BREEZE; Windy Literature

By Henry Klein

When the sun is shining and a gentle breeze can be felt gracing across your skin, the world suddenly feels like the most hospitable and wonderful place imaginable.  In ways such as this, weather is constantly unifying our individual experiences, shaping the very fabric of our lives, and controlling the ways we act, think, and behave.  This is precisely why nobody stops talking about it!  Sadly, however, it can also tear society’s framework apart through its unpredictable destructive power. Even a phenomenon as simple as a breeze can greatly impact a person’s environment, and consequently bring with it life-changing ramifications.

Many novelists throughout history have articulated upon this unique relationship between weather – specifically wind – and human experience.  One of the most famous examples is John Steinbeck’s seminal 1939 work The Grapes of Wrath, a novel which follows an Oklahoma family struggling through the Great Depression and the infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s.  The lead male character Tom Joad, a recently-paroled felon convicted of homicide, takes the risk of travelling with his shattered family towards California to seek a more fruitful life.

1024px-Farmer_walking_in_dust_storm_Cimarron_County_Oklahoma2A farmer and his sons brave an Oklahoma dust storm, 1936

In the novel’s opening paragraphs, Steinbeck encapsulates the Oklahoma landscape’s drastic weather-induced transformation through the use of imagery involving colors, physical sensations, and emotions.  Beginning with a tranquil period of gentle rain, the Oklahoma countryside began to experience a consistent breeze which gradually increased in speed and severity. The sky became darker and more red in color from the dust rising out of the arid Earth, while the region’s corn fields were gradually decimated by dehydration and wind damage.  By laying out these elements of natural imagery in his introductory paragraphs, Steinbeck presents weather as a powerful, all-encompassing aspect of life which forcefully enacts change upon large bodies of humans and other lifeforms.

Steinbeck is not the only writer to capitalize upon wind and the weather’s significance in fiction.  Zora Neale Hurston, the American writer based in Harlem, New York, wrote about the 1928 hurricane which decimated the Florida everglades region in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.  Published in 1937, the novel is a coming-of-age story about a young woman growing up in the dangerously oppressive racial climate of the Southern US.  

The story is told through 40 year-old Janie, the protagonist, as she explains her past travels and romantic relationships to an acquaintance.  Janie’s life was incredibly challenging and unstable. Her reflections on life focus on idealizations of love and romance in contrast with the harsh realities of African-American life and widespread mistreatment of women in Southern black communities.  While she longs for her own ideal of love, the relationships she engages in bring about painful and life-threatening experiences of abuse, forced servantry, and isolation.

1928_Okeechobee_Aftermath_21A spectacle of the destruction in West Palm Beach, Florida, caused by the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane

In writing about the famous hurricane, Hurston uses the extreme gales of wind as a metaphor for life’s pervading sense of uncertainty and hardship.  It also stands in stark opposition with the romantic idealizations Janie holds, symbolizing the uncontrollably violent twists and turns which life and love have forced upon her while searching for contentment.

Another famous novel which creatively employs wind into its narrative is Emily Brontë’s Victorian masterpiece Wuthering Heights.  Set in the turbulent atmosphere of the Yorkshire moors, the novel traces the history of an estate called Wuthering Heights by highlighting the family relationships and love affairs which occurred on the property.  As the name Wuthering Heights directly suggests, this detailed history of the moors’ inhabitants is as tumultuous as the surrounding environment’s gusty weather.

The novel primarily traces the life of Heathcliff, who originated as an orphaned Liverpool boy adopted by the Earnshaws, a gentry family residing at Wuthering Heights.  His presence disrupts the family’s hierarchical structure, challenges the fragile social status of the gentry, and interferes with love affairs and traditional gender roles.

393405_67a471fcA moorish landscape believed to have inspired Wuthering Heights

While Heathcliff’s presence wreaks havoc on the Earnshaws stability in a variety of ways, the frequent storms of the moors threaten their physical safety and well-being.  One such storm, which uncoincidentally occurs after Heathcliff runs away from home, is of such powerful force that it completely destroys a portion of the building’s chimney.  Instances such as these reflect how Brontë’s depictions of weather reinforce her novel’s eerie, chilling, and volatile qualities, creating an overarching commentary on Victorian society which has proved itself to be enduring.

Each of these novels implements wind symbolism in an innovative and fascinating manner, and all three can easily be found in bookstores.  If you find wind and weather even slightly intriguing, then you truly can’t go wrong with any of these three classics.

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