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“Only a Light Wreath of The New-Fallen Snow”?: Ecogothic Tropes and the Diffractive Gaze in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Snow-Image”

Paulina Ambroży


In the article I discuss Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ecological imagination as problematized in his lesser-known short story “The Snow-Image: A Childish Miracle” (1849). Although Hawthorne wrote the story for children, it carries a darker gothic undertone, illustrating the problematic aspect of the Romantic nature/culture division. The focus of my inquiry are the potential ecological implications. The analytical framework is taken from Andrew Smith and William Hughes’ edited collection Ecogothic (2013), in which several scholars work towards a definition of an environmentally conscious variety of the gothic genre. Using some of their findings and concepts along with selected ecocritical and New Materialist theories, I interrogate Hawthorne’s highly ambiguous and shifting tropes of nature which reveal the correlation between the crisis of the imagination and that of the environment. I argue that the central trope of the snow-child and the trajectory of the narrative conceal a Frankensteinesque subplot employed to critically rethink nature as a transcendental experience.

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1. Introduction: Towards a Definition of the Ecogothic

1In The Environmental Imagination—the seminal 1995 study of ecologically inflected nature writing—Lawrence Buell posits that the contemporary environmental catastrophe derives from “the crisis of the imagination, the amelioration of which depends on finding better ways of imaging nature and humanity’s relation to it” (1-2). This correlation and crisis-oriented rhetoric fuels my own analysis, whose aim is to reread Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Snow-Image: A Childish Miracle” from his collection Snow-Image and Other Tales (1851) through a combined lens of ecocritical and New Materialist theory.

2Ecological interpretations of Romanticism, including Hawthorne’s work, have been trickling in with the growing popularity of ecocritical studies. As early as 1991, in his now indispensable Romantic Ecology, Jonathan Bate studied Wordsworth’s environmental vision, contending that ecocritical awareness should be traced back to the Romantic period: “If one historicizes the idea of an ecological viewpoint—a respect for the earth and a skepticism as to the orthodoxy that economic growth and material production are the be-all and end-all of human society—one finds oneself squarely in the Romantic tradition” (9). Following Bate’s argument concerning the significance of Romantic proto-environmentalist legacies, James C. McKusick studies “the emergence of ecological understanding among the English Romantic poets,” such as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Blake, or John Clare (10). As he persuasively argues in Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology (2000), their conceptions of nature, pastorality, and wilderness had a profound impact on American Romantics, paving the way for “the fundamental ideas and core values of the modern environmental movement” (10). Similarly, in the already cited Environmental Imagination, Lawrence Buell examines the American cultural as well as historical contexts informing the national preoccupation with nature and the wilderness as “a crucial ingredient of the American national ego” (33). The critic focuses on the ecological sensibility in the works of Henry David Thoreau—“the patron saint of American environmental writing”whose development as a writer and philosopher “mirrors most closely today’s environmentalist ferment” (Buell 115).

  • 1 I wish to thank my anonymous EJAS reviewers for bringing my attention to this relevant publication (...)

3As for Hawthorne’s own oeuvre, an ecological viewpoint resurfaces for instance in Sladja Blazan’s recent article “Lithic Corporeality: Elemental Philosophy in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Short Stories” (2020), which examines the transcorporeal relation between humans and rocks in “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” “The Great Carbuncle,” and “The Great Stone Face.” In “‘The Snow-Image’ as a Key to Hawthorne’s Biotechnological Tales,” (1989), William Crisman offers a closer look at the figure of “the biotechnologist” in such stories as “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” “The Birth-Mark,” “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” “The Artist of the Beautiful,” “The Snow-Image,” and “Drowne’s Wooden Image.”1 The critic proposes this category in a dialogue with numerous readings of those stories which differentiate between artists and scientists. Looking for the source of the characters’ obsessive “desire to vivify and re-vivify dead materials” (170), Crisman locates its “humanely detailed picture” (184) in “The Snow-Image.” The landscape, snow, and ice are presented here as the conditions of creativity which requires a conflation of vivifying and destructive acts. A more comprehensive environmentalist study of Hawthorne’s concept of nature is offered by Steven Petersheim in his monograph Rethinking Nathaniel Hawthorne and Nature: Pastoral Experiments and Environmentality (2020). Investigating both the romances and notebooks, Petersheim redresses the gap in critical elucidations of Hawthorne’s vision of the natural world, supplementing the dominant aesthetic and sociohistorical reception of his oeuvre. In short, all of the reinterpretations mentioned above uncover complex ecological aspects of Hawthorne’s imagination, evidencing a deeper and sustained reflection on the nature/culture entanglements in his writing.

4Engaging ecocritically with the gothic mode, Lesley Ginsberg (2018) interrogates dystopian elements in Hawthorne’s representations of nature and science. Ginsberg examines the short stories “The Birth-Mark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” arguing that nature in those tales can be seen within the ecogothic framework proposed by Andrew Smith and William Hughes (3), that is as “‘a space of crisis’… linked to larger concerns about the status of humans in nature, a crisis refracted through gothic extremes of power and abjection” (Ginsberg 115). As persuasively argued by Ginsberg, Hawthorne’s mad scientists embody here man’s desire for the mastery over the non-human, as a result creating either “a toxic parody of nature” (Rappaccini) or a failed attempt at transcending it (Aylmer) (120-21). Hawthorne’s ecogothic sensibility, as Ginsberg contends, makes him question the Transcendentalist view of nature, revealing “its darkly Gothic roots” (122).

5This understanding of nature anchors also my interrogation of Hawthorne’s “The Snow-Image.” Smith and Hughes conceptualize the ecogothic approach in their influential collection Ecogothic (2013)—a starting point in the ongoing theoretical discussion concerning the mode—which offers a broad definition of the key concept as an ecocritical angle from which gothic literature can be reinterpreted. In the proposed focus, nature and the gothic are inextricably intertwined, converging into “a space of crisis” (Smith and Hughes 3). This space, as evidenced in the editors’ insightful introduction, as well as in the collected essays, is used by Romantic writers to interrogate and problematize the human fears over the “edge of the human,” revealing an illegibility and “blankness” of natural phenomena (Smith and Hughes 1-14). The sense of crisis, as observed by the critics, stems not only from the human desire to master the landscape itself but also from the need to control its meaning. The gothic that oftentimes articulates nature’s enigma, along with transgressive ontological identities, becomes a perfect vehicle for the interrogation of such a crisis, while the ecogothic aesthetic evinces nature’s agency and draws our attention to failed domestications and antropomorphizations of the wild, foregrounding the contingent and the elusive.

