Silent Snow, Secret Snow Themes
by Conrad Aiken

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” like Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case,” concerns a boy’s emotional and psychological estrangement from the real world. Although some critics have seen the retreat to the snow world as representative of a death wish, it seems more to represent schizophrenic detachment into a fantasy world. Psychological criticism of the story is almost inevitable because Aiken himself was much influenced by Sigmund Freud, whose theory of the Oedipal complex seems related to the conflict between Paul and his father. (The passage Paul reads for his eye test is from Sophocles’ Oidipous epi Kolni (401 b.c.e.; Oedipus at Colonus, 1729) Psychological readings are further encouraged by events in Aiken’s life: As an eleven-year-old, he had seen his father kill his mother and then commit suicide.

The story, however, is more than a clinical case study of a person who is suffering from a psychological disorder. Aiken’s background is literary as well as psychological, and his story relies heavily on the theme of “two different worlds,” a theme that is reinforced through imagery of geography and exploring. Paul tries to lead a double life (a “public life” and the “life that was secret”) in two worlds, but he also is aware of the necessity of keeping a balance between those worlds. His mother expresses her concern about his living in another world, and when he realizes the depth of the snow on the sixth day, he understands that the “audible compass of the world” is thereby narrowed as the snow world supplants it. As the story progresses, Paul loses his balance (on the homeward walk he notices the egg-shaped stones that are mortared “in the very act of balance”) and falls, albeit willingly, into the snow world, which he has been determined to explore: “He had to explore this new world which had been opened to him.”

In fact, Aiken’s story abounds with references to explorers: Robert Edwin Peary, Robert Falcon Scott, Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, Christopher Columbus, and Henry Hudson. These references are instructive: Scott reached the South Pole but perished on the return trip; Hudson searched for the Northwest Passage to the Orient, a region as exotic as the snow world, but Paul observes that Hudson was disappointed. Explorations of the new worlds may seem promising and exciting, but those journeys also end in disappointment, death, or dead ends. The inner geography is mirrored by the geography lesson being taught by Miss Buell, who first talks about the equator and then about the North Pole, the “land of perpetual snow.”

Paul’s exploration becomes in part 2 a kind of odyssey, a journey homeward, not necessarily to his parent’s home (he asks himself, “Homeward?”), but to another home. The journey to the snow world that is completed when the “bare black floor was like a little raft tossed in waves of snow” actually starts in the classroom, where Paul is also adrift. Like a captain at sea, he charts his course by the stars, in this case the “constellation of freckles” on the back of his classmate Deidre’s neck. In effect, Deidre serves as a guide, a reference point by which he can calculate his position. When class is over, he follows her in rising from his seat.


(Short Stories for Students)

Sanity and Insanity
In ‘‘Silent Snow, Secret Snow,’’ sanity is de- fined as the ability to function in the everyday world and interact with people. Conversely, insanity is measured by the degree to which one is unfamiliar with everyday occurrences and the inability to communicate with others. Deirdre’s eagerness to answer Mrs. Buell’s geography question is evidence of her sanity. The globe...

(The entire section is 917 words.)