I’ve already looked at snow in literature but let’s take a step back and look more generally at the use of weather in literature. Weather is a widely used character in literature. It shows the mood of the location, it echoes the mood of the characters and it can play its own part in the unfolding of the tale.
For a bit of fun, have a look and see which weather represents your mood.
One of the genres where weather really makes an impact is Gothic literature. Here we regularly find stormy, dark conditions with rain or fog. Violent weather is used to create an atmosphere of suspense and terror. Think of the moors in Wuthering Heights or the storms in Frankenstein.
Frightening or violent weather allows villains to hide, lets the protagonist sense things which are not there, means they miss things which are there. This sort of weather emphasises the unease and thunderstorms mask the sound of someone creeping up behind you… Weather also shows how a character is feeling, the emotional storm within reflected in the literal storm without.
In Gothic literature, weather is often used with wild nature, that is places which are remote, savage and inhospitable. They are unfamiliar and unstable and the weather enhances the atmosphere of suspense.
From a plot perspective, weather can be used to trap characters in unsavoury situations, to restrict their freedom and to confuse them. Just when they thought they’d escaped the villain in the mist, they walked straight into them.
“Remember to get the weather in your god damned book – weather is very important.”
― Ernest Hemingway
In literature more generally, weather is used to help set a scene, give a sense of place and time and can bring a story to life. It can be used symbolically and, as with Gothic literature, it can impact on the characters plans and actions. We also see elements of the characters through their reaction to weather and the impact it has. Different characters would react very differently to being trapped in a blizzard for example and here the author has the chance to demonstrate resilience or lack of it as well as resourcefulness and patience. Weather affects us, it affects our plans, it affects our environment and it affects our health, all of which provide opportunities for authors.
When talking of weather and literature, I feel I would be amiss if I didn’t introduce, or remind you of, pathetic fallacy. Pathetic fallacy is a literary device that attributes human qualities and emotions to inanimate objects of nature. So the storm may be angry, the sun happy, the rain may weep. Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ exhibits pathetic fallacy right there in the title. And all of these examples set the tone for the scene which is unfolding in the story.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein offers further examples of pathetic fallacy to emphasise the power of the landscape in the novel and to contrast between the setting where Victor feels happy and comfortable and the setting which is desolate and dangerous. Weather comes into play here with the calmness of the former and the stormy, windswept nature of the latter.
We also need to remember that understanding of what weather is and how it is created is fairly recent. This affects how literature is read. For example, when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein and included the dramatic storm scene, there wasn’t a scientific understanding of storms. With this in mind, I think reading Frankenstein at the time of writing would have been even more terrifying. Not only are you dealing with the unknown forces of the dead, you’re also dealing with the unknown forces of the sky, or God.
And talking of scary weather, the Met Office have complied a short list of spooky weather which might provide inspiration for those of you who are writers.
“We all know that weather affects our moods. The novelist is in the happy position of being able to invent whatever weather is appropriate to the mood he or she wants to evoke.”
– David Lodge
Leaving fiction for a moment, let’s think about weather in poetry… There are lots of great words which can be used to illustrate weather. These are used for description, for mood and to provoke emotions. There is also something universal about the weather. Whilst some of us will never experience scorching droughts or feet of snow, we do share our weather with those around us and with those who have come before us. Weather can connect us and thus can connect the poet and the reader.
Just a couple of examples before I finish: Christina Rossetti writes of the ephemeral, unseeable, untouchable nature of the breeze in her poem ‘Who has seen the wind?’. In a much more recent poem, ‘Here’s the Weather’, Stuart A Paterson uses local weather words and phrases to create a sense of place and many of these words bring to mind a strong picture of the weather.
As a bit of aside, according to the bestiaries of old, wolves are only born in thunder.