the snow world, whatever it is, offers Paul.” Tebeaux concludes by noting that the story “will more than likely continue to be enjoyed long after the nature of Paul’s problem has ceased to be of any psychological interest.”
Moreover, Jesse Swan maintains that we are not to believe that Paul is insane, because madness is a label applied in an arbitrary and oppressive manner. Similarly, Ann Gossman referred to Paul’s parents, and to the whole adult world in the story, as ”philistine”—an extreme judgment.
Paul Hasleman, the protagonist of “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” suffers the terrible fate of having his life annihilated by a “fixed idea,” or an overwhelming obsession. What should one say about those critics who attempt to convert the tragedy into something other than what it is by claiming that Paul’s condition corresponds to something other than what the evidence dictates?
Starting from the fact, however, that Aiken understood the effects of insanity—his father killed his mother and then himself in a psychotic fit, and Aiken himself later attempted suicide—I believe that readers need to understand that Paul’s disturbance may never qualify as an experience through which he might live and personally or artistically profit, but that his collapse is simply the end of all of his conscious experiences.
Aiken has something in common with Edgar Allan Poe, an earlier American short story writer, who also struggled with madness and wrote about it in such stories as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Ligeia.” In the former, insanity is rooted in guilt, while in the latter, it assumes the form of an evil entity.
The term “possession” appears in the first paragraph of “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.” The setting is Mrs. Buell’s sixth-grade classroom during a geography lesson. Paul ignores her, and instead concentrates on his growing obsession with the snow: “It was like a peculiarly beautiful trinket to be carried unmentioned in one’s trouser pocket—a rare stamp, an old coin, a few tiny gold links found trodden out of shape on a path in the park, a pebble of carnelian, a seashell distinguishable from all others by an unusual spot or stripe—and, as if it were any of these, he carried around with him everywhere a warm and persistent and increasingly beautiful sense of possession.”
All aspects of Paul’s state of mind in regard to his “possession” may strike the reader as sinister foreshadowings of the story’s climax. Even at the grammatical level, Aiken’s use of the nonspecific pronoun ”it” to designate the encroaching psychosis carries a frightening connotation, for a thing that cannot be named cannot be fully understood. Thinking of “it” as a seashell with “an unusual spot or stripe” admits to the oddness of the condition but does nothing to pinpoint or solve it. Thinking of “it” as a broken chain of gold links “trodden out of shape” also anticipates the subsequent breakup and deformation of Paul’s mind, not to mention the sundering of his family.
At this early point in the story, Aiken deliberately confounds the idea of possession. Does the word designate an item which one owns, or does it designate an involuntary state to which one submits? Paul mistakenly thinks that he possesses ”it,” when “it” really possesses him. Moreover, “it” has already drawn Paul out of his world, out of the world in which healthy people live and love. When Deirdre gives an unwittingly silly answer to one of Mrs. Buell’s questions, Paul does not join in the laughter—not because he disapproves of it, but because the madness has already abstracted him from the generality of the classroom community.
The scene with Deirdre in part one of “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” tends to slip past in the parade of Paul’s confusion, although it offers one key to understanding the story. What Paul notices about Deirdre is not that she is an eager student, willing to rise to answer questions, but that her neck sports a “funny little constellation of freckles … exactly like the Big Dipper.” Paul has failed to see the full, human Deirdre, and instead reduces her to an anomalous blemish. Aiken skillfully interweaves Paul’s autistic inner monologue with brief intrusions from Mrs. Buell’s lesson (sometimes reported parenthetically). At one point during the story Mrs. Buell gently admonishes Paul that if he stopped daydreaming he might answer a question about Henry Hudson’s success or failure in finding the Northwest Passage. Paul rouses himself momentarily to correctly respond that Hudson “was disappointed.” As he sits down, “Deirdre half turned in her chair and gave him a shy smile, of approval and admiration.”
Setting all theories aside, consider what Deirdre’s smile means in the context of a sixth-grade classroom. All of the children have begun to take an interest in the opposite sex, and all are quite shy about admitting to it. Admitting to such an interest before the eyes of one’s classmates is usually dreadful, but Deirdre does just that, spontaneously turning to smile shyly and approvingly at Paul. We cannot discount the episode, for it constitutes a moment of healthy adolescence in that the girl probably wants to establish intimacy with the boy. It is an opportunity for Paul to experience the world of adolescence. The “exploration” theme implied by the geography lesson about Henry Hudson, I would argue, refers to the potential romance offered by Deirdre. Paul’s madness prohibits any such exploration and any such issue from childhood from taking place. Paul’s madness, then, robs him of the possibility of love.
It is suggested that Paul’s mental distraction has multiple consequences, for he has become slovenly and neglectful. He has not, for example, recently polished his shoes because (as he rationalizes) ”they were one of the many parts of the increasing difficulty of the daily return to daily life, the morning struggle.” Paul’s declining interest in and growing aversion to the world is very much a sickness, with physical as well as psychological symptoms.
The attraction that Paul ought to feel toward Deirdre is directed toward the hallucinatory snowstorm: ”He loved it—he stood still and loved it. Its beauty was paralyzing—beyond all words, all experience, all dream. No fairy story he had ever read could be compared with it.” The reader needs to remember, however, that “it” does not exist. At the same time, the snowstorm strikes him as “faintly and deliciously terrifying,” a reaction that belongs to that vanishing part of him that is still sane. The psychosis will soon rob Paul of his memory—a terrifying prospect, although Paul will not be able to recognize it as such. When he arrives at the gate of the family home, for example, and sees the stenciled H (for Hasleman), he fails to understand its import.
The final terror comes after Paul is examined by the doctor. Paul feels compelled to divulge the secret of the snow and then, in a panic, he runs upstairs to his bedroom and throws himself into bed. The snow begins to speak to Paul, telling him: “Lie down. Shut your eyes—you will no longer see much—in this white darkness who could see, or want to see? We will take the place of everything.”
In conclusion, readers of “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” need to be wary of the numerous interpretations of Paul’s affliction. Psychoanalytic approaches tend to reduce the full humanity of the event. More recent approaches which rely on making insanity into something other than what it is, also deserve to be regarded with skepticism. Aiken did not regard insanity either as a purely theoretical or desirable phenomenon. His understanding of insanity might be described as existential, although that, too, is an oversimplification. Perhaps one should simply say that Aiken is a profound observer of the human condition, a lover of life, and a writer who can lead us to appreciate life by giving us the example of someone who loses life by losing his mind.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Conrad Aiken, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.
Thomas Bertonneau, Overview of “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.