“Silent Snow, Secret Snow,”
In “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” a story once included in almost every anthology of short fiction, Conrad Aiken describes a young boy’s alienation and withdrawal from his world. The story begins one morning in December when Paul Hasleman, aged twelve, thinks of the postman, whom the boy hears every morning. The progress of the postman as he turns the corner at the top of the hill and makes his way down the street with a double knock at each door is familiar to the boy, and, as he slowly awakens, he begins to listen for the sounds on the cobblestones of the street of heavy boots as they come around the corner. When the sounds come on this morning, however, they are closer than the corner and muffled and faint. Paul understands at once: “Nothing could have been simpler—there had been snow during the night, such as all winter he had been longing for.” With his eyes still closed, Paul imagines the snow—how it sounds and how it will obliterate the familiar sights of the street—but when he opens his eyes and turns toward the window, he sees only the bright morning sun. The miracle of snow has not transformed anything.
The moment and his feelings about the snow, however, remain with him, and later in the classroom as his geography teacher, Miss Buell, twirls the globe with her finger and talks about the tropics, Paul finds himself looking at the arctic areas, which are colored white on the globe. He recalls the morning and the moment when he had a sense of falling snow, and immediately he undergoes the same experience of seeing and hearing the snow fall.
As the days go by, Paul finds himself between two worlds—the real one and a secret one of peace and remoteness. His parents become increasingly concerned by his “daydreaming,” inattentive manner, but more and more he is drawn into the incomprehensible beauty of the world of silent snow. His secret sense of possession and of being protected insulates him both from the world of the classroom where Deidre, with the freckles on the back of her neck in a constellation exactly like the Big Dipper, waves her brown flickering hand and from the world at home where his parents’ concern and questions have become an increasingly difficult matter with which to cope.
Aiken’s presentation of the escalation of Paul’s withdrawal is skillfully detailed through the use of symbols. The outside world becomes for Paul fragmented: scraps of dirty newspapers in a drain, with the word Eczema as the addressee and an address in Fort Worth, Texas; lost twigs from parent trees; bits of broken egg shells; the footprints of a dog who long ago “had made a mistake” and walked on the river of wet cement which in time had frozen into rock; the wound in an elm tree. In the company of his parents Paul neither sees them nor feels their presence. His mother is a voice asking questions, his father a pair of brown slippers. These images cluster together in such a way as to foreshadow the inevitable and relentless progress of Dr. Howells down the street to Paul’s house, a visit which replicates the progress of the postman.
The doctor, called by the parents because their concern has now grown into alarm over Paul’s behavior, examines the boy, and, as the examination and questioning by the adults accelerate, Paul finds the situation unbearable. He retreats further into his secret world where he sees snow now slowly filling the spaces in the room—highest in the corners, under the sofa—the snow’s voice a whisper, a promise of peace, cold and restful. Reassured by the presence of the snow and seduced by its whisperings and promises, Paul begins to laugh and to taunt the adults with little hints. He believes they are trying to corner him, and there is something malicious in his behavior:He laughed a third time—but this time, happening to glance upward toward his mother’s face, he was appalled at the effect his laughter seemed to have upon her. Her mouth had opened in an expression of horror. This was too bad! Unfortunate! He had known it would cause pain, of course—but he hadn’t expected it to be quite as bad as this.
The hints, however, explain nothing to the adults, and, continuing to feel cornered, Paul pleads a headache and tries to escape to bed. His mother follows him, but it is too late. “The darkness was coming in long white waves,” and “the snow was laughing; it spoke from all sides at once.” His mother’s presence in the room is alien, hostile, and brutal. He is filled with loathing, and he exorcizes her: “Mother! Mother! Go away! I hate you!” With this effort, everything is solved, “everything became all right.” His withdrawal is now complete. All contact with the real world is lost, and he gives himself over to a “vast moving screen of snow—but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.” Paul’s withdrawal is, as the snow tells him, a going inward rather than an opening outward: “It is a flower becoming a seed,” it is a movement toward complete solipsism and a closure of his life.
“Strange Moonlight,” another story of a young boy’s difficulty in dealing with the realities of life and death, could be a prelude to “Silent Snow, Secret Snow.” In “Strange Moonlight” a young boy filches a copy of Poe’s tales from his mother’s bookshelf and in consequence spends a “delirious...
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