2. The History of Melancholy
2.1 The Medical Foundation
2.2 Medieval Melancholy
2.2 Female Melancholy
2.4 Romantic Melancholy
2.5 Grief and Melancholy
3. The Snow Child
3.1 Background and Summary
3.2 Melancholy in “The Snow Child”
3.2.1 Mabel and Jack
3.2.2 Faina and Garrett
3.2.3 Formal Elements of Melancholy
In a review for the Washington Post, Ron Charles describes Eowyn Ivey’s first novel “The Snow Child” as “a captivating mix of melancholy and whimsy” (Charles), but what exactly qualifies it as a representative of melancholic literature? To answer this question I will start by looking at what melancholy has been defined as throughout the centuries, which means looking at the different theories of its causes, the symptoms and also, possible cures. After having done so, I will examine Ivey’s text in close comparison to these results and identify the commonalities along with the differences. In the process, I will go into detail by analyzing the different characters of the novel and their individual state of mind, as well as the symbolism of the text in order to clarify how “The Snow Child” as a whole can be seen as a prime example of modern melancholy in literature.
2. The History of Melancholy
2.1 The Medical Foundation
From an early age on people have tried to explain the causes of melancholy. One of the first one’s was the explanation through the doctrine of the four humours: black bile, phlegm, yellow/red bile and blood, which according to past conceptions “controlled the whole existence and behavior of mankind and […] determined the character of the individual” (Klibansky, Panofsky und Saxl).
The basics of this theory go back to three ancient principles, which first of all include the “search for simple primary elements or qualities [to explain] the complex and apparently irrational structure” (ebd.) of the human body and mind, as well as the universe as a whole. The second principle deals with the human craving “to find numerical expressions” (ebd.) for these structures in order to simplify and influence them. Finally, the third argument is “the theory of harmony, symmetry and isonomy […] to express that perfect proportion” (ebd.) concerning every single part of life.
Especially the second principle can be found in the Pythagorean philosophy, which regards to the numerical description of things by focusing on the number four, which in their opinion held “’the root and source of eternal nature’” (ebd.) as especially significant. This believe applied to general, as well as the human nature, which “seemed to be governed by four principles, located in the brain, the heart, the navel and the phallus” (ebd.). Respectively, the four elements earth, fire, water and air, as well as the seasons summer, winter, spring and autumn fell into this theory.
The Pythagorean number symbolism was later on “transformed into a doctrine of the cosmic elements” (ebd.). In order to interpret these elements in terms of quality they were linked to the correlating parts of the human body to which later on real liquid substances were assigned.
Empedocles then developed a doctrine of pairing the “’four roots of the All’ with for specific cosmic entities – the sun, the earth, the sky and the sea” (Klibansky, Panofsky und Saxl ebd.). While all of them were of equal value and power, their combination governed the individual aspects of life and character. If all entities were equally proportioned in a certain part of the body the combination was considered perfect resulting in specific talents of the individual. As soon as the number of atoms of a certain element was higher than the other though, it could lead to illness, which was tried to cure by applying specific nourishment and thereby, feeding the body what it was supposedly missing to re-establish the balance.
Another category the four seasons have been matched with is the one of “the Four Ages of Man” (ebd.); boyhood, youth, manhood and old age, to which later certain features were assigned. Although these attributions differed, the leading one paired childhood with phlegmatic character, youth with sanguinity, the prime of life with a choleric nature and old age with melancholy.
The connection between the “purely medical notion and the Platonic conception of frenzy” has been explained in Aristotle’s “Problem XXX”, in which the consumption of wine is linked to the melancholy state, because alcohol stands for heat and generating air just like the humour and the temperament of melancholy.
Because air can become hot, as well as cold depending on the external influences, black bile can either result in paralysis, depression or anxiety when the body is cold, or produce cheerfulness and ecstasy when overheated.
Applied to a person’s character cold bile leads to “dull and stupid” (ebd.) minds, whereas hot bile results in people being “elated and brilliant or erotic or easily moved to anger and desire” (ebd.).Hence, persons that are stirred by black bile tend to regularly fluctuate in their behavior.
In particularly serious cases, if the black bile is very cold it produces irrational dejection resulting in suicide. This happens especially with men who often “put an end to themselves after drunkenness” (ebd.).
2.2 Medieval Melancholy
Medieval Acedia, as defined by Evagrius Ponticus, mainly differed from the conventional notion of melancholy in two aspects. First of all, it was seen as a completely negative condition without any positive features to it. The second difference was that it was only afflicting monks as in contrast to “normal people” (Ponticus).
Acedia was seen as a sin because first of all it was bad in itself since being a form of sorrow which is a sin as well and furthermore, because this sorrow was focused on the divine good, which lead to the human mind not being able to appreciate the earthly goods god had given him.
Nonetheless, it was only perceived a deadly sin if the person gave in to the desires linked to it.
