Weather isn’t just for scientists. Climate has always played an important symbolic role in literature, and many writers use the close relationship of psychology and weather to tell their stories. Cold and lonely? Warm and amorous? Stormy and scared? Sunny and happy? Moods and weather go together like peanut butter and jelly.
This year in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve been lucky enough to escape most of the painfully hot summer across the rest of the United States. We did, however, get our taste of heat this past week with a short but record-breaking heat wave, and for the many of us that don’t have air conditioners, the days were miserable. In my third trimester of twin pregnancy, I was near delirious and flashing back to books that sympathized with my situation. So, in honor of the August heat, here’s a list of titles that come to mind. I’m sure I’m missing a lot of good ones though, so will you share your additions in the comments?
Heat Wave by Eric Klinenberg: If you’re looking for nonfiction, this book revisits the events of July 13, 1995, when the temperature in Chicago reached 106 degrees. What was originally predicted as a two-day heat wave went on for a week, and by then, the city was in acute distress. Streets had buckled, records for use of electricity were shattered, and power grids had failed. Some people went without electricity for up to two days. Over seven hundred people died, making the incident one of the deadliest in American history. The reasons behind the number of deaths and the tragic ways they occurred during the 1995 Chicago heat wave were eye-opening. If you’re curious why, this book is a good place to start because it examines the social and political foundations of the city that made this urban disaster so much worse than it ought to have been.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: A classic summertime novel, The Great Gatsby uses weather to set the tone in many of its key scenes. The heat becomes oppressive during the climactic chapter 7, when Tom, Daisy, Nick, Jordan, and Gatsby head to the city as the tension increases in their relationships. Nick describes the day as “broiling, almost the last, certainly the warmest of the summer.” Daisy complains, “It’s so hot, and everything’s so confused.” The oppressive heat becomes a symbol for the oppressive situation, and, as in many novels, represents a kind of hell. As the temperature rises, both Gatsby’s aspirations with Daisy and Myrtle Wilson’s infidelity come to a boiling point.
Atonement by Ian McEwan: Atonement begins on a summer day in 1935 with the characters coping in a stifling heat. Briony decides to put on a play, Mrs. Tallis rests in her bedroom, and others go for a swim. The heat is making everyone restless and impatient. Their discomfort evokes feelings that seem to throw good judgment out the window, making their actions that much more weighted. Cecelia’s and Robbie’s relationship intensifies and Briony’s imagination runs wild with the weather, leading to consequences that will play a huge role in all of their destinies.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding: After a nuclear war lands the boys on a deserted island, the warm weather contributes to their initial impression that they’ve landed in a tropical paradise. But as the dynamics take a turn for the worse, the heat increases, once again paralleling the oppression of the situation. By chapter 4, the heat is no longer a good thing, and neither is their predicament.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel: Everything is on the verge of boiling in this romantic tale filled with magical realism, from the weather to the food to Tita’s passionate heart. Heat is a major theme, and it’s no coincidence that fire plays such a big role in the way the story plays out.