|Leslie Norris: Snowdrops - study guide|
This guide is written for students and teachers who are preparing for GCSE exams in English literature. It contains a detailed study of Leslie Norris's Snowdrops, one of the prose texts in the AQA Anthology, which is a set text for the AQA's GCSE syllabuses for English and English Literature Specification A, from the 2004 exam onwards.
On this page I use brown type where italics would appear in print (in this screen font, italic looks like this, and is unkind on most readers). Headings have their own hierarchical logic, too:
About the author
Snowdrops comes from Collected Stories of Leslie Norris (1996) but first appeared much earlier.
What happens in Snowdrops?
This story is important as much for what we do not learn directly as for the surface narrative. The story appears to be about a boy and his day at school. He goes to a primary school in Wales - in a town that seems like the author's hometown of Merthyr. Apart from a few very specific details that tell us this, the town could be almost anywhere. His teacher has promised the class that they can go outside to look at the snowdrops that are now coming up. While the children are looking at the snowdrops, they can see a funeral procession passing the school. The boys' parents have spoken earlier about a young man, killed in a motorbike accident, and it is his funeral. Evidently the teacher knows this, for she stands watching and crying. The story that Leslie Norris does not tell directly, but tells indirectly by hints and clues, is about the love between the young man who has died and the teacher, Miss Webster.
The themes of this story
The title of the story suggests one of its themes - of course it is about snowdrops literally. But for the reader and for the children in the narrative, snowdrops symbolize the renewal of life that comes in the spring, or perhaps eternal life beyond the grave for those who have died.
We also see, in the contrast of the adult conversation and the viewpoint of the child the idea of childhood and growing up.
There may be other themes, too. Look at the list below, and decide which (if any) of the descriptions you agree with. Or better still, put them in order, according to how strongly you agree or disagree. The story is about:
What other suggestions would you add to this list?
The characters in the story
This story does not have fully developed characters as we might meet in a novel or a play. Not only that, but we seem to be looking outward - the writer does not describe the characters directly. But there are many details that enable us to form a sense of some of them. So who are these characters?
The boy (whose name we do not know) is present throughout the narrative. We see the story through his eyes, though he is not a narrator. We know something of his outlook, therefore and what things matter to him. Here are some of these things:
He takes an interest in everything around him - he notices how his brother, Geraint, plays with his porridge.
He enjoys playing with the other boys. At first he does not understand why Gerald falls over - and only sees what is happening when Edmund points it out. He knows the boys by name (Edmund, Gerald, Bernard) but thinks of the girls collectively.
He wants very much to see the snowdrops - whereas Edmund seems rather unconcerned (having seen some already).
He observes many things but with limited understanding - so he does not know why his parents become secretive about the boy who has been killed, nor why Miss Lewis takes the class instead of Miss Webster.
He already has a sense of masculine pride in being tougher than the girls - so he thinks the boys are more likely to be taken to see the snowdrops if the weather should be cold.
He has a sense of innocent wonder - he is eager to see the snowdrops and looks upon his home town as a place of adventure, because of things like receiving a glass marble and Edmund's finding a running medal. He enjoys drawing a robin and is pleased when Miss Webster pins it up. He also watches his mother's knitting with fascination as the pullover grows behind her fingers. He is fascinated by the unfamiliar taste of his sandwich.
He touches on the adult world of his parents and teachers, but also is at home with his peers, and has a sense of Geraint as much younger.
The boy's friends - Edmund and Gerald
The boy looks up to Edmund, who seems a little more worldly-wise. He asks Edmund what is wrong with Gerald, and seeks his advice on the strange-tasting sandwich. Later the boy gives his mother Edmund's opinion about Miss Webster's injured hand. His mother comments on his admiration for Edmund: "Oh, you and Edmund Jenkins." (Line 140)
Edmund impresses the boy with a joke, and also plays a trick on Gerald. He seems brave because he is ready to speak when he is meant to be silent. Edmund also has less sense of wonder about the snowdrops. Edmund also knows about the death of the Meredith boy, and that the procession is for his funeral
Gerald is more naïve and childlike. He cannot understand why he is falling over. Yet when the boy and Edmund untie his laces, he is not angry but enjoys being able to play freely again.
The boy's family
We see several family members in the story. Both of the boy's parents seem to take an interest in him - his mother in getting him ready for school, and his father in joking with him. His father seems to be the source of information (perhaps from his work) about the funeral of the young man. His mother has more sense that the boy might hear things that are not suitable for him, and warns her husband with a cough and a look.
