The Hidden Figures of NASA: Black Women Mathematicians and the Space Race

Hidden Figures reveals a truer picture: that black women “are part of the American epic” that placed astronauts on the moon. And it’s long past time we celebrated their efforts.

Hidden Figures tells the story of the women who performed the behind-the-scenes work that propelled American aviation triumphs during World War II and Space Age rocketeering. Author Margot Lee Shetterly focuses on a particular group of pioneering women working at NACA/NASA,[*] the African-American women who overcame barriers imposed by both their gender and their race. Called computers, they were mathematicians whose work entailed calculating complex equations for the engineers engaged in the then emerging field of aeronautics.

The Call to Serve

The first female computing pool, then all white, formed due to necessity. Prior to 1935, the male (usually white) engineers performed their own calculations, a tedious task that slowed their research. Historian Beverly E. Golemba notes that “Because of the male shortage and the added attractiveness of paying women less, they rather reluctantly began to hire women as computers.” Despite their qualms, these white women soon proved themselves equal—and better—at the task. Although they earned less than male counterparts despite possessing equivalent bachelor degrees,[†] NACA still paid better than teaching did and permitted them to continue working long after marriage and the arrival of children.

The demand for human computers soon outstripped the supply of qualified white women available. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, pressured by black labor union leader A. Philip Randolph’s threat to march on Washington, signed an executive order that desegregated the defense industry and made it possible for black women to become computers. Although advertisements for black computers were more discreet during this segregated era, they nonetheless attracted the attention of Dorothy Vaughn (the first black female supervisor) in 1943,[‡] one of the three computers Shetterly’s book features. Cold War concerns kept NACA’s Langley Research Center (located in Hampton, Virginia) retaining and continuing to hire more computers to process the vast data produced by the research conducted there.

The Hidden Figures of NASA: Black Women Mathematicians and the Space Race. Text by R. Gould
The Friden calculator was one of machines that human computers once used to perform complex calculations.

Calculating Times of Change

As Shetterly follows Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Katherine G. Johnson (famed for calculating flight trajectories of the Mercury and Apollo space missions) through the highlights of their careers into the late 1960s, she also performs the daunting task of capturing a cross-section of the eras in which these women worked. Moving from World War II to the Cold War and Space Race accompanied by the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, she laces her narrative with layperson discussions of aeronautical innovations. Shetterly, too, describes the complex calculations (Johnson’s figures are compared to a symphony) while underscoring the human cost of miscalculations: loss of life. At times, one wishes for more biographical and less technical detail, but the perspective is critical for understanding her subject’s work. Shetterly correctly observes that it’s important to learn about the computers who worked at NACA/NASA and document their work—all while recording the obstacles these black women overcame.

Among the book’s poignant moments, Shetterly recounts Katherine Johnson’s[§] journey to Langley from West Virginia in 1953. Once her bus entered Virginia, she entered a segregated state; she and other black passengers were required to move to the bus’s back. Later, they all had to disembark as the bus would not travel through the black part of town. Johnson ignored segregation and gender-based discrimination when she could, unafraid to use a white only bathroom or ask why she, a female computer, could not attend the Space Task Force editorial meetings with the male engineers.

Mary Jackson, a Virginia native and Hampton local hired in 1951, discussed her frustration with unequal work conditions to an engineer who responded with an invitation to join his team; this move launched her career as the first female black engineer. To attain that rank, however, she needed special permission to go to classes at the segregated local high school she’d unable to attend as a teen. The school, which she expected to be superior to the one she matriculated from, was dilapidated: the full cost of segregated school systems was fewer and worse resources for all.

“What I changed, I could; what I couldn’t, I endured” were Dorothy Vaughn’s words to Golemba about her time at Langley. Disappointed that she did not again attain a management position after NASA integrated its staff in 1958, she launched many careers during her time as a supervisor (Katherine Johnson’s included).[**] Vaughn soon observed that computing machines would gain ascendancy, and she made it imperative that she and other human computers learn how to code them, thus making themselves indispensable to NASA. And it would be Johnson’s calculations that would confirm the accuracy of the new machines, giving NASA (not to mention astronaut John Glenn) confidence in the machine’s calculations.

