The weather in stories presents particular trickery for writers and there are many approaches to how it is depicted in short stories and novels.
Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles takes weather as psychoreactive – which is a big word for the weather representing what his main character, Tess, is thinking and feeling at the time. In a rough nutshell when she is feeling happy and things are going well it’s all sunshine and bluebirds. Not that bluebirds are weather, so fluffy clouds and sunshine and rainbows without the rain. When things are going not so well, it’s all winter cold, rain, winds and general yuck.
Howard Pyle takes another stance to using weather in his The Merrie Adventures of Robin Hood – here the weather is perfect for the season, all Ho! Stout Yeoman! thigh-slapping sunshine. It doesn’t rain in Sherwood, lets put it that way. Not unless it needs to. There is sun in summer, crispy leaves and beautiful frosts in autumn and snow in winter. None of that slushy grey stuff, just perfect drifts.
David Lodge comments in The Art of Fiction (Viking, 1993), a collection of essays on devices such as the use of lists, names, and the telephone in fiction:
“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.
“Weather is therefore frequently a trigger for the effect John Ruskin called the pathetic fallacy, the projection of human emotions onto phenomena in the natural world. ‘All violent feelings … produce in us a falseness of our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the pathetic fallacy,’ he wrote. As the name implies, Ruskin thought it was a bad thing, a symptom of the decadence of modern (as compared to classical) art and literature, and it is indeed often the occasion of overblown, self-indulgent writing. But used with intelligence and discretion it is a rhetorical device capable of moving and powerful effects, without which fiction would be much the poorer.
“Jane Austen retained an Augustan suspicion of the Romantic imagination, and satirized it in the characterization of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. ‘It is not everyone who has your passion for dead leaves,’ her sister Elinor comments drily after Marianne’s autumn rhapsody, ‘How have I delighted, as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind. What feelings they, the season, the air altogether inspired!’”
Weather in Austen’s novels, Lodge goes on to say, usually has an important practical bearing on her characters’ lives. But in her books and others’, it can serve other purposes, some related to the pathetic fallacy and some not, such as serving as “a metaphorical index” of characters’ inner lives or a portent of impending plot shifts.
Here are some other novels in which weather conditions play a major part:
- The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. This novel of the complicated love between siblings Maggie and Tom ends in dramatic fashion when a relentless storm floods the Floss River.
- That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx. When young, earnest Bob travels to the Texas Panhandle to trick the locals into selling their land to a hog corporation, he immerses himself in the place — droughts, tornadoes, storms, and all.
- Hemingway’s Girl by Erika Robuck. Ernest Hemingway was a charming cad, and 19-year-old Mariella finds herself falling for both him and a scarred war vet while hurricane season looms.
- Snow Mountain Passage by James D. Houston. A massive snowstorm and fierce winter are the antagonists in this moving retelling of the infamous Donner party expedition and the people who tried to rescue them.
- Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. The quintessential snow novel, this story tells the tragedy of Ethan and the two women in his life, all of whose lives change as the result of a long winter and a sled.
- State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. The storms aren’t as significant as the climate in this complex novel about a scientist who journeys from frigid Minnesota to uncover a mystery in the sweltering, steamy jungles of Brazil.
Weather happens twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week in the real world, and so it should in the world of fiction.
Go write weather!