Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Literary Evocativeness of Weather

Friedrich Schiller's drama opens with a tempest on Lake Lucerne as Wilhem Tell braves the watery onslaught to row a peasant to safety: "The storm is master. Man, as a ball, is tossed twixt winds and billows." Within the literary sweep of a novel weather can play an evocative role in the support of dramatic action. Perhaps it is because atmospheric tumult often parallels and accentuates the tensions and anxieties of the characters themselves; perhaps it serves as an immediate connective thread between narrative and reader: the experience of powerful climatic conditions one that all are viscerally acquainted with; perhaps because it serves to highlight human frailty beneath the broader expanse of open sky. It reminds the humble inhabitants of this third planet from the sun that even the most powerful of us are not invulnerable to the tirades of tornado or the devastation wrought by hurricanes.

Shakespeare utilized the storm motif  not only to portend ferocity but to epitomize political and moral corruption, a physical manifestation of fishiness in the state of Denmark or the anatomy of the body politic gone somehow awry. Thunder and lightning accompany the witches’ appearances in MacBeth: "When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightening or in rain?" and terrible storms rage on the night of Duncan's murder. Violent tempests lash King Lear as he wanders the desolate heath, the physical turbulence mirroring his internal confusion and evoking a newfound humility in which he finally recognizes his own mortality. Meteorological chaos is a prevalent theme in The Tempest and exemplifies the suffering Prospero has endured as well as the potentially malevolent magic at his command.

The dramatic potential of weather systems is well-known to novelists, and one utilized to full effect in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. In the opening chapter Mr. Lockwood refers to the impact of stormy weather on Wuthering Heights: "Indeed, one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun." Wind literally brings change within the confines of the novel: When Mr. Earnshaw dies there is a 'high wind,' and the weather is described as 'wild and stormy.' Turbulent weather accompanies Heathcliff on the night he leaves Wuthering Heights, and heralds his death: wind and rain coming in through the window and beating his lattice back and forth. The wild and desolate moors full of pits, depressions, rises and deep swamps provide the perfect terrestrial counterpart to the brooding clouds overhead that buffet the landscape in a tumultuous fury; a ferocity that is echoed in Catherine's tempestuous relationship with Heathcliff.

In The Goodwin Agenda, the initial meeting between longtime political foes is accentuated by the electric weather beyond the weathered castle walls: "The afternoon winds had brought evening storms and the panes streamed with rain; the courtyard he looked down into lay wet and empty and the flickering flames of the gas-lamps behind him seemed to dissolve in a watery atmosphere. The sky was dark and foreboding, swollen black clouds were barely visible in the fading light of dusk. Thunder grumbled discontentedly in the distance as a sudden streak of lightening spiked and flared illuminating the base of a nearby cloudbank before sinking again into blackness." Later in the novel the severity of an early Parisian winter accentuates the suffering of the poor, the frozen corpses evincing the growing disaffection between the people and their self-aggrandizing, warmongering Emperor.

Violent skies do not necessarily presage brutality below, a clear and quiet morning can be used to dramatic effect as a foil to the struggle that follows. A passage read, from which novel I now have difficulty recalling, details the ride through the tumbrel en route to the guillotine, or perhaps the hangman's noose...but the prisoner, very soon to be deprived of light and life, is poignantly and heartbreakingly reminded of the beauty of the world and the potential joys of life by the blinding clarity of blue sky, of sunlight igniting dew in a cascade of brilliance...in short the weather serves to heighten the character's yearning to prolong life and his poignant awareness of the beauty he will soon be leaving behind. The serenity of the morning frames the savagery which is to come, further elevating the gruesome aspect of the deed; a discordant association of natural tranquility and the manifest brutality of man.

It is not an easy thing: to capture in words the dance of sunlight and cloud-cast shade on the cresting waves of a gray sea, or to depict the multitude of cumulus in their various brooding dispositions, or the fleecy frivolous kind that stretch in fuzzy expanse across the bluest of skies. The subtle interplay of light and shadow, the infusion of deeper hues as the sun dips or rises, the various types of rain and sleet, how it falls and how it accumulates; how the buildings respond: timbers darkened by rivulets, mortar crumbling  into dust in the arid heat of an unrelenting sun, how they seem to hunker down under a mantle of snow, and how people walk differently in different types of weather (from The Goodwin Agenda): "She walked as all of the Paris poor did at this time of year, in a curiously half-hunched scurrying motion intended, above all, to conserve what little body heat remained beneath thin ragged attire. She tucked in upon herself, elbows tight against her torso, head bent down towards her chest, back and shoulders hunched and rounded against the cold."