Finally, Zeroing on Hidden Figures

When reading about these women’s accomplishments and considering how often the Space Race has been memorialized, it seems shocking that we didn’t know these women’s names earlier. Of the many computers named in Hidden Figures (both black and white), I only knew of Katherine Johnson beforehand. Shetterly acknowledges, as other authors do, the role that the women’s modesty played. She also adds that many people did know about the work these women undertook (particularly in Hampton, which happens to be the author’s hometown). Yet, this knowledge remained unseen by the public. As Shetterly indicated in an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, “…I think that it really does have to do with us…not valuing that work that was done by women, however necessary, as much as we might. And it has taken history to get a perspective on that.”

Shetterly’s remarks here are hardly controversial: women’s work (particularly domestic) long has been undervalued and unappreciated. Writing Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race provides this much needed corrective accounting. Both black and white computers’ contributions alike were forgotten while white men they worked alongside were lauded. As reporter Virginia Biggins explained during a panel that discussed the role of human computers, she “just assumed they were all secretaries”. Hidden Figures reveals a truer picture: that black women “are part of the American epic” that placed astronauts on the moon. And it’s long past time we celebrated their efforts.

NOTES:

[*] Respectively, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA)

[†] Golemba’s unpublished report indicated most computers pursued mathematical degrees because it was a subject at which they excelled in high school and that most intended to use the degree as part of a teaching career.

[‡] Shetterly discusses other black computers and their careers where appropriate but the book’s scope does not permit spending much time with them. However, her ongoing project, The Human Computer project, strives to capture the history of the women who served as computers.

[§] Katherine Johnson was then Katherine Goble, as her first husband was still alive.

[**] Although Shetterly focuses mostly on black women, she also exposes the gender-based struggles white women encountered where appropriate. When Dorothy Vaughn intervened on Katherine Johnson’s behalf and helped her obtain a permanent position (and promotion) to a team where she’d been temporarily assigned, Vaughn also helped a white computer gain the same appointment. Not having anyone to forward her cause, her request to join the team would otherwise been ignored.

Reading Women Month: Spreading the Word About Women Writers

Dedicating a month to reading women writers both brings more attention to their terrific works and fulfills Reading Women’s mission to reclaim half the bookshelf.

In celebration of their first year podcasting, Reading Women debuted Reading Women Month to encourage everyone to read great books written by or about women throughout June.[*] As a member of the newly formed Women Writers Network, I love to see women’s writing being discussed and promoted. The latest VIDA count demonstrates that women writers still publish less than their male counterparts. Dedicating a month to reading women writers both brings more attention to their terrific works and fulfills Reading Women’s mission to reclaim half the bookshelf. You can show your support by using the hashtag #readingwomenmonth when you post about the books you’re reading on social media like Twitter and Instagram.[†]

If you need additional suggestions for your reading list, I’m recommending several books I’ve read:

Finally, check out these articles that list more amazing works by women writers:

Which women writers do you love to read? Share your favorites in the comment section below!

NOTES:

 

[*] The event includes both reading challenges and photo challenges, as well as giveaways. Details are here.

[†] Feel free to use the #women_writers and #readingwomen to increase exposure of your posts!

[‡] I discuss Hidden Figures here.

[§] You can read my review of Swing Time here.

Self-Editing: Tactics for Taming Weak Wording

Most words and phrases that people recommend avoiding earn this distinction because they bloat word counts and (possibly) make editors despair.

Among the more specific writing suggestions that exist,[*] writers often are advised to avoid certain words and phrases to improve their work’s readability. However talented we are as wordsmiths, I suspect most of us find ourselves deleting questionable phrasing from our early drafts—myself included. Part of becoming a better writer involves learning how to self-edit one’s verbal excesses. I’ve identified categories of weak wording, strategies for dealing with them, and a few reasons why we might use them anyway.

Filler Words

Most words and phrases that people recommend avoiding earn this distinction because they bloat word counts and (possibly) make editors despair. I call them fillers because they add text without value. For example, “a variety of reasons” could instead be “various reasons” or “assorted reasons”. Other offenders include redundancies such as “joint consensus” when “consensus” suffices. At fault here is wordiness. Why do style manuals hate wordiness? Because it makes reading dull. Reading pages of “in order to”, “at this point”, “very”, and their boring brethren makes it difficult to stay focused on the topic. Style manuals recommend concise writing for a reason.[†]

Cliches bore the kitty.
The cat isn’t yawning because she’s tired; she’s bored by filler words and clichés.