  • 2 Estok juxtaposes two terms: ecophobia—meaning our irrational fear of nature, sometimes manifesting (...)

6The other important study informing the following analysis is Dawn Keetley and Matthew Sivils’ more recent Ecogothic in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (2018), a collection of essays focused specifically on the American variety of the ecological gothic, including essays on Hawthorne, Poe, and Chesnutt. Building on Smith and Hughes’ study, Keetley and Sivils map out the ecogothic critical field, offering an overview of the emergent definitions, theories, and methodological approaches. Among the ingredients of the ecogothic sensibility the critics include a dystopian vision of the man/nature relationship, representations of “ecophobia,”2 defined by Simon C. Estok as “the contempt and fear we feel for the agency of the natural environment,” the crisis of expression linked to the anthropocentric perspective, and human desire to master the non-human (“Theorizing” 207-08). Referencing Estok’s influential essay “Theorizing in a Space of Ambivalent Openness: Ecocriticism and Ecophobia” (2009), Keetley and Sivils argue that “at the broadest level, the ecogothic inevitably intersects with ecophobia, not only because ecophobic representations of nature will be infused, like the gothic, with fear and dread but also because ecophobia is born out of the failure of humans to control their lives and their world. And control, or the lack thereof, is central to the gothic” (3). The crisis of human control over nature will be central also to my own analysis. Arguably, it informs numerous short stories by Hawthorne, the gothic ones in particular, and—as will be shown further—it disrupts and gothicizes the idyllic social space in “The Snow-Image.”

7Another important voice in the theoretical discussion of the ecogothic is the critic David Del Principe, featuring also in Keetley and Sivils’ overview, who reconceptualizes the temporal aspect of the gothic through the ecocritical lens, stressing its evolutionary, biological character. The gothic’s problematic relation to the past, marked by tropes of change, decay, and death—the critic argues—conceals a sense of man’s deeper alienation from nature and “the reluctance of humans to come to terms with their nonhuman ancestry and the common, biological origin of all life” (Del Principe 1). Envisioning the ecogothic as a form of critical praxis, rather than a separate literary genre or mode, Del Principe further emphasizes its corporeal focus: “the EcoGothic examines the construction of the Gothic body—unhuman, nonhuman, transhuman, posthuman, or hybrid—through a more inclusive lens, asking how it can be more meaningfully understood as a site of articulation or environmental and species identity” (1). Thus, the ecogothic view offers “a nonanthropocentric position to reconsider the role that the environment, species, and nonhumans play in the construction of monstrosity and fear” (Del Principe 2).

  • 3 For a detailed discussion of the relevant theoretical debates, controversies, and an overview of th (...)
  • 4 “Ecosophy,” as Bernd Herzogenrath explains, is a term used in environmental discourse to describe “ (...)

8This definition of the ecogothic—still emergent and tentative, in Estok’s view3—will inform my own analysis of “The Snow-Image.” Taking my cue from the above conceptualizations of the term, I shall be using the ecogothic primarily as a revisionary framework which brings out the ecocritical as well as ecosophical4 dimensions of the gothic mode. As a critical position, it evinces the gothic’s anthropocentric biases, including the supremacy of sentient life, the obsessive policing of nature/culture boundaries, fantasies of control over life and death, and the treatment of nature’s unpredictable agency as a threat to human domestic economies. However, in my approach, I would like to also propose that the ecogothic can be seen as a certain onto-epistemological sensibility informing Hawthorne’s own philosophy of nature. This philosophy, which entails a sustained engagement with the richness and mysteries of both the human and the more-than-human world, challenges our desire for determinate ontologies and for a clear separation between life and death. For Hawthorne, landscape is always already a disruption, a form of anthropocentric taming, haunted by our ways of life, dreamworlds, and desires of control which are continually unsettled by non-human rhythms and histories. An ecogothic position, as Sage proposes, is often linked to a shift in perception—“a momentary derangement of the perceptual apparatus” in which “characters struggle to adjust their perceptions of sensory experience against the rational structures that sustain their world view” (Sage 176). As will be argued, Hawthorne’s ecogothic view of nature/culture entanglements involves such a shift from clarity to diffractive vision, lending a darker undertone to the story apparently designed as a cheery winter tale for children. Naturally, “The Snow-Image” does not immediately strike us as a gothic story, but, when examined ecocritically, it shares many features with the more explicitly gothic narratives, such as “The Birth-Mark” or “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” As persuasively argued by Crisman (179-180), just like those darker tales, it exposes the immanence of death and decay at the heart of all creation, problematizing also the uncanniness of the not-quite human and the agential interdependencies of human and non-human forms. As I wish to evidence, Hawthorne’s “snow-images,” associated with purity, “crystalline illumination” (Crisman 173), and nature that can be arrested and contained within an anthropomorphic form, in fact reveal the uncanny material vitality that pushes against rigid boundaries, fueling our fears over the non-human forms and the spectral nature of the human.

9The particular focus of my interrogation in “The Snow-Image” will be Hawthorne’s highly ambiguous and shifting tropes of nature, which, I propose, reveal the correlation between the crisis of the imagination and the crisis of human/nature relations, as defined by Lawrence Buell in the abovementioned essay (1-2). What I intend to demonstrate is that the central trope of the snow-image and the trajectory of the narrative conceal a Frankensteinesque subplot employed to critically rethink nature as a transcendental experience. In his ecocritical rereading of Frankenstein, Timothy Morton proposes to see the story as “a work that questions and undermines all kinds of differences between categories, not by completely eliminating them, but by multiplying differences” (“Frankenstein 147). Dealing with “spectral beings whose ontological status is uncertain and uncanny, because of the fuzzy boundaries between the human and the non-human, between life and non-life, between organic and inorganic” (Morton 147), Frankenstein becomes a paradigm for an ecogothic inquiry into the ambiguous ‘substance’ of the human.

  • 5 By the notion of specular epistemology I understand the reflexive paradigms of knowledge defined by (...)

