I’m with Shelley: ‘I love, snow and all the forms of the radiant frost.’ It is a wonderful symbolic tool in literature. Snow transforms a familiar landscape; it can become a magical wonderland or a bleak and forbidding country. It can cause the world to slow and a certain muffled silence to fall. I’ve collated some of my favourite uses of snow in literature.
Often snow is used to symbolise cleansing. It is a blanket that obscures all, which can either be a new, clean beginning, or a blanket obscuring a truth. Throughout Nobel Laureate, Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country, snow is used as a metaphor for the purity the protagonist seeks: ‘The thought of the white linen, spread out on the deep snow, the cloth and the snow glowing scarlet in the rising sun, was enough to make him feel that the dirt of the summer had been washed away, even that he himself had been bleached clean.’ Its use is often similar to the colour white, which is often used to denote purity, light and innocence. See Shakespeare’s use in Cymbeline, for instance, ‘I thought her as chaste as unsunned snow.’ Unsurprisingly, snow is also a theme in The Winter’s Tale, ‘as white as driven snow’.
Snow and winter are often used to represent sadness, bleakness or death. In Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, the characters are having a rather sad time of it; the weather is used to represent and reinforce this. The character, Zeena, sits out in the cold: ‘the pale light reflected from the banks of snow,’ which makes ‘her face look more than usually drawn and bloodless.’ The lexical field of wintry weather is used figuratively throughout to maintain this sense of bare desolation. This is a description of the kitchen: ‘the deadly chill of a vault after the dry cold of the night.’
Consider the use of snow in James Joyce’s The Dead: ‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their latter end, upon all the living and the dead.’ Critics have claimed variously that the use of snow here represents death and desolation and the opportunity for renewal and another chance. For me, it symbolises a sort of togetherness and universalism; the snow falls equally on all.
Our association of snow and Christmas is widely thought to be the fault of Charles Dickens. He employs it in simile here to express just how cold-hearted Scrooge is in A Christmas Carol.
‘No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn’t know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often “came down” handsomely and Scrooge never did.’ The associations of a white Christmas have become idealised from a Dickensian model.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales is another example of snow used to evoke nostalgia about festive seasons past. Dylan Thomas wrote, ‘All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea…It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas.’
Snow is also used excellently in Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials where armoured polar bears rule Svalbard. In C. S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, of course, it is always winter and never Christmas. The melting of snow shows that a brighter future is near. Also, I must mention Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman
which says a great deal about friendship, joy and the transience of life.
I hope you’re all staying warm and safe. If you can think of any other snowy examples, I would love to hear them!