Overused and Imprecise Wording

Some words and phrases don’t bear repeating because their overuse dilutes their impact. Clichés typically belong in this category, as does the word “awesome”.[‡] Other words lack precision. “If someone is “very” smart, do we mean they are intelligent or a genius? How much is “a lot”? Be specific (eg, seven) or generalize concisely (eg, numerous). Likewise, words like “stuff” and “things” are vague; they can be replaced with “belongings” or a description of said things (clothes, cars, bottle cap collections…).

Adjectives, Adverbs, and the Passive Voice

Adjectives, adverbs, and the passive voice constitute an interesting group because they permit wordiness (and perhaps imprecision) yet remain vital in other contexts (more on that later). Because they are useful, we sometimes overuse them. Some sentences become more concise and/or gain immediacy when we replace an adverbial or adjectival phrase (eg, “public disgrace”) with a more descriptive verb or noun (“scandal”), respectively. “She stomped” has greater impact than “She walked loudly and angrily” because we switched from telling to showing. Sentences written in the passive voice (“I was running”) similarly benefit when revised to an active verb (“I ran”). We also need to consider whether some adjectives or adverbs can be dispensed with altogether.  If the character’s quietness in “She walks quietly down the hall” isn’t being described for a reason (ie, to show that she’s being considerate of others who are asleep), this adverb should be removed.

gavel, weak wording
Objection, your Honor! Weak wording appears in dialogue to simulate natural speech!

Objections: Appropriate Uses and Other Reasons

Before I discuss strategies for clearing verbal clutter away, I want to address why we still use items from these categories. As soon as a person lists phrases or words that should be avoided, someone will cite cases where the word or phrase is permissible—even desirable!—to use. I find articles that suggest we delete all instances of certain words (like adverbs) too prescriptive. My goal is to make it easier to revise occurrences of weak wording, not ban writing that works. If you find a way to make a cliché or the passive voice read well, use it. Here is an incomplete list of some reasons we use “avoidable” wording:

  • Dialogue. We use weak wording to simulate or report dialogue. [**]
  • Creative license. Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” and its musing about neighborliness wouldn’t exist without a cliché . This poem reminds us that creative people know how to make trite phrases interesting again.
  • When fillers aren’t fillers. Sometimes “a lot” is an actual lot (as in realty). And we leave “in order to” alone when “order” means “sequence” because “Place the objects to collect a prize” is not equivalent to “Place the objects in order to collect a prize” .[††]
  • Using parts of speech when needed. It’s impractical to always avoid adjectives, adverbs, and the passive voice. We cannot replace every adjective and adverb with a more descriptive noun or verb. Also, the passive voice has clear usage cases (eg, general truths such as “Rules were made to be broken”), which you can read about here and here.
  • Repetition. Were I writing about a “scandal”, I may switch to “public disgrace” if I’ve used the word “scandal” so often it’s become boring!
Revision. Self-Editing: Tactics for Taming Weak Wording. Text by R. Gould
Get ready to revise.

Tactics to Minimize the Extraneous

Moving from understanding why weak wording makes writing less interesting to detecting its presence in our own work is difficult, something that requires practice. Some approaches and tactics help us find weak wording faster and edit thoughtfully. The following are my recommendations for self-editing:

  • Familiarity. Become familiar with words and phrases people suggest avoiding. Learn the specific reasons why a word or phrase should be revised and when it can be kept. Keep notes on items you want to avoid or review carefully when you write and revise. To get you started, I’ve listed several articles that discuss words to avoid at the end of the article (see “Read More”).
  • Identify problem areas. Check through your work (or ask someone else to do so) for weak wording, particularly repeat occurrences (“in order to” is one of mine). Keep your list of weak wording near where you write as a reminder.
  • Utilize software. Diana Urban advocates using the word processing “find” feature to locate and highlight weak wording, making it easier to  revise as needed. Building on her idea, I suggest using the same approach to check adverbs (most end in -ly) and adjectives (many use -ous, -ed or -ing suffixes); MS Word will let you search by suffixes. Built-in grammar software also highlights some egregious examples of weak wording.
  • Other resources. Use dictionaries (software, online or even manual) to confirm when phrase are redundant.  “Public opprobrium” is redundant by definition. Internet searches and other resources (Cliché Net) provide swift results about whether a questionable phrasing is cliché.