10Like Shelley’s Frankenstein, “The Snow-Image” is based on the idea of transgressing the possible and making dead matter come to life. Hawthorne’s version is of course scaled down, light in tone, and playful, given its target audience. However, the preoccupation with the elusive and ungraspable agency of revivified matter links the two narratives. Thus, I wish to argue, under the coating of a winter frolic, Hawthorne smuggles a dystopian narrative of nature/culture as “a space of crisis” (Smith and Hughes 3), haunted by loss, opacity, uncertainty, ecophobia, and failure of contact. The relation to place explored by the writer involves a shift from embracing nature’s transformational forces and vulnerability to claiming possession and attempting to control it. My aim is also to investigate the ecogothic undertones of Hawthorne’s conceptualization of the image itself, since, as observed by Darrel Abel, “‘image’ invariably tells as much about the person who imagines or sees it as it does about the person seen in the image” (150). The snow-image, as I shall argue, is not only an allegory of art, but it can be read as an embodiment of Hawthorne’s ecological sensibility which envisions nature and language as dynamic intersubjective spaces, escaping fixed biosemiotic taxonomies and specular epistemologies of control.5

11Intriguingly, especially in the light of the present analysis, the story was written when Hawthorne struggled with his own creative insecurities—as argued by Kathryn B. McKee (137)—which stemmed from his realization that the new familial responsibilities and the related financial pressures would inevitably force him “out of his cloud-region,” as he called his short fiction, and “back into the somber texture of humanity” (Hawthorne, Letters 23). What I would like to argue is that the confrontation of the “cloud-region,” which links the creative process to contingent atmospheric phenomena, with the “somber texture of humanity” in “The Snow-Image” leads to new possibilities of onto-epistemological contact and new imaginary ecologies.

2. Sympoietic Ontologies of Snow Art

  • 6 Hawthorne apparently composed the story after becoming the father to Una and Julian. In one of his (...)

12“The Snow-Image” is a story of two siblings, significantly named Violet and Peony, who are sent by their mother one afternoon to play in the newly fallen snow. Hawthorne explores four levels of onto-epistemological and affective relations—the humans and the landscape, the mother and the two children, the children and the apparitional snow-sculpture, and the father and the children—where each of those bonds points to a different level of intersubjective and ontological connections between the human and the non-human. Significantly, Hawthorne uses various spatial frames to demonstrate at once the distance, entanglement, and the close proximity of human and non-human worlds. The children are “frolicking in the wintry garden” (Hawthorne, “Snow-Image” 1088), completely immersed in the shifting landscape, at one with it. Commending Thoreau in his Notebooks, Hawthorne connects the childish wonder and an ecophilic perception of nature: the philosopher is “a keen and delicate observer of nature—a genuine observer… and Nature, in return for his love, seems to adopt him as her especial child, and shows him secrets which few others are allowed to witness” (qtd. in Ginsberg 120). Hawthorne’s belief in that special and intimate relation is reflected in the construction of the two siblings, who remain open to the potentiality of nature and its unstable material forms.6 Their dizzying mobility and velocity in the opening scene creates various points of linkage between the children’s bodies and the landscape, suggestive of their close alignment with elemental forces as well as proximity to the vibrant ontologies of the non-human world.

13Their mother, in turn, is partially displaced from nature, as she occupies the threshold between the domestic interior and the external realm. Still, she is constructed as a half-engaged and sympathetic observer, watching the children’s play from the static perspective of the kitchen window. Simultaneously absorbed by the activity of sowing, which, as noted by Crisman, partially “estrange[es]” her from her children’s “creative endeavor” (179), Mrs. Lindsey’s gaze oscillates between closeness and distance. The father, introduced by the narrator as “an excellent but exceedingly matter-of-fact sort of man, a dealer in hardware… sturdily accustomed to take what is called the common-sense view of all matters” (Hawthorne, “Snow-Image” 1087), is absent from the first part of the story, and his return home complicates the ecological positions of the characters. His association with hardware is also significant, indicating household tools used to subdue nature to economic ends, and juxtaposed with the elusive snow-art, embedded in the landscape. Indeed, it is the father’s return, and his insistence on rigid ontological boundaries and taxonomies, that ultimately disrupts the intersubjective circularity of relations characterizing the opening part of the narrative.

14The first level, indicated by the opening of the story, foregrounds “the sympoietic” relation between the children and the sublime winter landscape. The term “sympoiesis,” conceptualized more extensively by Donna Haraway in Staying with the Trouble, is useful here, as it means “making with” (5), “becoming-with” and “unbecoming-with” (40). Haraway adapted the term from Beth M. Dempster’s definition of sympoiesis, which describes “collectively-producing systems that do not have self-defined spatial or temporal boundaries” and where “information and control are distributed among components” (Dempster qtd. in Haraway 61). Sympoiesis is juxtaposed with autopoietic systems, defined by Dempster as “‘self-producing’ autonomous units with selfdefined spatial or temporal boundaries that tend to be centrally controlled, homeostatic, and predictable” (Dempster qtd. in Haraway 61). Sympoietic relations describe dynamic and responsive ecologies in which all creatures take part in the unpredictable and open processes of composition and decomposition. Such sympoietic unpredictable energies connecting human and non-human creation inform the landscape and artmaking in Hawthorne’s tale. The initial tone and rhythm of the narrative mimics the joy and freedom of the winter frolic:

Forth sallied the two children, with a hop-skip-and-jump, that carried them at once into the very heart of a huge snow-drift, whence Violet emerged like a snow-bunting, while little Peony floundered out with his round face in full bloom. Then what a merry time had they! To look at them, frolicking in the wintry garden, you would have thought that the dark and pitiless storm had been sent for no other purpose but to provide a new plaything for Violet and Peony; and that they themselves had been created, as the snow-birds were, to take delight only in the tempest, and in the white mantle which it spread over the earth. (Hawthorne, “Snow-Image” 1088)

