Silent Snow, Secret Snow Essays and Criticism
by Conrad Aiken

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Interpretations of Paul's Mental Disturbance

(Short Stories for Students)

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 Snow covered spruce tree. 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...

(The entire section is 7,466 words.)