As a group defined by our words, we need to choose them with greater care. Self-editing, backed by research and technology, is one way we can improve what we write. If you’ve know of any strategies I haven’t mentioned, I’d love to learn about them. Feel free to share in the comment box below!

NOTES:

[*] I’ve done a roundup on this topic here.

[†] To clarify, concise writing refers to removing excess words; it is not a dictate to write shorter sentences. Both terse and lengthy sentences read better when every word in them matters.

[‡] I blame the 1980s.

[**] When using filler words or clichés in fictional dialogue, aim to give readers reality without the tedium. Writers usually condense reality: we don’t report every conversation verbatim. Even nonfiction writers insert ellipses when statements meander.

[††] Sure, you could say “Sequence the objects to win a prize” but you sound stuffy doing so.

READ MORE

Tameri Guide for Writer’s “Words and Phrases to Avoid

Freelance Writings “Ten Words to Avoid When Writing”

Diana Urban’s “43 Words You Should Cut from Your Writing Immediately”

Mark Nichol’s “50 Redundant Phrases to Avoid”

Thoughtco’s “Overused and Tired Words: A Tip for Effective Writing”

Pearl Luke’s “681 Clichés to Avoid in Your Creative Writing

Oxford Dictionaries’ “Avoiding Clichés

Coming of Age: Writing and the Continuity of Maturation

With the exception of bildungsroman tales, however, there is no reason the age must be adolescent or the struggles pubescent when we invoke the phrase “coming of age”. After all, rites of passage (eg, graduations, first jobs, parental loss) can occur at many different ages.

Literary Connections

In one of those fascinating moments of literary connection, I stumbled upon a quote that resonated with my own writing:[*]

…“all stories are coming-of-age stories”[†]

I discovered this statement, attributed to Antonya Nelson (author of Female Trouble), in a Q/A session between Karen Russell (author of Swamplandia and interviewer) and Robin Black (the interviewee) that served as an afterwords for Black’s short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories. Russell references Nelson’s remark while discussing Black’s stories, which she notes explore with intensity how characters “come of age” at various points of their life. Concurring, Black relates her view that “coming-of-age” stories are works involving the change from innocence to experience, a process that continues to complicate one’s life. I found myself nodding, as my story-in-progress sprang to mind.

Coming of Ages

But what does a “coming of age” story represent? Usually, we refer to stories focusing on a young person in the process of achieving adulthood. Examples range from a teenager gaining understanding of her mother and harm seen in Nelson’s short story “Primum Non Nocere” to bildungsroman novels (eg, The History of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding), which focus on the development of a youth into maturity (eg, moral, psychological, intellectual).[‡] With the exception of bildungsroman tales,[§] however, there is no reason the age must be adolescent or the struggles pubescent when we invoke the phrase “coming of age”. After all, rites of passage (eg, graduations, first jobs, parental loss) occur at many different ages.

In my intergenerational story, three women’s lives change, with each experiencing a “coming of their particular age”. The youngest member, of course, experiences the more typical coming-of-age moment after leaving college. For her mother, her child’s nascent adulthood revives memories of her own mistakes at that age coupled with current worries that make it difficult for her to accept her child’s choices. And for the grandmother of the group? In addition to supporting the younger women in different ways, she looks toward her own next transition: addressing her own increasingly limited ability to care for herself.

Characterizing Maturation

One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed working with this story is that I felt the characters had opportunities to grow and learn, either by succeeding in their endeavors or by failing. When I read this interview and considered “coming of ages” in my writing, I knew I’d stumbled onto an underlying theme of my story: how families deal with their continuing evolution. In this regard, I felt more kinship with Black’s notion of moving from innocence to experience. Or, as I think of it, the ways in which we move from ignorance to knowledge, learning how to be ourselves at a certain age. It’s worth considering how characters of all ages “come of age”, how they mature through their experiences, when we write. Maturity, as Black notes, may not confer mastery but it makes for a richer tale.