15Hawthorne playfully signals his little protagonists’ ontological instability as he tries to frame them through the opening sketches: “Violet emerged like a snow-bunting, while Peony foundered out with his round face in full bloom” (1088). There are a few levels of complexity opened up by this description. First of all, the children are named after garden flowers, which binds them to the sphere of the botanical; at the same time, however, their “hop-skip-and-jump” movements mimic those of the snow-birds, establishing their entanglements with avian species. The aspect of gender might be significant here, although “Peony” and “Violet” as names for a boy and a girl, respectively, seem curiously gender-neutral. In “Allegories of Childhood Gender: Hawthorne and the Material Boy,” Ken Parille argues that in Hawthorne’s fictionalizations of childhood, the writer’s “investment in the figure of ‘the child’… [is] complicated by the issues of gender” (112). In the antebellum sentimental framework, both pedagogical and philosophical, girls are more closely associated with “the culture’s revered” “spiritual abstraction,” “heightened sensibility,” and feeling; whereas boys are linked to the crude and “unfeeling” material world (112-113). Hawthorne seems critical of such rigid compartmentalizations, and “The Snow-Image” is a good example of his grappling with established gender values. As noted by Parille, “like his sister Violet, Peony possesses innocence common to many Hawthorne’s fictional children. Here, as throughout his stories, Hawthorne uses flower names for boys and girls, connecting them to each other and to the uncorrupted products of nature, connections that seem to erase gender” (Parille 118). And yet, as the critic contends further on, the narrative subtly reveals the sentimental bias, since the narrator describes Violet as “tender” and “modest” (1087), in agreement with the nineteenth-century paradigm of femininity, while Peony is defined by his ruddy round face and his sturdy physicality “as substantial as an elephant” (Hawthorne 1089). Thus, “Peony’s boyhood corporeality represents a disturbance” unsuitable for the desired “unworldly beauty” of the snow art, and it is Violet, epitomizing “the transcendental girlhood,” who “can keep pace” with the snow-drift and who ultimately becomes the model for the snow-girl (Parille 119-120). However, Crisman, who also considers the gender aspects of the naming, argues persuasively that the real names of the siblings are cleverly concealed from the reader, for Violet and Peony are just nicknames used “by parents and other people alike” (Hawthorne, “Snow-Image” 1087). Thus, “the children’s identity is overwhelmed by flower nomenclature” and “haunted by the impermanence of flowers” (Crisman 173).

16This impermanence and the trace of the fragile vegetal in the human, as I would like to contend, further links the children to the vulnerable and temporal existence of their creation—the snow maiden—as well as to the processes of vivification and decomposition which fuel Hawthorne’s gothic narratives, as noted by Crisman. The children’s entanglement with the community of non-human kind and their sense of ease and abandonment in a “huge snow-drift” clearly align them with the dynamic and fluid relationality of nature. Their spatial positioning and the descriptive-material entanglements with snow and the wintry landscape both reveal Hawthorne’s use of language as an agent of complex relations which blurs the distinctions between the human world and wider non-human ecologies. The continuous intertwining of living and dead matter—for example in the image of “pendant icicles” (1087) replacing the fruit on the garden trees or the “wintry foliage” formed by snow on the leafless twigs—shows entanglements of life and death.

17The central tension between the human and the non-human realms emerges when the children decide to make the snow girl—“a little sister” that “shall run about and play with [them] all winter long.” The organic and artificial meet in the act of composition as the children transform “light wreaths of snow” and “little shining bits of ice” into their “sweet playmate” (“Snow-Image” 1091-93). Snow is an important and recurrent trope of imagination for Hawthorne, as observed by Abel, “because of its ghostly transitory appearance” (324). Indeed, the snow creature—willed into existence by the impersonal agency of the winter storm, combined with the children’s faith, creative skill, and imagination—is an uncanny ecogothic material/immaterial being, straddling the realm of the human and the non-human:

The sun was now gone out of the sky, leaving, however, a rich inheritance of his brightness among those purple and golden clouds which make the sunsets of winter so magnificent. But there was not the slightest gleam or dazzle, either on the window or on the snow; so that the good lady could look all over the garden, and see everything and everybody in it. And what do you think she saw there? Violet and Peony, of course, her own two darling children. Ah, but whom or what did she see besides? Why, if you will believe me, there was a small figure of a girl, dressed all in white, with rose-tinged cheeks and ringlets of golden hue, playing about the garden with the two children! A stranger though she was, the child seemed to be on as familiar terms with Violet and Peony, and they with her, as if all the three had been playmates during the whole of their little lives. The mother thought to herself that it must certainly be the daughter of one of the neighbors, and that, seeing Violet and Peony in the garden, the child had run across the street to play with them. (Hawthorne, “Snow-Image” 1094)

18Hawthorne’s language beautifully captures the ontological liminality of the snow-child, “its singular aspect,” entailing familiarity and strangeness. The materiality and artifice of the figure, now equipped with “the rose-tinged cheeks and ringlets of golden hue,” is continually checked by the apparitional effect of her all-white attire, made of particles of snow and ice, “fluttering in the breeze” (1094). The mother is struck also by the girl’s light tiptoeing movements which defy gravity and leave no trace on the surface, as if harmonized with the shifting snow and the instability of the winter frame. Those traceless shifts indicate the image’s resistance to stable inscriptions, making Mrs. Lindsey wonder if what she sees might be “only a light wreath of the new-fallen snow, blown hither and thither about the garden by the intensely cold west-wind” (1094). This uncertainty and ambiguity are important aspects of Hawthorne’s perception, which questions human dreams of control over relationships and identities. Fueled by “confusions of outside and inside,” as noted by Sanchez-Eppler (151), Hawthorne’s imagination creates spaces for transgressions and contingent onto-epistemological realms. In an ecogothic twist, the snow-sculpting becomes a circular and reciprocal activity—intensely haptic, embodied, and spatial. The “redness” of the creature’s lips, echoing Peony’s ruddy cheeks, is a result of “two smart little smacks, as if both children were kissing the snow-image on its frozen mouth” (1093). However, the snow-Galatea returns the touch and kisses with a cold kiss of her own, thus “completing the circuit of life,” as Abel observes (327). The circularity exposes human and non-human natures as agential forces and beings equally vulnerable to touch. The reciprocal touch, suggesting that environmental and bodily forces are indistinguishable, also has a different function. As noted by Merleau-Ponty, visual experience is inherently objectifying as “it presents us with a spectacle spread out before us at a distance, and gives us the illusion of being immediately present everywhere and being situated nowhere”; conversely, tactile contact “adheres to the surface of our body; we cannot unfold it before us, and it never quite becomes an object” (316). Dolis sees this hapticity and carnality as the dominant element of Hawthorne’s aesthetics:

Hawthorne’s gaze approaches the object gropingly; it must feel around it as a blind man runs his hands over the features of another’s face—thus, its peculiar sculptural or tactile quality. It brings the object out from its surroundings, from its perspective depth, toward an affective or ‘bodily’ depth uniquely born amid the situated structure of perception… His gaze inaugurates the discovery of a material world, the ‘outsidedness’ of the self, where objects encroach upon our vision, touching the ‘fingertips’ of the eye. (Dolis, Style 76)

19The children’s immersion in the landscape and their spatial relation to the snow-sister, which is predominantly tactile, is thus more open to inter-blending of singularities than the optical, displacing perspective of the parents. The tactile dimension is played out in the story also through the recurrent imagery of ice and crystal, indicative of that groping sculptural “gaze” which tries to approach the elements of the represented world. As noted by Crisman, everything in the story is frozen and gem-like, or on the verge of turning into some kind of crystalline form—the sun shines with “chilly brightness” (Hawthorne 1087), ultimately to withdraw into the splendid purple and growing cold of the twilight, the mother’s faith is “clear as crystal,” the snow-maiden “resembles… a star-gemmed evening” (1099) and has “shining bits of icicles” for eyes (1087) (Crisman 172).

