On The Weather

When I read Kathryn Schulz’s two pieces on the weather and literature, in the November 23rd issue of the New Yorker and then another on the magazine’s website (11/20/15), I was looking for literary works where the weather played a critical role in the plot or on one of its characters.

Schulz cites a number of works where the weather plays a symbolic role. For example, she mentions the snow in James Joyce’s The Dead, the cyclone in Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, the mud in Dickens’ Bleak House and the storm in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and six other novels.

It seems to me that none of these weather events played a critical role in the novel’s outcome. However, it certainly did in Albert Camus’s The Stranger.

“It is a hot day when Mersault, Camus’s disaffected emotionally detached French-Algerian protagonist, learns that his mother has died; a hot day when she is buried; a hot day when he shoots a man five times and kills him; a hot day when the murder trial begins that will culminate in a death sentence. To the judges’ question about his motives, Mersault tried to explain it was because of the sun”

The subject of Schulz’s discussion is the weather as it is treated in fiction. But beyond these imaginary creations, there is the unmistakable force of the weather in our daily life.

To be sure some people are more affected by the weather than others. I am one who is. Of course, major weather disasters--hurricanes, torrential floods, typhoons, blizzards, ocean tsunamis, major wind and rain storms—influence thousands of individuals, destroy their homes, flood their cities, knock out their power, and often cause the death of many individuals.

The weather has no memory. How I wish it did. On a cold day in January, it is impossible to warm up by recalling those warm days in August. The weather is not like a painful experience that makes you shudder every time you remember it. Or a treasured one that you can recapture vicariously whenever you want.

But that isn’t the way the weather works. Amadeau Prado, the physician-author in Night Train to Lisbon expresses a widely held view of this issue:

It is extraordinary, but the answer changes in me with the light that falls on the city and the Tagus. If it is the enchanting light of a shimmering August day that produces clear, sharp-edged shadows, the thought of a hidden human depth seems bizarre and like a curious, even slightly touching fantasy, like a mirage, that arises when I look too long at the waves flashing in that light.

On the other hand, if city and river are clouded over on a dreary January day by a dome of shadowless light and boring gray, I know no greater certainty than this: that all human action is only an extremely imperfect, ridiculously helpless expression of a hidden internal life of unimagined depths that presses to the surface without ever being able to reach it even remotely.

However, the research offers little support for this view. For example, in a study of the effects of weather on 2,000 Germans, Jaap Denissen of Humbolt University in Berlin found that individuals fell into one of four groups: those who are unaffected by the weather or seasons, people who love summer, others who hate summer, and people who love rain.

In 2008 Denissen and his colleagues conducted what is perhaps the most systematic analysis I have read on how individuals are affected by the weather. They examined the effects of six weather-related factors (temperature, wind, sunlight, precipitation, air pressure and photoperiod--daily length of light) on three measures of mood--positive affect, negative affect and fatigue. They concluded:

…the average effect of weather on mood was only small, though significant random variation was found across individuals, especially regarding the effects of photoperiod.

I think this confirms how most people view the weather. Some individuals are unaffected by it, others are affected periodically, and an unknown number are highly sensitive to it. Neither Denissen nor anyone else to my knowledge has offered a credible explanation for these differences. But it is important that they be recognized in evaluating media or even literary accounts of effects of weather-related variables on personality and behavior.