Captain Nemo Invades New England

Claude Monet, "Snow Scene at Argenteuil"

Claude Monet, “Snow Scene at Argenteuil”

In honor of all those New Englanders buried under the record-setting snowfall, here’s the final paragraph in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” one of literature’s great short stories:

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

The snow in the story has a number of negative associations: the numbing over of feeling, the muting of great love and loss, the death of passion. The ending, however, is ambiguous. True, Gabriel may seem to fatalistically surrender (or swoon) to this blanketing, as Frost’s speaker contemplates doing in “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” (“The woods are lovely, dark and deep”). But Gabriel’s resolution to “set out on his journey westward” points also towards positive action. In the story, this journey, which he has previously resisted, suggests change: new passion in the marriage, new Irish nationalist sentiments, a new approach to life where he embraces beauty and meaning over mere social niceties.

For New England’s inhabitants at the moment, positive action involves digging out and restoring power. The rest can wait.

Further thought: Regarding the snowstorm’s name, while many associated it with the Pixar clown fish, and some with the old cartoon character “Little Nemo,” Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo was my first assocation. The mad submarine commander from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea declares war on civilization and in the end is buried deep in a maelstrom. Nemo means “no man,” suggesting a natural force. So the story kind of fits this week’s past events.

And yet another thought:

If Snowstorm Nemo is further evidence of climate change, then one could describe some Americans’ non-response to the frightening pattern of increasing weather catastrophes as a fatalistic surrender/swoon. Better to be frozen in denial, covered by “forgetful snow” (as Eliot puts it in Waste Land), than daring to hope. April, after all, is the cruelest month. But painful though it may be, working for climate legislation could be akin to planning a westward journey.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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