Originally published in Vanity Fair in 1983 and collected in Where You’ll Find Me and Other Stories in 1986, Ann Beattie’s “The Snow” is about remembering and forgetting, and about the art of storytelling itself. Only three pages long and consisting of five paragraphs, it is the shortest but structurally most complex story in the collection.
The anonymous first-person narrator has left the city with her lover to spend the winter in the country. The cold season, which rarely stands for passion and love, forms a frame for their shared experiences, from a chipmunk’s dash through their house to the renovating of the building. Visiting friends tell amazing tales before the fireplace. Recurrent themes in Beattie’s work are loss and the tensions between reality and imagination. The narrator recollects her memories of that winter and changes her lover’s reminiscences. The man’s views differ strongly; the chipmunk merely ran to hide in the dark; the stories told by their guests were nothing out of the ordinary. In contrast to the narrator’s stargazing, the man has a down-to-earth attitude. His lesson in storytelling is that “any life will seem dramatic if you omit mention of most of it” (22). In April, when the woman drives back to the house where they had lived together, the snow has melted away and love is just another word. She sees a black plastic covering their neighbor’s swimming pool like a shroud.
Noteworthily, since the publication of Beattie’s first volume of short stories, Distortions (1971), winter and snow have been frequent motifs in her fiction. The man remarks on the winter that cold settled in stages, apparently metaphorically analogous to the development of the couple’s relationship. Snow, a symbol of innocence, change, separateness, and death, among others, conceals what is usually visible or suggests an escape from reality, as in this particular story. “In the White Night,” with which Beattie begins Where You’ll Find Me, the snowfall evokes the archetypal image of an angel.
Although critics rightly have seen Beattie’s work as more neorealistic than experimental, “The Snow” is an example of her playing with metafictional techniques. The idea for story was born when Beattie was teaching creative writing. She assigned her students to write a second-person narrative and wrote one along with them. On one level, we follow the narrator’s nostalgic interior monologue, addressed to her lover. On another, Beattie tends to draw our attention to the fact that we are reading fiction and allows us to see a glimpse of the writer’s hands pulling the marionette strings. In the fourth paragraph the voice of the writer and the “I” of the story merge subtly with each other: “This is a story, told the way you say stories should be told: Somebody grew up, fell in love, and spent a winter with her lover in the country” (23).
Beattie’s style is sparse and laconic; the emphasis is on telling details, diverse snapshots of situations, rather than on the intricacies of plot. And as in most of her works, the ending is ambiguous. In the last paragraph, only one sentence in length, Beattie refers to Robert Lowell’s poem “My Old Flame” and its image of a snow plow, “As it tossed off the snow / To the side of the road” (Shapard 302). Lowell’s plow has a symbolic meaning in the closure—it manifests the connection between physical reality and the imagining-remembering mind. Certain questions are left. What happened to the couple after the winter? Are they still together? And considering the self-reflective nature of the story, is Beattie making an ironic comment on her style and disillusioned, resigned characters living their shapeless lives through the unsentimental thoughts of the man? Open to many interpretations, this multilayered postmodernist story invites the reader to participate in the construction of its meanings.
Beattie, Ann. Where You’ll Find Me and Other Stories. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.
Montresor, Jaye Berman, ed. The Critical Response to Ann Beattie. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Murphy, Christina. Ann Beattie. Boston: Twayne, 1986.
Shapard, Robert, and James Thomas, eds. Sudden Fiction International. New York: W. W. Norton, 1989, 301–302.