The symptoms of Acedia were numerous. They consisted of stretched time spans, an urge to look out of the window, dissatisfaction with the place one was at or the way of life one lived, as well as the manual work practiced. This dissatisfaction led to a longing for a change of location, a lack of sympathy with the brothers and a feeling of abandonment by god which left them feeling hopeless and angry.
To cure this affliction one was invoked to recite certain psalms, as well as to stay strong against the temptations of abandoning the monastery and with it the life devoted to god.
If one got over these phases of suffering though, his “soul [was said to be] taken over by a peaceful condition and by unspeakable joy” (ebd.).
The causes of melancholy as stated by Marsilio Ficino were of three different kinds. The first one was celestial, which referred to the relationship between Saturn and Mercury. The second cause was natural and involved the collection from circumference to center and the fixation in the center of body and mind. These were features that were inherent to the Earth as well as black bile. The third cause of melancholy was said to be human and was explained by the mind being dried up by its agitation. The dispersion then travelled through the blood towards stomach and liver and additionally caused digestion problems.
The main symptom, though, was “interior darkness much more than exterior [that overcame] the soul with sadness and [terrified] it” (Ficino).
According to Ficino, there were two different kinds of melancholy, the first one being natural and the second one by adustion. Even though, both forms resulted in melancholy, only natural melancholy lead to judgment and wisdom, while the other made “people stolid and stupid” (ebd.). Another effect of this combustion was a “great tendency towards [extremes]” (ebd.), which could either result in boldness and ferocity when in a hot environment or fear and cowardice when being confronted with cold.
The causes of medieval melancholy were numerous. Sexual intercourse, for example, was considered to “drain the spirits, […] weaken the brain, and  ruin the stomach and the heart” (ebd.). Satiety in wine and food was to be avoided, because it “fill[ed] the head with humours and very bad fumes [and because] drunkenness [made] men insane [while recalling] all the power […] to the stomach” (ebd.). Also, scholars were requested to avoid sleeping in to profit from the appearance of certain planets in the morning and the profitable quality of the air which “[was] stirred, rarified, and clear” (ebd.). Additionally, it was assumed that the blood was moving and ruling in the morning and that “the spirits characteristically imitate[d] and follow[ed] the blood” (ebd.). Therefore, the day was attached to wakefulness and the night to rest.
2.2 Female Melancholy
While the traditional medical definition of melancholy as well as Medieval Acedia were solely attached to the male gender, an elementary change took place at the end of the 17th century in England.
It was a time of immense social and scientific eruption in which especially the conventional medical doctrine of the four humours underwent a radical shift. It was replaced by new theories on the central nervous system and its distinct disorders, such as melancholy, hysteria and hypochondria by Thomas Willis and Thomas Sydenham which were eagerly discussed in scientific circles. This change did not only influence the view on medical subjects in general, but specifically “the way in which women were perceived” (Blackmore).
While before the 18th century, women were hardly ever diagnosed with melancholy the numbers of diagnoses went up after the turn of century. Women were even perceived as “predestined victims of melancholy [because] kind nature ha[d] given them a finer and more delicate constitution of body, being designed for an easier life” (Sydenham). But instead of assigning positive effects of melancholy like genius to the female gender these latest medical explanations were used to justify “traditional gender hierarchies and ensuring the sociocultural subordination of woman” (Blackmore) by pathologising them as being hysterical and melancholic-depressive.
This status-quo took a turn in the beginnings of the 18th century when a couple of female poets, such as Anne Finch, Elizabeth Carter and Charlotte Smith, found a way to use melancholy, despite its negative undertone, to develop a literary female identity. Instead of being associated with ilness and social repression they succeeded in transforming it into “poetic inspiration and introspection” (ebd.).
2.4 Romantic Melancholy
According to Muhammad Naeem “Melancholy is one of the inevitable products of the typical romantic temper” and therefore, can be found in many works of this literary era.
Aside from personal factors like sickness, an unhappy marriage or social isolation, most romantic poets, like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, George Gordon Byron, only suffered from “'occasional fits of melancholia by the inherent quality of their creed” (Naeem). Their romantic approach to life left them stranded between hope and despair. All of them basically could be identified as optimists which was the basis for them even being able to experience moments of despair.
Nonetheless, Romantic melancholy is essentially different from other kinds of melancholy based on the absence of profound pessimism which is due to the fact that the Romantic poet inherited a “deterministic conception of the universe [which lacked a] persistent interest in the themes of decay and fatality and their appurtenances” (ebd.).
Therefore, Romantic melancholy was considered a result of moments of depression implicit in almost every optimistic philosophy.
It was caused by the poet’s casual, but shattering awareness of the insuperable cleft between the world of reality and their imagination. In addition, this form of melancholy had its roots in the understanding of the futility of the realization of the poet’s visionary projects.
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- Jessica Fowler (Autor), 2014, Eowyn Ivey’s "The Snow Child". An Example of Melancholy in Modern Literature, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/293662