NOTES:

[*] And they were all women authors!

[†] “A Reader’s Guide.” Black, Robin. Interview by Karen Russell. In: Black, Robin. If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories. New York, Random House, 2011.

[‡] Anne Boyd Rioux discusses female bildungsroman novels, including the contradictory nature of applying this term to female protagonists when such characters ultimately step into their expected social roles instead of pursuing their own dreams. Fortunately, she also lists several nineteenth century novels that flout these limitations here.

[§] By definition, a youth must be involved.

Agonizing over Motivation: Why What an Antagonist Wants Matters

Insight into the motivations of some villains, however, can be the crucial difference between producing a caricature and a badly flawed individual.

Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing good short stories state that all characters “should want something, even if it is only a glass of water”.[*] Vonnegut’s levity aside, considering what fictional characters desire is useful because such explorations often reveals their underlying motivation, particularly when we write about antagonists. Antagonists represent individuals who oppose protagonists in some fashion. With exceptions such as monsters or forces of nature, most antagonists have reasons for their opposition. When writers understand what motivates their antagonist’s decisions to block the protagonist, we can root their subsequent actions within that frame of reference, thus giving their behavior an explicable context.

Villainous Pathos and Madness

When discussing antagonists, we often think of outright villains. It’s often easy to discover what motivates these villains to thwart a (presumably) plucky protagonist. The criminal masterminds and “take over the world types”, for example, have clear goals. Further insight into the motivations of some villains, however, can be the crucial difference between producing a caricature and a badly flawed individual. Consider J. K. Rowling’s Voldemort, whose snake-like appearance and (temporarily) undying nature makes him monstrous, more embodiment of evil than wicked wizard. As we discover in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Voldemort fears death and considers it to be a shameful weakness. Because he desires immortality, Voldemort chooses to undergo dangerous, immoral magical rituals.[†] Discovering that Voldemort’s behavior is motivated by his boyhood fears, initially stemming from the mistaken belief that his mother couldn’t be magical because she died and left him alone, both explains his reprehensible choices and humanizes him. Thus, learning Voldemort’s motivations provokes a twinge of pity for the person he might’ve become under different circumstances.

With other villains, gaining an understanding of what motivates these villains not only explains why these characters act as they do but also assists protagonists in overcoming the obstacles the villains set and/or defeat them. In Stephen King’s novel Misery, a seriously injured Paul Sheldon is held captive by Annie Wilkes. Understanding both Annie’s volatile mental status[‡] and her obsession with his Misery Chastain novels, he concocts a desperate plan to escape before she kills them both. Once he completes the Misery novel that Wilkes forced him to write, he ignites it instead of letting her read it. Caught off guard and desperate to save the book, she approaches close enough for Sheldon to attack and then lock himself away while he waits for the police.

chainsaw-agonizing-antagonist-motivation
Annie Wilkes’s short-term motivation involved murdering Paul Sheldon with a chainsaw, had she survived her injuries.

Law and Laughs: Adversaries and Friendly Obstructionists

Many antagonists, however, lack a villainous streak. Victor Hugo’s indefatigable policeman from Les Miserables spends his time enforcing the law he when isn’t attempting to recapture fugitive petty thief and protagonist, Jean Valjean. Javert’s relentless pursuit of Valjean seems excessive when considering the nature of crimes Valjean committed (bread theft). However, Javert is not interested in the unfairness of human law (or its sentencing) so much as he is passionate about enforcing it. He possesses a rigid worldview that despises challenges to authority and social order; he also does not believe lawbreakers like Valjean are capable of reform. Compelled to set affronts to order right, Javert also derives immense pleasure from doing so. Understanding Javert’s code explains both his conduct and prepares us for his fate. Although forced to flee Javert for years, Jean Valjean saves his long-time nemesis’s life—something which Javert finds incomprehensible. Once confident in his role in the world, Javert’s value system is upturned, prompting him to do something that otherwise would be unthinkable for such a man: he commits suicide.

