Winter and the writer

The chilly weather had a dramatic effect on Mary Shelley, transporting her and her Frankenstein to the depths of winter.

Winter and the writer

(Representational Image: iStock)

In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Mamillus says, “A sad tale’s best for winter. I have one/Of sprites and goblins”. Although Shakespeare described winter in a desolate manner yet the poet was not far behind in celebrating its homecoming, “In winter with warm tears I’ll melt the snow/And keep eternal springtime on thy face” (Titus Andronicus). Winter is the time of the year when the dip in temperature makes people relish the season with a cup of tea or coffee. Also, it is often a perfect time for poets and authors to settle into their favourite nooks and pen down their chilly experiences preferably with terrifying stories as the very substance of the season.

The chilly weather had a dramatic effect on Mary Shelley, transporting her and her Frankenstein to the depths of winter. The novel begins with “floating sheets of ice” and ends with the monster receding into the distance on an ice floe. It was customary for people of the Victorian period that during the cold Christmas Eve, families gathered around the hearth to make one another scared with tales of mysterious apparitions and ghosts. The practice also found its way into Christmas songs like “It’s the most wonderful time of the year “.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a story about ghost stories at Christmas. One may get a flavour of the stream of consciousness in James Joyce’s description of a winter evening, “When the short days of winter came, dusk fell before we had eaten our dinners. When we met in the street the houses had grown somber. The space of sky over us was the colour of ever -changing violet and towards the lamps of the street lifted their feeble lanterns. The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.”


The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien is a trilogy novel based on Goblins, Hobbit and the king. Set in Alaska,The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey is a beautiful yet mysterious story of a little girl and another childless couple. One Day in December by Joshie Silver is a romantic love story.At a Christmas party, Laurie meets her man of dreams by chance — an unexpected turn in the novel. Set in France,The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse is a beautiful story of war, remembrance, love, ghosts and mystery.

Pablo Neruda once wrote, “I am a book of snow, a spacious hand, an open meadow, a circle that waits, I belong to the earth and its winter.”In fact,when the chilling effect mixes with urban existence, one is reminded of TSEliot who wrote, “ The winter evening settles down/With smells of steaks in passageways. /Six o’clock/Burnt out ends of smoky days.” Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw in 1898.It was a Christmas tale wrapped in horror. The story begins, “The story had held us,round the fire sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.”

Conrad Aiken’s short story, Silent Snow, Secret Snow is all about how the snow seems to settle in the reader’s mind, exerting a chilling pressure much like that experienced by the boy in the story himself: “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.” In Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, the overall mood darkens with the dropping temperature and the layering snow. James Joyce’s The Dead distils haunting effects from its winterscape.

The novel closes with a description of snow representing death, the great equalizer: falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. Writers have always called on wintry images to evoke feelings of dread, emptiness, loss and isolation. But the warmth of fire and the comforts of home have also been emphasized, at times, as in this passage from French writer Giono’sJoy of Mans Desiring: “The fire roared. The water boiled. The shutter creaked. The pane cracked in its purity with the cold …There was a beautiful morning over the earth. The sun was daring to venture into the sky… The enlightenment was coming from the warmth, the fire, the frost, the wall, the windowpane, the table, the door rattling in the north wind… “ Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child is set in a frozen Alaskan landscape: Through the window, the night air appears dense, each snowflake slowed in its long, tumbling fall through the black.

It was the kind of snow that brought children running out their doors, made them turn their faces skyward, and spin in circles with their arms outstretched. When the cold surrounds and the darkness grows, the creative mind becomes active. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an early example of a tale to be told by firelight in winter. The winter festivities are disrupted by the arrival of the Green Knight at the court of King Arthur. In Wordsworth’s Lucy Gray, snow is merciless and deadly. The lonely Lucy wanders out, gets lost and is never seen again.

In Emily Dickinson’s It Shifts from Leaden Sieves, winter is charged with wildness – the snow buries the stump and stack and stem. Free from the roughness of the season, Dickinson is able to project her own turmoil in mind. However, in The Worst Journey of the World by Apsley Cherry- Gerrard,the core of the narrative focuses on the frozen-rigid clothes limiting the movements and the blisters in the fingers turning to ice. The inner vision of winter is at its most in Ted Hughes’s Snow which is replete in ice, frost, wind and snow. The Glamour of the Snow by Algernon Blackwood is all about the spectral chill in the night air whereas Last Christmas of War by Primo Levi is coloured by biting cold and endless grey snow.

Robert Frost is nostalgic in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening: Whose woods these are I think I know His house is in the village though. In White Eyes, Mary Oliver is a cheering lot, In winter/all the singing is in/on the top of the trees. For Margaret Atwood, winter is the time to eat fat/ and watch hockey/in the pewter mornings… But, for Raymond Briggs Christmas thrives and the winter itself is under threat from global warming. (The Snowman) Winter is terrifying.

We can relish the biting cold inside our warm home with its firmly closed doors and crackling fires to keep death’s frigid hands away from our throats only with Shakespeare’s imagination:”How like a winter hath my absence been/ From thee, the pleasure of fleeting year! “It is likely to set the mood and liberate the spirits, which may accompany us through the following days as they get colder. And the writing that actually haunts us is one that is set in cold, barren landscape – one like Edgar Allan Poes The Raven, Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December/ And separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.

(The writer is former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata and is presently associated with Rabindra Bharati University)