20Using the trope of a vivified anthropomorphic snow sculpture, Hawthorne positions the snow-child in the zone of ontological in-betweenness. Modelled on Peony-turned-Violet, “the child seemed to be on as familiar terms with Violet and Peony, and they with her, as if all the three had been playmates during the whole of their little lives” (Hawthorne, “Snow-Image 1094), the narrator observes, suggesting that the human self might not be that different from the ecogothic “Other.” The children’s interactions with the snow-girl are also defined by an interplay of intense emotion, imagination, and transindividual perception, which expands the possibilities of contact beyond the alienating vision—here embodied by the parents, including the mother, whose involvement is primarily visual and more distanced, as she “takes glimpse[s]” (1091) at the scene through a windowpane. As the mother herself observes with amusement, the siblings’ bodies and minds “had got mixed up with what they were doing, and were carried away by it” (1092). At the same time, however, the children recognize their separateness from the icy assemblage: the snow-drift acquires a specific corporeality in the field of various agential forces, mobilized by impersonal and capricious swerves of the west-wind, and colored by the light from “the golden [twilight] clouds” (“Snow-Image” 1093). Unlike the human children, the snow maiden inhabits the frontier between the semiotic and the material, the “cloud-region” linked to the unbound wilderness that cannot be quite pinned down or tamed by the defining powers of the human gaze:

she could make just as good a playmate of the brisk and cold west-wind, which kept blowing her all about the garden, and took such liberties with her, that they seemed to have been friends for a long time. All this while, the mother stood on the threshold, wondering how a little girl could look so much like a flying snow-drift, or how a snow-drift could look so very like a little girl. (Hawthorne, “Snow-Image” 1095)

21The elusive agency of the “snow-drift” becomes the source of wonder and semiotic unease for the mother, who sees it at once as something familiar and uncanny, an anthropomorphic image (“they seemed to have been friends”) and the semiotically ambiguous sentient landscape—“a flying snow-drift.” Interestingly, the mother also occupies the physical, cognitive, and interpretational threshold—the space of negative capability which upholds indeterminate, discordant readings of the image as a drift of momentary stabilizations and oscillations of form. The image, at once figure and ground, becomes thus a site of uncertain immaterial/material, human/inhuman distinctions—a set of (de)compositions driven by inhuman forces and stabilized by the parergon of the human gaze and language.

3. Reflection, Diffraction, and Hawthorne’s Art of Unfocusing

22This diverse perceptual-affective positioning of the characters in the story foregrounds the tension between two optical conditions: focusing and unfocusing. As argued by Jussi Parikka, “artistic practice is often located in techniques such as focusing but it can benefit as immeasurably from unfocusing; to train oneself to observe what appears out of sight so as to cultivate an understanding of the structural complexity and agency of our environment and its various layers of activity” (42). In Meeting the Universe Half-Way, New Materialist philosopher Karen Barad distinguishes between reflective and diffractive seeing as follows:

[r]eflexivity, like reflection, still holds the world at a distance. It cannot provide a way across the social constructivist’s allegedly unbridgeable epistemological gap between knower and known, for reflexivity is nothing more than iterative mimesis: even in its attempts to put the investigative subject back in the picture, reflexivity does nothing more than mirror mirroring. Representation raised to the nth power does not disrupt the geometry that holds object and subject at a distance as the very condition for knowledge’s possibility. Mirrors upon mirrors, reflexivity entails the same old geometrical optics of reflections. (87–88)

23Diffraction, in turn, “limit[s] the ability of a lens (or system of lenses) to resolve the image. The greater the diffraction effects, the less determinate the boundaries of an image are” (Barad 377). Dolis identifies the diffractive sensibility in Hawthorne’s love of uncertain or dim lighting: “thus, rather than light his objects by the constancy of the sun, Hawthorne illumines his scenes by the ambiguous flicker of the lantern, the torch, the fire, the moon. Such partial and intimate lighting subtly discloses its objects, previously envisioned as familiar, in strange and new disguises” (Style 48). Hawthorne himself reveals his penchant for a diffractive and unfocused vision as he engages with the portrait of Beatrice Cenci in The Marble Faun; contemplating the painting, the narrator observes: “the profound expression eludes the straightforward glance, and can only be caught by side glimpses, or when the eye falls casually upon it” (Hawthorne, The Marble Faun 204-05). In his notebooks, when speaking of his daughter Una, the writer observes: “Her beauty is the most flitting, transitory, most uncertain and unaccountable affair, that ever had a real existence; … if you glance sideways at her, you perhaps think it is illuminating her face, but, turning full round to enjoy it, it is gone again” (American Notebooks VIII, 413). Similarly, the transient, anti-essentialist, and dynamic aspect of the snow-child can be read as the Lindseys’ exercise in unfocusing—looking in wonder, which opens a space for a recognition of human nature as part of the becoming, contingent, and transient world. It is the inherently ecological principle of transformation, a “miracle,” featured in the subtitle, that connects human beings to the unexpected qualities of what David Abram calls “a more-than-human world” (77), renewing their powers of vision. The same principle, however, reveals Hawthorne’s conceptualizations of his characters as representational incoherencies occupying zones of ontological indeterminacy. Here, the children characters seem to overflow into one another, creating a human/non-human assemblage with destabilized sources of agency.

  • 7 The quote comes from Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (ed. Anna Tsing et al., 2017), which is div (...)
  • 8 I am using chronotope in Mikhail Bakhtin’s understanding of the term. In his essay “Forms of Time a (...)

