Style and Technique
Aiken’s story relies on both literary and psychological symbolism. By forcing the reader to adopt Paul’s point of view, Aiken encourages his audience to identify with the boy, who seems locked in conflict with his father in a classical Oedipal situation. Paul mentions his conflict with his father and mother, but he only speaks of talking with his mother. When the examination (the “inquisition” as seen by Paul) occurs, Paul hears his father’s soft and cold voice of “silken warning”; later, Paul hears the “resonant and cruel” punishment voice. In fact, Paul cannot meet his father’s gaze, for he sees only his father’s brown slippers, which come closer and closer.
Not only does the reader adopt Paul’s perspective (the examination is an “inquisition” and a “cross-examination,” both of which imply Paul as persecuted victim), but also the reader shares Paul’s thoughts as Aiken moves from third-person limited point of view to an even more intimate stream-of-consciousness narration. As a result, Paul’s interpretation of the events seems so convincing that a concerned mother’s visit becomes an invasion by an “alien,” that a cruel “I hate you!” becomes an exorcising phrase. (The references to “exorcism” and “inquisition” suggest that Paul’s world has become a religion for him.)
Aiken’s style also involves the use of imagery that suggests corruption and the failure of relationships. As he walks home, Paul notices “items of mere externality” that comment ironically on his internal state: a dirty newspaper touting an ointment for eczema, a physical corruption; “lost twigs descended from their parent trees,” surely a reference to his own relationship to his father; a piece of gravel on the “lip of a sewer,” balanced like Paul between two states; “a fragment of eggshell,” which suggests birth and a divided personality; and a gateway with balanced egg-shaped stones, thereby connoting an entrance to another world while referring again to birth and potential development.
Perhaps because of his relationship with his father, Paul also pauses at the empty birdhouse, which obliquely relates to his own home. That the mere details are meant to represent the real world seems obvious because Aiken uses large-scale terms with small objects: There is a “continent of brown mud” and a “delta” near the gutter. What Paul sees is a microcosm of the macrocosm, the real world.
Compared to this world of “the usual, the ordinary,” Paul’s snow world is understandably appealing, because it is a combination of “ethereal loveliness” and terrifying beauty. Aiken observes that no fairy story Paul had ever read could compare to it, and, ironically, when the snow speaks, it is in terms of a fairy tale, which can also be beautiful and terrifying (and many deal with failed family relationships): “I will tell you a better story than Little Kay of the Skates or the Snow Ghost.” In the familiar guise of a fairy tale, the snow draws Paul into a story of a flower becoming a seed. Rather than stressing growth and development, the story describes regression and withdrawal from the real world.
The Great Depression
‘‘Silent Snow, Secret Snow’’ appeared in 1934, the second year of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first term in office. America was also in the midst of the Great Depression, which disrupted American life, put many people out of work, and left many impoverished. Other nations were affected: Britain, France, Italy, and Germany also suffered from high inflation and unemployment. A fascist government, put in power because of its promise to restore national order and stabilize the economy, had achieved power in Italy in 1922. Another fascist government was established in 1934 in Germany as the Nazis gained control. England, too, had its totalitarian movement around this time, when Oswald Mosley formed the Union of Fascists, the so-called ‘‘Black Shirts.’’
(The entire section is 1,721 words.)