I often think of  the physical terrain as the setting and the accompanying weather as environmental mood - as if the panorama itself was a character within the novel and the changing skies an emotional manifestation of the landscape. They belong together - two halves of the whole. For if terra firma is defined (or aqua not so firma for that matter) then one does wonder: what of the sky  and how does that interact with the world beneath? The weather is an integral extension of the landscape, and critical for establishing sensory immersion; the reader is figuratively encouraged to close their eyes and imagine the sharp pinprick of sleet, the icy wind howling with agitated frenzy, whipping clothes and snatching away voice... 

For the reader, as well as the characters within the narrative, the climactic conditions evoke a preparatory emotional response suggestive of imminent dramatic events.There is the sense of exposure and vulnerability, where secrets are finally revealed, where, like Lear, in a crucible of sound and fury we come to terms with our mortality "tossed twixt winds and billows."



    An excerpt from my book. "Death & Taxes" below.

    When Death Comes Calling
    by Don Ford

    He lurks in places where some shadows hide
    His dirty work he thinks no one can see
    A character too ashamed to show his face
    He’s no one’s friend, but rather he’s the enemy

    Just like the storms of life that crash around us
    Trying to break into our lives with dread and fear
    Bringing with him this empty hope and sadness
    His promises are lies that lead to empty years

    At times we can not fight him off to save our lives
    Cold and heartless; the other names he goes by
    Without remorse, he’s numb to all of our tears
    We’re left alone here to ask the question - WHY???

    Great piece you have shared here. Kudos!

    We’ve heard it said that ‘the rain falls on the just and the unjust.’ Remembering that rain, many times in God’s word, represented that which was needed for the harvest. When the hard rain falls, which are those storms that enter every life, remember that “Rain is your life, it falls gently or in torrents.” D.G. Ford 2/14/2011

    1. Thank you very much Don - for your visit and your own thought-provoking contribution!

  2. Weather is such a humbling experience, something we succumb to in our daily living, and so it comes as no surprise that we greet each other on the street by saying "good day," because the weather allows us this luxury, or else we would not be out and about! Conversely, our media is focused on any kind of adverse weather condition that impacts our daily routine or threatens our very livelihood. It is simply a fact that our climate is still and always will be an occupational hazard of life, and as such, it sets the stage for every scenario in any literary genre.

    1. Yes - utterly agree Shari! Thank you for your thought-provoking contribution! I found the challenge also to not only vary the weather during the course of the novel but also to incorporate distinct descriptive phrases each time. It was rather an intriguing exercise - how many different ways can one describe a cloud? :)

  3. You might find it interesting--albeit unsurprising--that WEATHER and LANDSCAPE are two of the most dominant themes/features of Canadian literature, from the beginnings until now.

    1. I did not realize that Clark - thank you for your thoughtful contribution and for dropping in for a visit. If you have particular Canadian literary works in mind that are representative of this theme I would be much obliged if you would let me know what they are. I am not familiar with Canadian authors and am always looking to expand my reading horizons!

  4. Thoroughly enjoyed another musing - thank you PJ!

    1. You are most welcome Sarah - I am most grateful for, and indeed honored by, your continuing reading-patronage!

  5. TO PJ
    i salute this literary work and the mind that wrought this out...its analysis is surely beyond my scanty literary ability.God willing i will share one of the poetry site that i have gained so much since 2004 ...that 's NEW POETRY DIGEST.There are reviewers and readers who will do enough justice to this rich post.i feel humble to have been sent this piece.I love it and will treasure it in my portals of literary assets..
    Thank you for this.i welcome more
    Keep it for generations still coming after us.
    gbemi tijani mst
    civic concern

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words and your much appreciated visit, warmest of regards, PJ