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Until I happened to pick up a collection of short stories called The Secret Sharer and Other Great Stories, I had never heard of Conrad Aiken’s “Silent Snow, Secret Snow”. A few quick looks on the internet gave me the impression that everyone has heard of this story and that it’s required reading for many high school students. I must have been sick that day. Or maybe I was daydreaming.
Picking the Eight of Diamonds for Week 34 of my Deal Me In 2014 project led me to this story that I’ve missed out on reading all these years. After reading it, I can understand it’s popularity and the literary value it possesses. Something about Paul Hasleman’s “condition” reminds me of J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. The same alienation theme that runs through The Catcher in the Rye gets the short story treatment by Aiken.
The short introduction included with this story mentions the influence of Sigmund Freud. I don’t know much about Freud, but a certain psychological influence appears to exist. Paul enjoys the snow – it’s sound and it’s feel – the only problem is that it’s not really there. This wintry daydream to which Paul retreats frustrates his parents and his teachers. In Salinger-esque style, Aiken portrays the adults in the story, including a medical doctor, as unfeeling and completely lacking in understanding. Of course, they don’t understand Paul because they can’t see the snow.
(I’ve mentioned J. D. Salinger; however, just for clarification, this is a photograph of Conrad Aiken from goodreads.com)
The reader is inside Paul’s mind and can see and feel and hear the snow, but the reader also knows it’s not real. This inside knowledge lets the reader ask some questions that are never completely answered. Is Paul suffering from mental illness? Is his mind splitting away from reality? Or is he daydreaming? Does he simply see the world through snow, when others don’t? Is that necessarily bad? All good questions.
Unlike Salinger’s flippant and straight forward prose, Aiken uses a more lyrical style as when a hissing voice speaks to Paul from the snow and wind:
“Ah, but just wait! Wait till we are alone together! Then I will begin to tell you something new! Something white! something cold! something sleepy! something of cease and peace, and the long bright curve of space.”
To anyone who, like me, has never read or heard of this story, I would say give it a try. It’s short, thought-provoking, and well-written. The poetry of Aiken’s writing sets it apart from simply a story of psychology.