24The apparitional nature of the snow-girl is enhanced by the story’s spatio-temporal continuum. The girl’s impermanent existence is bound to ecological and diurnal time—the winter storm and the capricious, deterritorialized gusts of the west wind—rather than any stable territory. As argued by Anna Tsing et al., “the wind as a figure for this uncanniness” is “hard to pin down, and yet material” and thus perfectly embodies ecological haunting (G2).7 As a temporal being, an illegible pattern of motion, the girl becomes an ecogothic interruption, an elusive atmospheric event, poised between the winter storm—implying chaos, danger, and the contingency of life—and the spectacular twilight on the “shortest day of the whole year,” with the sun “sunken so nearly to the edge of the world” (Hawthorne, “Snow-Image” 1091). Twilight itself is a powerful ecogothic chronotope8, indicating transformation which further enhances a sense of the passing time, the vanishing of clear ontologies, and change. Inhabiting the liminal twilight sphere, the snow-child is an ecological memento mori which embodies doubt concerning the separation of nature from culture, pointing to the reductionist character of the codes and perceptual “clear edges” employed to define those boundaries. Being made of ice and snow, she is a continuous threat to “the hot blast” of the domestic fire; at the same time, she is equally threatened by domesticity—e.g. she cannot enjoy the “warm milk” which “will not be wholesome for our little snow-sister” who “eats nothing but icicles,” as the children intuit before the final disaster (Hawthorne, “Snow-Image” 1092).

25The twilight marks the ecological event as one of crisis and ultimate loss, bringing the shadow of mortality into this seemingly idyllic paradise, initially defined by a sense of joyful communion, purity, and innocence. The consciousness of passing time is also linked to the father, whose arrival at nightfall threatens the human/more-than-human alliance and disrupts the wild frolic by bringing the shifting ontologies back into focus. “A stubborn materialist” (Hawthorne, “Snow-Image” 1096), as his wife sees him, and a seller of hardware, Mr. Lindsey is constructed in opposition to the ungraspable, transformative involvements of the children and the uncertainty and subtlety of the mother, whose character “had a strain of poetry in it, a trait of unworldly beauty” (Hawthorne, “Snow-Image” 1089). Significantly, when the man enters the site, he is heavily insulated from the outside weather by “a pilot-cloth sack, with a fur-cap drawn down over his ears, and the thickest of gloves upon his hands” (Hawthorne, “Snow-Image” 1096). Confronted with “the little white stranger, sporting to and fro in the garden, like a dancing snow-wreath,” he nevertheless “sees nothing remarkable in the snow-child’s appearance” (1096), and rejects its uncanny otherness and inhumanness, forcing the child back into the reality of human time and the acceptable anthropocentric mold: “‘Pray what little girl may that be?’ Inquired this very sensible man. ‘Surely her mother must be crazy, to let her go out in such bitter weather as it has been today, with only that flimsy white gown, and those thin slippers!’” (Hawthorne, “Snow-Image” 1096). Brought into the warm parlor, domesticated and forced to hold still, the dazzling snow-being inevitably turns into a puddle:

Sad, sad and drooping, looked the little white maiden, as she stood on the hearth-rug, with the hot blast of the stove striking through her like a pestilence. Once, she threw a glance wistfully toward the windows, and caught a glimpse, through its red curtains, of the snow-covered roofs, and the stars glimmering frostily, and all the delicious intensity of the cold night. The bleak wind rattled the window-panes, as if it were summoning her to come forth. But there stood the snow-child, drooping, before the hot stove! (Hawthorne, “Snow-Image” 1100-01)

26The father can be read as the figure of restored control, discipline, pragmatism, and rationality. The snow being’s suspicious provenance, wild mobility, and inter-blending with the Lindsey children threaten his understanding of oikos, the unit encompassing the family, the property and the house, as a realm separate from the shifting world. According to Dolis, “Hawthorne’s gaze perceived the void that subjectivity inhabits between affective poles of transformation, the ‘black, impenetrable nothingness’ which awaits all who would wander from the security of their familiar surroundings into the ‘obscurity that hems them in’” (Style, 49). The interval between illusion and reality in “The Snow-Image” poses a threat to the totalizing fictions of the human self, hence the representational determination of the father—to identify, frame, and unify the image, to set it off from the darkening, twilit background. Crisman discusses the image of the hot stove, like a “red-eyed demon” in the story, linking fire, hot temperature, and red to the forces of masculinity counteracting the crystalline whiteness, cold dazzle, and delicate coloring of the snowy feminine (175). The father’s command to take the little girl into the house and make her sit by the stove, despite the urgent protestations of Violet and Peony, backed up by the still hesitant Mrs. Lindsey, arrests the ontological indeterminacy of the snow-image. However, at the same time, it leads to the ecogothic ending, where the disambiguation of spatial boundaries results in the dissolution of the non-human agent. The fire becomes “a destroyer of the snow girl,” but it also reveals “a tragically self-destructive potential” underlying man’s desire for control (Crisman 177). The snow-image is finally fixed, “stilled” to hold the ground and prove itself as human, thus turning into an image of the self. And yet, as the dark undertone of the story implies, this stabilization ultimately hints at the self’s own phantasmal structure. For Freud, das unheimlich—the uncanny, the un-homely—takes us to the illegible ontological threshold, into the space between the familiar and the unknown (127); indeed, as the Austrian philosopher contends further, “the uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality” (Freud 241). Such gradual effacement of the boundaries between the imagined and the real fuels Hawthorne’s narrative until its very resolution, which brings the ultimate disambiguation of the uncanny effect.

  • 9 Interestingly, Lloyd sees Hawthorne’s Gothic as “performative” rather than paradigmatic: “In Hawtho (...)

27According to Allan Lloyd-Smith, “Gothic is in essence a reactionary form…, one that explores chaos and wrongdoing in a movement toward the ultimate restitution of order and convention” (5-6). Commenting on Hawthorne’s taking on the genre, Lloyd contends that the author of The Scarlet Letter “enlist[s] the Gothic elements in the service of a heightened normality” (33-34).9 In the ecogothic “Snow-Image,” the unhomeliness forcefully brought home ends in a hard lesson for the family—the disciplining human mold turns out to be too rigid for this transversal “sisterhood,” and the father’s reductionist misreading of the snow assemblage ultimately destroys it. The trope of the window, which now separates the snow girl from the “bleak wind,” locking her in, enhances this threshold moment in the narrative, as it clearly points to separation and reveals the limiting ideologies of human-centered perspective. The windowpane reframes the epistemological subject in a sheltered social world, signaling clarity, transparency, and an ocular access to the domesticated, closed self. At the same time, however, it insulates the subject from non-human and non-reflexive modes of disclosure, relationality, and contact. The ironic realization is articulated by the narrator in the closing lines of the story: “But, after all, there is no teaching anything to wise men of good Mr. Lindsey’s stamp. They know everything, oh, to be sure!—everything that has been, and everything that is, and everything that, by any future possibility, can be” (Hawthorne “Snow-Image,” 1102). The final mopping off of the snow puddle by the female servant Dora removes the last trace of the uncanny disturbance from Mr. Lindsey’s sight.