In other instances, the non-villainous antagonist are less adversaries and more well-meaning sorts who nonetheless creates difficulties for protagonists. Agatha Christie has a beloved family member juggle the roles of benefactor and antagonist in her short story “Strange Jest.” Recently deceased Uncle Matthew hid a fortune for his two heirs to find. Despite their diligent searching, they find nothing. Frustrated, they agree to let Miss Marple assist them. Miss Marple seems to be an unlikely sleuth but soon proves to be adept at recognizing types of people and what motivates them. Not long after poking around the deceased’s home, Miss Marple forms the opinion that Matthew is like her own Uncle Henry, a bachelor unaccustomed to children but who enjoyed teasing them. This combination means that he’s likely to go a bit far with his little jokes. As such, the fortune he left is not the gold bullion he suggested burying in the yard instead of placing in a bank (a decoy, according to Miss M), but rare stamps on envelopes accompanying fake love letters that Uncle Matthew likely laughed over while penning—the sort of letters his nephew might’ve burned out of gentlemanly respect for his uncle’s privacy! Understanding that Uncle Matthew couldn’t resist one last joke, however, saved the inheritance.

Uncle Matthew's desire to have one last joke on his heirs results in digging up the back garden for hidden treasure. Naturally, it's found in the house.
Uncle Matthew’s desire to have one last joke on his heirs results in digging up the back garden for hidden treasure. Naturally, the inheritance is found in the house.
Part of creating a believable character can involve providing them with motivation (rational or not) for what they do. Motivation, working as a component of character behavior, makes characters more realistic. While gaining an understanding of what an antagonist wants might not make them beloved, it does make them relatable and occasionally worthy of readerly sympathy. After all, we all possess aspirations, even ignoble ones.

What motivates your favorite fictional characters? Share in the comment section below! Also, sign up to the Sequence newsletter to stay current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] As mentioned in my post on writing advice, Vonnegut’s list represents specific writing advice that’s helpful to consider as needed.

[†] Undergoing these rituals also cause the radical alteration in his appearance from handsome man to snake-like, thus suggesting his wicked deeds in some way lessen his humanity.

[‡] During previous escape attempts, he discovers that she’s killed in the past (Annie likely has Munchhausen by Proxy syndrome) in addition to murdering a sheriff looking for him.

Weather in Writing: a Dynamic Literary Device

Although weather may properly be considered part of the setting, both its ubiquitous effects and changeable nature allows it to extend into plot, characterization and more.

Blame it on the weather,[*] but I’ve been considering the role that weather plays in fiction writing. Being informed about the weather is useful for selecting appropriate outerwear and activities. It even provides us with something to discuss about when we greet people. But when weather appears in fiction (either as exposition or dialogue), it exists to accomplish certain narrative goals. Although weather may properly be considered part of the setting, both its ubiquitous effects and changeable nature allows it to extend into plot, characterization and more. In the following, I discuss several selections that demonstrates weather’s versatility in fiction.

Plotting Weather

Weather’s pervasiveness and its effect on human lives, of course, is the primary reason it makes an excellent plot device. Stories featuring weather-related catastrophes (from seafaring disasters such as Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie to cli-fi dystopias such as Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake) are indebted to the weather for creating their central conflict: survival. These stories frequently rely upon but don’t require epic storms to create a crisis. In Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire”, harsh winter conditions are normal in the Yukon. The protagonist hikes only with his dog despite warnings to travel in company when it’s dangerously cold. Several mistakes on this frigid day turn this walk into a struggle for life. However, snowfall plays a starring role in creating a very different survival situation in “Three Blind Mice” by Agatha Christie.[†] As forecast by the wireless news, the inhabitants of Monkshood Manor are trapped indoors by a blizzard. Well prepared for the storm, their real difficulty is that one of them is a murderer. However, weather, severe or otherwise, needn’t be life threatening to be a plot point. Although alarming, a tornado’s brief appearance in All the Living by C. E. Morgan merely threatens protagonists Aloma and Orren, reminding them that they need some contact with the world beyond their farm.[‡]

Weather in Writing: a Dynamic Literary Device
The forecast for Agatha Christie’s “Three Blind Mice” is heavy snow and murder.

