Foster asks: why has it become a cliché to begin a story with the phrase “It was a dark and stormy night?” The answer, according to Foster, is that “weather is never just weather.” Types of weather often have significant symbolic meaning; rain, for example, invokes the Biblical story of Noah, and with it the fear of drowning and the promise of beginning anew.
As the Biblical story of Noah suggests, the reason why weather has so much symbolic power is because it is a natural force that for many years was mysterious and inexplicable. Humans were unable to predict when a storm or drought would strike, and thus ascribed moral and religious reasons for variations in the weather.
Weather can also be a useful plot device, as it forces characters into acts and situations they might not have willingly chosen themselves. In Thomas Hardy’s short story “The Three Strangers” (1883), a hangman and escaped prisoner on death row are forced by rain to seek shelter in the same house. Note that, as this story proves, weather is an equalizing force, affecting the most and least powerful in society and sometimes forcing them to interact with one another.
Authors rely on plot devices like the weather because—although they are in control of their narratives—too much unlikely coincidence will seem unrealistic. Hardy needs an excuse (such as rain) to drive three characters together in an unlikely meeting. This is particularly true as Hardy was writing in the realist tradition.
Rain is often depicted as having a cleansing or restorative effect on characters. It can “wash away” illusions, as happens to Hagar in Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Sometimes, writers toy with the conflicting meanings of rain—on one level it is associated with cold, illness, and suffering, and on another with spring, birth, and renewal. In “The Dead,” James Joyce exposes this tension through the story of a young boy so in love that he stood in the rain for a week and later got sick and died. Indeed, modernist writers are particularly likely to invoke the associations of rain with spring and hope on an ironic level. (Think of the famous first line of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922): “April is the cruelest month.”)
Here Foster shows that a single symbol can have several distinct, even contradictory meanings. Although it might at first seem strange that rain is simultaneously known to mean spring/birth and illness/death, this in fact corresponds more accurately to real life than if every symbol had only one set of associations. After all, a single phenomenon like rain does indeed have a variety of contradictory meanings in different contexts in real life. Writers like Joyce are then able to exploit the multifaceted, contrasting feelings associated with rain in creative ways.
Rainbows are another important weather symbol, with close ties to the Biblical story of Noah, in which God signals through a rainbow that He will never again flood the entire world. Fog, meanwhile, is used to symbolize mystery, ambiguity, and danger. Finally, snow is the type of weather with perhaps the greatest range of meanings. Depending on how it is used in a literary work, it could be joyful, cleansing, claustrophobic, or threatening. In Wallace Steven’s poem “The Snow Man” (1923), snow is even used to represent nothing—or, more accurately, nothingness, particularly as it is constructed within human thought.
Wallace Steven’s “The Snow Man” is an excellent example of the way writers use external spaces (such as a snow-covered landscape) to represent internal consciousness. Sometimes the external landscape coheres with the inner thoughts and feelings of characters in a work of literature, and sometimes it is a marked contrast; both techniques create a strong poetic effect.