I read the short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken when I was 13 years old. It is probably his best-known short story. I returned to it quite accidentally this past week though with thoughts of snow coming for this weekend and more than a slight identification with the story’s protagonist.
I see that the story is sometimes listed as psychological, fantasy or even as a horror story.
The boy in this story, 12-year-old Paul, is finding it hard and harder to focus on schoolwork. He is also feeling less connected to his family. Both those feelings were in me at 13.
He does more and more daydreaming and those daydreams are more and more about snow. One morning while still in bed he only hears silence from outside. It is the silence that happens when snow muffles sounds. But when he looks outside, there is no snow.
He sees secret snow that can surround you with a comforting silence and attachment from the world. His detachment is increasing. It’s hard to even get out of bed and get dressed.
I don’t think my parents had any sense of how I felt. Paul’s parents call in a doctor after telling the doctor about the secret snow, Paul runs to his bedroom and wants nothing to do eventually call a physician, who makes a house call to examine Paul. After revealing that he likes to think about snow, Paul runs to his bedroom and wants nothing to do with the doctor or his parents – or the world.
At 13, I don’t think I probably recognized any psychological symbolism in the story. Fantasy over reality and even isolation over social relationships didn’t seem to me to be wrong. They seemed reasonable responses to what was whirling around me that year.
I also didn’t fully recognize that Paul was slipping into depression or even sliding toward something that might be labeled schizophrenia at that time. The snow and the white noise of it become more powerful. “The hiss was now becoming a roar—the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow—but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”
“Silent Snow, Secret Snow” appeared in 1934. FDR was in his first term in office and the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, while a fascist government was in power in Italy since 1922, another fascist government was established in Germany that year as the Nazis gained control of the country. It was certainly a time when escape from reality would be understandable.
It was also a time when the theories of Sigmund Freud were popular and began to be used to interpret literature. When the doctor asks Paul to read a passage from a book taken from a shelf in order to see if he has any eye problems, the book (which I only discovered through researching this essay) is Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus. Is Aiken giving us a clue?
I also learned just this week that the Aiken family had a history of mental illness. When Aiken was eleven, his mentally ill father shot his mother, then himself. His sister later suffered serious mental issues and was hospitalized and Conrad worried about what might be hiding in his own mind.
Conrad Aiken wrote in several forms and genres, but preferred poetry and short stories. He wrote several novels which I found in my town library and I read Conversation because it seemed to be about people who were creative but I don’t recall liking (or understanding?) it.
Aiken also was a poet. He was a modernist and not what I was trying to write at that time or what I was reading, but I did get a book of his poems at the library. He received the Pulitzer Prize for his Selected Poems (1929) and a National Book Award for his Collected Poems (1953).
I read other stories by him, but it was this one story that has stayed with me. I am not alone in having this story remain or perhaps haunt the memory. The story appears in many anthologies, and I found it online too.
The soundtrack for that part of my 13th year definitely included the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” the latter from the brilliant Pet Sounds album that came out that year and which I played over and over in my bedroom. I think Brain Wilson in the mid-1960s would have identified with Paul too.