Symbolic and Moody Weather

In her article about the role weather plays in literature, Kathryn Schultz discusses how weather went from “mythical to metaphorical”, “with atmospheric conditions…stand[ing] in for the human condition”.[§] Schultz observes that such representations may to refer to individuals, relationships, or societies. Mary Tyrone, a woman suffering from morphine addiction in Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night, declares that she loves the fog because of its ability to conceal the world. Fog, of course, represents the addicted state into which Mary escapes from unpleasant realities such as her son’s illness. The presence of snow in Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, however, works at the societal level. Through much of the novel, Bigger Thomas is surrounded snow, a subtle allusion to how his existence as a black man is circumscribed and controlled by white society.

Weather in Writing: a Dynamic Literary Device
A foggy night, such as might be seen in Long Day’s Journey into Night.

Symbolic or not, weather in fictional works help authors set the mood. How a writer characterizes the weather in a fictional account will dictate the reader’s emotional response. In the opening lines of “The Story-Teller”, we’re told it’s a “hot afternoon” and that “the railway carriage was correspondingly sultry” (129).[**] Already, readers feel the wearying, perhaps irritable quality of this journey even before we learn that the “unsympathetic” bachelor will share an hour’s train ride with three boisterous children and their aunt, a woman who is ill adept at entertaining her charges (129). Similarly, the fog symbolizing Mary’s addiction in Long Day’s Journey also establishes an atmosphere of tension early in the play. Mary remarks that that the foghorn’s warnings kept her awake and unsettled her nerves. Yet, her family (particularly son Jamie) are all too aware that such restlessness is a symptom of her drug use and check for signs of addiction, something which makes her self-conscious and more nervous.

Foreshadowing Forecasts[††]

Scrying the skies for portents of poor weather to modern weather forecasts are among the numerous ways humanity has attempted to tell the future of weather. Yet weather, often working in conjunction with mood, can hint at events to come in fiction. In The Great Gatsby,[‡‡] the warm breeze fills Nick with “the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer” (8). Nick’s reflection suggests renewal is in the offing: Nick will reacquaint himself with Daisy and Tom just as Gatsby will restart his love affair with Daisy. In a different vein, Zora Neale Hurston presages a devastating hurricane in Their Eyes Were Watching God with several events, among them an animal exodus and the uncanny stillness of the wind. Many, Janie and Tea Cake among them, choose to remain because they think the storm will not be severe. Before he leaves, ‘Lias attempts to persuade the couple to accompany him by stating “dis muck is too low and dat big lake is liable tuh bust” (148).[§§] As predicted, the lake floods, forcing everyone remaining to flee to high ground.

Weather in Writing: a Dynamic Literary Device
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, a hurricane (likely more severe than this storm) devastates Florida.

Characteristic Weather

Using meteorological metaphors, as discussed in Schultz’s article, provides information about characters, ranging from physical characteristics to personality traits (replying icily, for example, uses weather to indicate displeasure). Conversations about weather also can reveal information about characters. In Robert Frost’s narrative poem, “Home Burial”,[†††] clashing notions of appropriate grieving coupled with an offhand remark about weather precipitate a rupture. The husband’s clumsy attempts to speak of their dead child infuriates his wife, particularly when he suggests she overly grieves. Infuriated, Amy accuses him of lacking feeling, given how casually (to her mind) he dug the child’s grave (ln71–78) and discussed his “every day concerns” (ln 86):

‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy morning

Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’

Think of it, talk like that at such a time!

What had how long it takes a birch to rot

To do with what was in the darkened parlor?

You couldn’t care….(ln 92–7)

One can almost hear the door slam at the poem’s close.

Drawing from Weather

Weather’s profound effect on humanity is evident when we examine literary works. Beyond its humble role in the setting, it pervades mood, portrays us, and even “plots” against us, just as it does in real life. Utilized wisely, fictional weather helps underscore the thrust of a writer’s story, adding depth and complexity. And that makes weather a dynamic literary device.

What is your favorite example of literary weather? Share it in the comment section below. Also, sign-up to the Sequence’s newsletter and keep current with the latest posts.

NOTES:

[*] Or that snowy scene that may or may not appear in a story.

[†] This short story was based on the radio broadcast of the same name. Ultimately, Christie transformed the radio play into the famous West End play, The Mousetrap. Familiarity with either play or story will work for this example.

[‡] They add a television to their home, a sensible decision given that Kentucky is tornado prone (925 tornadoes were observed between 1950 to 2015.

