Analysis of 'Snow' by Charles Baxter

Thrills Versus Boredom

Shadows on a frozen lake
Image courtesy of Horia Varlan.

Charles Baxter's "Snow" is a coming-of-age story about Russell, a bored 12-year-old who apprentices himself to his older brother, Ben, as Ben dangerously attempts to dazzle his girlfriend on a frozen lake. Russell narrates the story as an adult looking back on events many years after they've taken place.

"Snow" originally appeared in The New Yorker in December of 1988 and is available to subscribers on The New Yorker's website.

The story later appeared in Baxter's 1990 collection, Relative Stranger, and also in his 2011 collection, Gryphon.

Boredom

A sense of boredom pervades the story right from the opening line: "Twelve years old, and I was so bored I was combing my hair just for the hell of it."

The hair-combing experiment -- like many things in the story -- is partly an attempt to grow up. Russell is playing Top 40 hits on the radio and trying to make his hair look "casual and sharp and perfect," but when his older brother sees the result, he just says, "Holy smoke […] What did you do to your hair?"

Russell is caught between childhood and adulthood, yearning to grow up but not quite ready for it. When Ben tells him his hair makes him look like "[t]hat Harvey guy," he probably means the movie star, Laurence Harvey. But Russell, still a child, innocently asks, "Jimmy Stewart ?"

Interestingly, Russell seems perfectly aware of his own naivete.

When Ben chastises him for telling an unconvincing lie to their parents, Russell understands that "[m]y unworldliness amused him; it gave him a chance to lecture me." Later, when Ben's girlfriend, Stephanie, persuades Russell to feed her a piece of gum, she and Ben burst out laughing at the sensuality of what she's put him through.

The narrator tells us, "I knew that what had happened hinged on my ignorance, but that I wasn't exactly the butt of the joke and could laugh, too." So, he doesn't understand exactly what has happened, yet he recognizes how it registers with the teenagers.

He is on the cusp of something, bored but feeling that something exciting might be around the corner: snow, growing up, some kind of thrill.

Thrills

Early in the story, Ben informs Russell that Stephanie will "be impressed" when he shows her the car submerged under the ice. Later, when the three of them start walking across the frozen lake, Stephanie says, "This is exciting," and Ben gives Russell a knowing look.

Ben intensifies the "thrill" he's giving Stephanie by refusing to confirm what he knows -- that the driver escaped safely and no one was killed. When she asks if anyone was hurt, Russell, the child, immediately tells her the truth: "No." But Ben instantly counters with, "Maybe," offering that there might be a dead body in the backseat or the trunk. Later, when she demands to know why he misled her, he says, "I just wanted to give you a thrill."

The thrills continue when Ben gets his car and starts spinning it on the ice on his way to pick up Stephanie.

As the narrator says:

"He was having a thrill and soon would give Stephanie another thrill by driving her home across ice that might break at any time. Thrills did it, whatever it was. Thrills led to other thrills."

The numbing repetition of the word "thrill" in this passage emphasizes Russell's alienation from -- and ignorance of -- the thrills Ben and Stephanie are seeking. The phrase "whatever it was" creates a sense that Russell is giving up hope of ever understanding why the teenagers are behaving as they are. 

Even though Stephanie's taking off her shoes was Russell's idea, he is only an observer, just as he is an observer of adulthood -- getting close, definitely curious, but not participating. He is moved by the sight:

"Bare feet with painted toenails on the ice -- this was a desperate and beautiful sight, and I shivered and felt my fingers curling inside my gloves."

Yet his status as an observer rather than a participant is confirmed in Stephanie's answer when he asks her how it feels:

"'You'll know,' she said. 'You'll know in a few years.'"

Her comment implies so many of the things he'll know: the desperation of unrequited affection, the relentless impulse to seek new thrills, and the "bad judgment" of teenagers, which seems to be "a powerful antidote to boredom." 

When Russell goes home and sticks his arm in the snowbank, wanting "to feel cold so cold the cold itself became permanently interesting," he keeps his arm there as long as he can stand it, pushing himself to the edge of thrills and adolescence. But in the end, he's still a child and not ready, and he retreats into the safety of "the bright heat of the front hallway."

Snow Job

In this story, snow, lies, adulthood, and thrills are all closely intertwined.

The lack of snowfall in "this drought winter," symbolizes Russell's boredom -- his lack of thrills. And in fact, as the three characters approach the submerged car, just before Stephanie announces that "[t]his is exciting," snow finally begins to fall.

In addition to the physical snow in (or absent from) the story, "snow" is also used colloquially to mean "to deceive" or "to impress through flattery." Russell explains that Ben brings girls to visit their old, large house so "[t]hey'd be snowed." He continues, "Snowing girls was something I knew better than to ask my brother about." And Ben spends most of the story "snowing" Stephanie, trying to "give her a thrill."

Notice that Russell, still a child, is a lousy liar. He can't snow anyone. He tells his parents an unconvincing lie about where he and Ben are going, and of course, he refuses to lie to Stephanie about whether anyone was hurt when the car sank.

All of these associations with snow -- lying, adulthood, thrills -- come together in one of the most perplexing passages of the story. As Ben and Stephanie are whispering to each other, the narrator says:

"Lights were beginning to go on, and, as if that weren't enough, it was snowing. As far as I was concerned, all those houses were guilty, both the houses and the people in them. The whole state of Michigan was guilty -- all the adults, anyway -- and I wanted to see them locked up."

It is clear that Russell feels left out. He notes that Stephanie whispers in Ben's ear "for about fifteen seconds, which is a long time if you're watching." He can see adulthood -- he's getting close -- but he can't hear the whispering and probably wouldn't understand it, anyway.

But why should that result in a guilty verdict for the entire state of Michigan?

I think there are numerous possible answers, but here are some that come to mind. First, the lights coming on could symbolize some of Russell's dawning awareness. He's aware of the way he's been left out, he's aware that teenagers don't seem to be able to resist their own bad judgment, and he's aware of all the lies that seem to be inextricable from adulthood (even his parents, when he lies about where he and Ben are going, engage in "the usual pantomime of skepticism" but don't stop them, as if lying is just a part of life).

The fact that it's snowing -- which Russell somehow takes as an insult -- could symbolize the snow job that he feels adults perpetrate on children. He's been longing for snow, but it arrives just as he's starting to think it might not be so fabulous after all. When Stephanie says, "You'll know in a few years," it sounds like a promise, but it's also a prophecy, underscoring the inevitability of Russell's eventual understanding. After all, he has no choice but to become a teenager, and it's a transition he isn't quite ready for.