The parents both express concern for their friends whose son has been killed - the father recognizing that the young man was an only child, and the mother recalling that he was "nice-looking".
We also see three-year-old Geraint as he plays with his porridge - a detail that rings true.
In a way this story is more about Miss Webster than about the boy through whose eyes we see it. Leslie Norris tells us little directly, but much indirectly. Here are a few things that we learn directly about her:
When you have read this list, try to select which are the most important details and what they tell the reader about Miss Webster.
Can you find any other details? We also learn a few things from what people say - the boy's parents discuss her friendship with the young man who was killed, while his mother seems to expect Miss Webster to be absent, as she asks the boy whether she was in school in the morning. Why does his mother think this?
Behind this is another story. We know few details but we can see the important outline - it is a story of unfulfilled love. Since Miss Webster is in school while all the men of the village are able to attend the funeral, we may suppose that she had no official or open relationship with the dead young man - he has taken to the grave any secrets there might have been. But we do not know. There are other questions to which we never know the answer. Perhaps the biggest concerns the relationship - if there was one - between Miss Webster and the Meredith boy. Was it one-way or were her feelings returned?
You might like to think about the way the boy sees her and the way she appears to you as you read the story. The boy is certainly not wrong in what he sees - in fact, he is very attentive and observant. But he does not always understand what it means as an older person would. To take one example of this - he does not seem to notice why Miss Webster has chosen the time to take the class to see the snowdrops. But the reader sees that she has another reason for being in the playground at this time. When she cries, the children become frightened - perhaps because they expect adults not to cry, but to comfort them.
The boy remembers that Miss Webster did not cry when she trapped her finger in the cupboard door. But he does not see, as the reader does, how this shows the difference between physical pain and emotional suffering.
The setting - time and place
The story is set in the valleys of South Wales - once a coal-mining and steel-smelting area. There are a few clues that tell us this:
The boy in the story does not speak Welsh but recognizes it because of his grandmother - this strongly suggests that the story is in South Wales (in the north he would learn Welsh from an early age; in South Wales this might come later).
The boy's father speaks of working in a "rolling mill" - this would be part of a steelworks, like those once found in the valleys of South Wales.
Leslie Norris conveys a sense of a close community, where people know and care about each other. But it is also quite traditional, with clear rôles for men and women - and this excludes Miss Webster from having a more active part in the funeral ceremony for the young man she loves.
More exactly, the story takes us into the places where the boy goes - his home, the streets on the way to school, the classrooms and the playground. There is a very exact portrait in lines 141 to 149: we see the various landmarks. What do these details suggest? Here are a few ideas:
The author tries to show a sense of the boy's wonder at these things, and his expectation of adventure. His idea of adventure may seem very unremarkable to the teenage or grown-up reader - who may not be impressed by the idea of being given a glass marble or finding a silver medal for running. His innocence also appears in his idea that the police give rewards to people who find things and hand them in.
Look at the passage for yourself. Can you see other details that are interesting? What do they suggest to you as you read the story?
Leslie Norris's technique
Maybe the most striking or important thing about this story is the point of view. That is, the author has chosen to tell the story about the boy, though it is Miss Webster to whom the most important event has happened. Or has it? Perhaps what we have here is the full story - which involves both the young teacher and her class - and the boy is best placed to see it all. For example, Miss Webster would not hear the comments made by adults like the boy's parents. Because he is small, people may not notice him and may say or do things they would not do in the presence of adults. An adult might not see all the things that happen in the playground.
The author also presents the reader with things and does not directly explain them. Look at the opening:
"Today Miss Webster was going to show them the snowdrops..."
Immediately we are thinking of questions:
Who is "Miss Webster"? Who are "they"? What is so special about showing snowdrops to "them" on this particular day?
However, we soon see, too, that this is not simply telling a story to the reader - it is a series of events as they appear to the boy. So this opening sentence records his thoughts and expectations.
Although we see the boy's viewpoint directly we see that of other people indirectly - he sees the evidence or hears it. But he often does not know what it means - whereas the reader does. Here is a possible example:
"He had known all the time that Miss Webster would not forget, and at last she was taking him to see the miraculous flowers." (Lines 168 and 169)
He sees that Miss Webster has not forgotten - he is right about that. But does he see why she has made a point of taking the class to see the flowers? What do you think? Here are three possible answers. Decide whether you agree or disagree with them, and how strongly.