[§] Pathetic fallacy, that is attributing human emotion to inanimate objects in nature, often wears the guise of weather in literature.

[**] Saki. The Best of Saki. London: Penguin Popular Classics, 1994.

[††] I could argue that the hardworking fog in Long Day’s Journey (or at least the foghorn) also foreshadows Mary’s relapse. But, I thought I’d reward this example with the rest of the day off, since it’d already done so much.

[‡‡] Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1991.

[§§] Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

[†††] Frost, Robert. Robert Frost: Poetry and Prose. New York: Henry Holt, 1984.

Read it Again, Sam*: Repeat Readers

Part of writing involves the creation of a reading experience.

Goodreads recently rolled out a new feature, one that allowed you to put a “read” book back into your “currently reading” queue, making it easier to acknowledge that you’ve read a work more than once.[†] As a site user and fan of revisiting favorite books, this new feature resonated with me—as well as made me consider re-reading from a writer’s viewpoint. I occasionally think my writing (whether it’s a blog post or poem) is a conversation that I’m having through the written word. And it’s rather exciting to think that someone may well choose to re-read something I penned because they enjoyed “conversing” with me. From this perspective, I became quite curious as to why other people revisit books, stories, and poems again.

Reasons We Re-Read

Arguably, necessity is among those reasons, such as reviewing work-related texts that vary from profession to profession, some of which bears re-reading outside work hours. My education also required me to re-read several books, plays, and poems, sometimes more than once. While I’d be happy to immerse myself in some of those works again, others not so much.[‡] Appearing on multiple teachers’ syllabi, however, suggests a certain greatness of a work—or at least that it’s representative of a style—something that makes it important enough that we’ll see it again.

Most respondents to my poll (hosted here and on Twitter), however, re-read because they enjoy doing so. Fellow writer Sandy Bennett-Haber is a “re-reader of novels” because she finds “comfort in the familiar” and “sometimes because it is just a great story.” Her response dovetails with my reasons for re-reading fiction. I primarily re-read because I enjoyed the story. At other times, re-reading feels very much like a comforting routine. When I read an Agatha Christie mystery again, I know what to expect (regardless if I recall whodunnit) and look forward to that experience. Another reader I informally surveyed indicated he re-read works when he particularly liked a character. The idea that a single character is so well-crafted as to merit a re-read, too, is a compelling reason, one that inspires me to think of ways to make my characters receive such attention.

When Re-Reading Once Isn’t Enough

My poll also revealed that re-readers tend to read a book more than once. I thought briefly about books I’ve re-read multiple times. I often re-read previous book(s) in a series so I can create a seamless reading transition for an upcoming release. Anticipation often colors these re-reading experiences. Yet, certain books draw me to them in a more thoughtful way, in part because their compassion impresses me. I re-read The Last Call (which I discussed here) because it revealed how many viewpoints led to an historical event, something which is helpful thing to recall in contentious times. Still other books reminded me of happy reading experiences. I’m reading favorite books from my childhood to my child: seeing his excitement adds to my pleasure in rereading these books. Now that I’m a more sophisticated reader, I found a few things I didn’t appreciate the first time reading through.[§] As a recent article by Maria Popova reminds us, this goes some way towards the argument that Tolkien and other writers forwarded that children’s literature is just literature. And who wouldn’t want to write something that appealed to wide audience of readers?

Part of writing involves the creation of a reading experience. Whether it’s Edgar Allan Poe’s[**] idea that a short story should produce a single effect on its readers (ie, a singular emotional response) or the multiple experiences that novels produce for us, a writer’s work involves those responses. And it’s those responses, I realize, that make readers truly want to return a text and read again. When I go forward and edit, I want to carry with me the idea that I need to keep this conversation going so that my readers will want to spend time with my writing again and again.

NOTES:

[*] Trivia: This line never was said in the movie Casablanca.

[†] Or twice or who’s counting, anyway? If you use this feature, Goodreads will.

[‡] Why is it always Romeo and Juliet for Shakespeare courses?

[§] I better appreciate the wordplay in Through the Looking Glass than I did when I was younger. I also have the difficulty of explaining it to the young one while sniggering.

[**] In his case, it’s usually horror.