Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 579

Ted Hughes first published “Snow” in a British short-story collection in 1960, when he was married to Sylvia Plath, an American poet. Seven years later, it was reprinted in Wodwo, the first volume of poetry that Hughes assembled after Plath’s 1963 suicide. In introducing Wodwo, Hughes said that its stories might be read as notes to the poetry, or as chapters of a “single adventure” that the poems amplify and comment on. One plausible explanation for the single adventure of Wodwo, consistent with the whole of Hughes’s work, is participation in the Asian pattern of release, destruction, and reintegration. Hughes places the stories, of which “Snow” is the most extreme in examining the breakdown of Western rationality, between uncompromising poems exploring the querulousness of God, the brutishness of nature, and the devastation of warfare.

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“Snow” reveals Western cultural thought as bankrupt and humans as free only when they withdraw from failed cultural beliefs, awakening instead by Eastern meditation to a more essential energy necessary for survival. The survivor of the plane crash rehearses his facts over and over, listing them in almost scientific form, repeating the thought experiment to check its veracity. He argues from the particular, for which he has evidence, to the general, the existence of a world outside the raging snowstorm. In the process, he discovers that what seems like brutal honesty is really only wishful thinking. He knows that if he depends on his wishes, he surely will die. The rational survivor stands for all modern peoples because the scientific worldview that has produced airplanes, chairs, and warm clothing is the logical outgrowth of a centuries-old way of thinking, entangled with Christianity itself. The evidences for providential care that the survivor recites bear strong resemblance to the evidences for the existence of God of Western philosophers and theologians.

These thoughts, which seem so carefully formulated, which seem so wonderful in the things they have produced, will, in reality, cause his death as well as the death of Western culture. The thoughts are as deadly as the snowstorm itself; they are lethal as they enter his mind, trying to “make that burrowing plunge down the spinal cord.” If he relaxes, they cover him as “pouring silent grey” builds up an “incalculable pressure, too gradual to detect.” Judeo-Christian Western rationality has produced a civilization that is killing its members, sometimes literally in war, other times spiritually in emptiness, by self-deluded reliance on the things it has made and the way it has made them.

How then to survive in such a deadly world? Hughes’s answer seems to be that people must die to Western rationalism and its products and awaken to primitive or Eastern myths. Concentration and meditation will husband the survival energy deep within them by keeping their minds firmly fixed inward, not outward. The survivor meditates by repeating the words “courageous and calm,” much as Buddhists repeat “O jewel of the lotus.” This self-control even allows him to attempt a dangerous separation from the only physical object that confirms his existence and guarantees his relative safety. “Snow,” its focus on the necessary death to cultural lies, only prefigures the rebirth of the Eastern cycle more apparent in a few of the final poems of Wodwo. The reader does not know how long the survivor will continue to live, only that he is still alive at the end of the story. To defy Western thought with Eastern energy is still a dangerous adventure of suffering.

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