  • 10 The father’s rigid reaction to the ambiguity and disturbance caused by the snow maiden in the Linds (...)

28Thus, Mr. Lindsey’s specular gaze ultimately cuts him off from the childish miracle of the Eco-Other, whose emergence and movements lead to the opening of spaces and diffractive vistas previously inaccessible to perception. Knowledge is bound here with an inherently ecophobic desire for appropriative mastery over nature, and for clear-cut territories, differentiating between domestic and natural ecologies. The father’s failure to see the “miracle” that blurs identities is the failure of the imagination trapped in human-centered optics and articulation which relies on separation, solidity, and certitude of reflection.10 Snow art, in turn, is a different form of ecological knowing and seeing, based on the material, tactile, and affective practice of engagement, open to the miracle of transformation, surprise, and indeterminacy. This mode of knowing unveils the world and its frames as relational, kinetic, and contingent, pointing to identity and landscape as process and movement.

4. Conclusion

29“Combining ‘eco’ and ‘gothic,’” Cari M. Carpenter argues, “gives us a way to think about the origins of the horrors that surround us, a step toward solutions, and, ultimately, an inquiry into the ethics of our response to these texts and to environmental destruction itself” (148). A winter frolic for children, “The Snow-Image” can be read as a study of imperfect onto-epistemological and aesthetic frames which often disconnect humans from the material as well as spiritual agencies of their surroundings. In “The Prophetic Pictures,” another short story by Hawthorne, which similarly problematizes the limits of representation, one of the protagonists, Elinor, contends: “[w]here all things fade, how miserable to be the one that does not fade” (Hawthorne, “Prophetic Pictures” 459). As evidenced in my reading, the fading snow-image is not without its haunting ecogothic powers as it calls for renewed perceptions of nature that go beyond the unity, solidity, and anthropocentric control of matter. Hawthorne’s image—although it ultimately liquifies and slips from the human touch and gaze—is, as argued by Dolis, “an icon of vision itself,” a “means of coexistence with the phenomenon” (“Metonymic Gaze” 375), pointing to the writer’s alliance with “perceptual opacity prior to reflection itself” (Dolis, Style 43). This vision reveals the writer’s understanding of human/non-human relations as transversal proximities rather than clear-bound substances or fixed territorializations. The snow-image itself is fueled by the forces of transformation, offering alternative articulations of physical and metaphysical spatialities: articulations which allow for the instances of unknowing and pure wonder. The power of both nature and art lies in their partaking of the dynamic vitalist system with intersecting singularities, relational ontologies, and agencies.

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Abel, Darrel. “‘A Vast Deal of Human Sympathy’: Idea and Device in Hawthorne’s ‘The Snow-Image.’” Criticism, vol. 12, no. 4, Fall 1970, pp. 316-32.

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human-World. Vintage Books, 1997.

Bakhtin, Mikhail M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. 1981. Edited by Michael Holquist, translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, U of Texas P, 1990.

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke UP, 2007.

Bate, Jonathan. Romantic Ecology: Wordsworth and the Environmental Tradition. Routledge, 1991.

Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Harvard UP, 1995.

Carpenter, Cari M.Bleeding Feet and Failing Knees: The Ecogothic in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Chasing Ice.Ecogothic in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, edited by Dawn Keetley and Matthew W. Sivils, Routledge, 2018, pp.148-60.

Crisman, William. “‘The Snow Image’ as a Key to Hawthorne’s Biotechnology Tales.” American Transcendental Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 2, June 1, 1989, pp. 169-87.

Dolis, John. “Hawthorne’s Metonymic Gaze: Image and Object.” American Literature, vol. 56, no. 3, 1984, pp. 362-78.

---. The Style of Hawthorne’s Gaze: Regarding Subjectivity. U of Alabama P, 1993.

Estok, C. Simon. “Theorising the EcoGothic.” Gothic Nature, vol. 1, 2019, pp. 34-53.

---. “Theorizing in a Space of Ambivalent Openness: Ecocriticism and Ecophobia.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, vol. 16, no. 2, spring 2009, pp. 203–25.

---. The Ecophobia Hypothesis. Routledge, 2018.

Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘Uncanny.’” 1919. An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works, edited by James Strachey, translated by James Strachey et al., Vintage, 2001, pp. 217–56.

Ginsberg, Lesley. The Birth-Mark, Rappaccini’s Daughter, and the Ecogothic.” Ecogothic in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, edited by Dawn Keetley and Matthew Sivils, Routledge, 2018, pp. 114-33.

Haraway, Donna. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke UP, 2016.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Snow-Image: A Childish Miracle.” Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches. The Library of America, 1980, pp. 1086-102.

---. “The Prophetic Pictures.” Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches. The Library of America, 1980, pp. 456-69.

---. American Notebooks. Edited by Claude Simpson et al., Ohio State UP, 1972.

---. The Letters, 1843-1853. Edited by Thomas Woodson et al., Ohio State UP, 1985.

---. Lost Notebook, 1835-1841. Pennsylvania State UP, 1978.

Herzogenrath, Bernd. “Nature|Geophilosophy|Machinics|Ecosophy.” Deleuze|Guattari & Ecology, edited by Bernd Herzogenrath, Palgrave MacMillan, 2009, pp. 1-22.

Keetley, Dawn and Matthew Sivils, eds. Ecogothic in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Routledge, 2018.

---. “Introduction: Approaches to the Ecogothic.” Ecogothic in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, edited by Dawn Keetley and Matthew W. Sivils, Routledge, 2018, pp. 1-20.

Lloyd-Smith, Allan. American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction. Continuum, 2004.

McKee, Kathryn B. “‘A Small Heap of Glittering Fragments’: Hawthorne’s Discontent with the Short Story Form.” American Transcendental Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 2, pp. 137-47.

McKusick, James C. Green Writing: Romanticism and Ecology. Palgrave Macmillan US, 2000.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. 1962. Translated by Colin Smith, translation revised by Forrest Williams, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

Morton, Timothy. “Frankenstein and Ecocriticism.” The Cambridge Companion to Frankenstein, edited by Andrew Smith, Cambridge, 2016, pp. 143-57.

Parikka, Jussi. “Cartographies of Environmental Art.” Posthuman Ecologies: Complexity and Process After Deleuze, edited by Rosi Braidotti and Simon Bignall, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019, pp. 42-60.