We can see, though, that Miss Webster has planned the day in some ways - she reads a story to fit the occasion. But it does not quite fit the time - she does not complete it. This suggests that she is more concerned to see the funeral pass, than to read the story.
Style - grammar (syntax)
The narrative style is vivid and direct - we find lots of sentences that are very simple:
We also find sentences that have a passage of speech followed simply by "said [his mother/Edmund and so on]" or "he asked".
Style - vocabulary
At other points the author uses a vocabulary (lexicon) that suggests the boy's thinking - his sense of wonder at what adults might not notice. We see an example when he tastes the cold bacon and is not sure what it is:
"The taste was incredibly new and marvellous..."
The author makes the boy's wonder appear through his actions. After telling us about how the boy "was incredulous" and says "It can't be", he shows us how the boy "opened the second sandwich to inspect the filling" - suggesting the way children rely on their senses to confirm what people tell them. It is not that he doubts what Edmund has said, as that he wants to see the evidence.
How much of the story is taken up by speech? How does this compare to other stories in the collection? The speech of adults is different from that of the children. The boy speaks simply and enjoys Edmund's pun: "What's the biggest rope in the world? Europe" (Lines 48 and 49.) We get a good illustration of this difference when the boy's mother calls Miss Webster "Poor girl" (Line 135) when he tells her that the teacher did not arrive until playtime.
The mother is thinking about Miss Webster's coming late because of her grief at the death of the young man. But she (the mother) does not see that this may puzzle her son.
The writer suggests this puzzlement with: "He thought about this for a long time." (Line 136)
Trying to work out why his mother says this, eventually the boy thinks it may be because of Miss Webster's physical pain, and says, "She's got a bad hand." (Line 137)
How important is the sense of the cold weather and the early spring in establishing the mood of the story? Would the story work just as well if it were set in midsummer or just before Christmas? Give reasons for your answer.
Symbolism - the snowdrop
This story has a very familiar symbol in it - the snowdrop as an emblem of new life. Throughout the story the author builds up a sense of the boy's expectancy and hope - that is finally rewarded with a sight of the flowers. When this happens, the boy has a very complex experience; he sees the snowdrops, and thinks of them as both resilient and fragile. They look slight, but bend with the wind and survive the very coldest weather. And they come back every year, bringing new life with the spring. There are more passages referring to the snowdrops than you may have time to comment on, but here are a few selected examples.
In each case, try to explain where this extract comes in the story, what it means, and how it affects the way we read the narrative. How does the writer use the image in each case?
Attitudes in the text
In this story we see a range of attitudes - from the boy and his friends, from the adults at home and those at school. These are both about immediate childish concerns, and about very serious things. The story shows the attitudes of Edmund, Gerald and the boy to Edmund's tying Gerald's shoelaces together, and the attitude of a young woman to the death of her lover. There is a mixture of innocent trivial things ands serious matters of life and death.
Attitudes behind the text
How far does the story show (or suggest) assumptions about the world that the author makes? Does the story show a view of the world in which people's roles are determined or influenced by their sex or age or status, for example? (Can we see why Miss Webster cannot attend the young man's funeral?) More positively, does the story present a picture of a real community, where the school is at the centre or heart of everything?
Attitudes in the reader
Can you find any evidence of what Leslie Norris assumes about his readers? One way to check this is to make a list of things you did not at first understand, or which you had to ask about.
If you write (or talk) about this story, try to be aware that it has an author. Suppose that the events in it had really happened. Why would the author choose to relate the things he does, while missing out others?
It is easy to make comparisons in the story. We are led to make comparisons between these things, among others:
Can you think of any others? You can also, of course, compare this story with others that have a similar theme - stories about growing up, gaining independence and leaving home.
Are there any things in the story that are not what they at first seem? Are there situations that are gradually revealed to be other than what first appears?
Readers and reading
Reading the text
Say what you think the story means in a literal sense and in terms of theme, character and setting. Look at details of imagery, language and symbolism.
Reading the author
Try to explain what, in your view, the author wants us to think at various points. In doing this you should refer to his narrative methods.
Reading the reading
Be prepared briefly to explain your own understanding of the story, and how this changes while you are reading it for the first time, and also on subsequent readings, where you notice more details.
Responding to the story
Retelling the story
This story could be retold in other ways.
Nature and symbols
Snowdrops are well known as a symbol of new life. But other natural things are also used commonly to symbolize, or comment on, things that matter to us as people. What do you associate with the things below?
Write your own story or poem(s) using one or more symbols to express an important idea.
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