Parille, Ken. “Allegories of Childhood Gender: Hawthorne and the Material Boy.” Nathaniel Hawthorne Review, vol. 36, no. 1, 2010, pp. 112–37. 

Sage, Victor. “The Ghastly and the Ghostly: The Gothic Farce of JG Farrell’s Empire Trilogy.” Empire and the Gothic: The Politics of Genre?, edited by Andrew Smith and William Hughes, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, pp. 172-91.

Sanchez-Eppler, Karen. “Hawthorne and the Writing of Childhood.” The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by Richard H. Millington, Cambridge UP, 2004.

Smith, Andrew and William Hughes. “Introduction: Defining the EcoGothic.” EcoGothic, edited by Andrew Smith and William Hughes, Manchester UP, pp. 1-14.

Tsing, Anna, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt. “Introduction: Haunted Landscapes of the Anthropocene.” The Art of Living on a Damaged Planet, edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, U of Minnesota P, 2017, pp. G1-G17.

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1 I wish to thank my anonymous EJAS reviewers for bringing my attention to this relevant publication as well as Ken Parille’s article “Allegories of Childhood Gender.” I am grateful to both readers for their meticulous and generous feedback, and for their constructive, inspiring criticism of the first draft. In addition, I am grateful to Ariel Silver for helping me access Crisman’s article.

2 Estok juxtaposes two terms: ecophobia—meaning our irrational fear of nature, sometimes manifesting as “indifference, contempt and lack of mindfulness… towards the natural environment,” and ecophilia or biophilia—our idealized love of and affinity with nature, which, however, can be dystopian and equally damaging if taken to the extreme, and which often becomes another form of ecophobia, further evidencing our “hollow ecology,” that is a pseudo-union with nature (Ecophobia, 1, 8, 116).

3 For a detailed discussion of the relevant theoretical debates, controversies, and an overview of the term’s evolution, see Estok’s recent article “Theorizing the EcoGothic” (2019).

4 “Ecosophy,” as Bernd Herzogenrath explains, is a term used in environmental discourse to describe “an ecological philosophy with a clear ethical orientation” (10).

5 By the notion of specular epistemology I understand the reflexive paradigms of knowledge defined by Karen Barad in Meeting the Universe Half-Way, as driven by a mimetic desire for clear-cut ontological boundaries. Barad juxtaposes reflection, or a “specular” approach, with diffraction: whereas the specular gaze approaches phenomena as discrete units, keeping them at a distance, the diffractive gaze emphasizes unclear contours and entangled relations between material forms.

6 Hawthorne apparently composed the story after becoming the father to Una and Julian. In one of his notebook entries from that period, the writer articulates his wonder at the inhuman strangeness of Una—most probably the prototype of the snow-maiden and The Scarlet Letter’s Pearl: “In short, I now and then catch an aspect of her in which I cannot believe her to be my own human child, but a spirit strangely mingled with good and evil, haunting the house where I dwell” (Hawthorne, American Notebooks 430-31). In her biography of Hawthorne, Brenda Wineapple describes the child’s personality thus: “Mercurial and alternately imperious and gentle, affectionate and tempestuous, she scampered helpfully about the house until reprimanded, and then she threw herself against the walls, uncontrollable” (373). The biographer adds that, while “Julian was steady, good-natured and forgettable,” Una “reflected back her father’s turmoil, his ambition, his frustration, even his ennui” (Wineapple 200).

7 The quote comes from Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (ed. Anna Tsing et al., 2017), which is divided into two intertwined parts, titled respectively “Ghosts on a Damaged Planet” and “Monsters on a Damaged Planet.” The numbering of the pages reflects that structural split, with the capital letters G (for ghosts) and M (for monsters) before each page number, marking the respective thematic section of the monograph.

8 I am using chronotope in Mikhail Bakhtin’s understanding of the term. In his essay “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes Toward a Historical Poetics,” Bakhtin formulates the concept to connect human action, cognition, and space. In Bakhtin’s own words, chronotope is “intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships…. In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. The intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope” (84). Significantly for my argument, Bakhtin discusses the Gothic chronotope, which introduces the temporal experience dominated by the anticipation of the mysterious and the unknown, and spatially marked by diminishing vistas and a growing obscurity of boundaries. The idyllic chronotope, which could be applicable here as well, stresses the transience of life. See Bakhtin 84-258.

9 Interestingly, Lloyd sees Hawthorne’s Gothic as “performative” rather than paradigmatic: “In Hawthorne’s hands the Gothic is performed: it is not allowed to direct the form of the narrative but instead it is manipulated and distorted for purposes that include a recognition of its origins in destabilized personal and political situations” (33). This observation ties in well with my reading of “The Snow-Image,” where the Gothic functions not so much as the explicit generic framework, but as an undertone carried by complex spatial tropes and subtly articulated tensions between the various characters’ perceptions of natural phenomena.

10 The father’s rigid reaction to the ambiguity and disturbance caused by the snow maiden in the Lindseys’ household may also imply Hawthorne’s concerns with the dominant model of childrearing. As noted by Karen Sanchez-Eppler, in nineteenth-century America, “juvenile fiction taught honesty, charity, piety, and self-control mostly through stories of good children who learned to curb wild or selfish whims under the guidance of wise adults, or alternatively through the example of naughty children naturally punished by the consequences of their wrongheaded ways” (144). Although on the surface the story could be read as a cautionary tale about childish whims and the dangers of an uncurbed imagination, on a deeper level, involving ambiguous affects and an ecogothic texture to Hawthorne’s tropes, “The Snow-Image” exposes the rigidity of the inherited ideals of self-control, rationality, and imaginative constraint.

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Electronic reference

Paulina Ambroży, “Only a Light Wreath of The New-Fallen Snow”?: Ecogothic Tropes and the Diffractive Gaze in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Snow-Image”European journal of American studies [Online], 19-1 | 2023, Online since 07 September 2023, connection on 26 September 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Paulina Ambroży

Paulina Ambroży is Associate Professor and Head of the American Literature Department at the Faculty of English, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. Her research centers on American avant-garde and experimental poetry. She is interested in intersections between poetry, literary philosophy, science, and the visual arts. She is the author of (Un)concealing the Hedgehog: Modernist American Poets and Contemporary Critical Theories (2012), which received the 2014 American Studies Network Book Prize for remarkable research in American studies. With Liliana Sikorska, Joanna Jarząb-Napierała, and Marta Frątczak-Dąbrowska she has authored Between the Self and the Other: Essays on the Poetry of Paul Muldoon (2018).

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