Study Guide

The White Darkness Quotes

  • Man vs. Nature

    An hour later, the plane collided with some invisible barrier and dropped through the air. Cold engulfed the cabin. We had crossed the Antarctic Circle, and it was as solid a thing as an electric fence. (6.32)

    Since an electric fence is built to keep living things out, we get the strong sense that the Antarctic Circle is not a friendly place.

    I know the whole continent would kill us if it could once sink its teeth into us. […] And yet I've never seen anywhere so beautiful, so marvelous. (7.17)

    Sym loves Antarctica despite the fact that it's a hostile place. Perhaps this has something to do with that fact that she's had so many hostile people close to her in her life—you know, like her dad and Victor.

    Mike was bright with reassurance. Bacteria could not survive here, so it could not be an infection. Here even the common cold germ is put to flight by the uncommon cold. (9.38)

    Is it reassuring when bacteria can't survive somewhere? Or is it just disturbing? Germs may make things difficult for people, but when germs can't survive, you know the environment isn't friendly to people, either.

    The weather was trying as hard as we were to rub out what had happened. Or was it trying to expunge us: us puny, noisy, troublesome, destructive interlopers? (10.119)

    Expunge means erase or remove. The huge expanses of white snow are a blank slate of sorts—and the continent seems to want to remain unmarred.

    Actually, he was probably better off not knowing what kind of terrain we must have skirted or hopped over on the way down from Camp Aurora; how deadly and reckless our passage must have been once the guidance flags petered out. (11.44)

    Sym and her companions aren't just skating on thin ice; they are speeding across ice in a vehicle that weighs, like, two tons. Maybe a bad idea. The disappearance of those guidance flags is a sign Sym and co. are in no-man's land.

    So when he turned his ankle on the treacherous blocks of ice, it was easy to read it in his face: how it felt to break a bone. (14.105)

    Breaking a bone never feels good. But you know where it feels especially bad? In the frozen desert, which will kill you. There's pain, and then there's pain that ushers in certain death. Ouch.

    In Antarctica, in the cold, wounds don't heal, they reopen. It's Nature in reverse. (17.2)

    Imagine a place so unnaturally cold it can turn a scar into a living wound. Just when we thought we generally knew how our bodies worked, nature had to come along and upend everything.

    They say The Ice tries to break a man open and reduce him to the essence. Won't find anything inside me, eh, Titus? (19.2)

    Hey, it's fine to break open a walnut. But a person? That just seems rude.

    The effect is the same up here—polar asthma. The air is thin, the pressure is low, and each breath has only half the oxygen in it. Your pulse races and your heart thumps like a person trying to get out of a sealed coffin. (19.20)

    This sounds kind of like drowning in a way, doesn't it? Unable to breathe properly, frantic, and all that good stuff. Note that a person trying to get out of a sealed coffin isn't dead… yet.

    It's so intent on being pure that it spits out everything living, everything that's ever been alive! (21.95)

    People are often very cruel to the environment. What happens when the environment is cruel to you? Spoiler alert: A lot of the time, it knocks you down and you never get back up.

  • Madness

    He does hate mobile phones, I know—says they interfere with signals in the brain. […] Grudgingly he passed me the phone and the attachment he'd invented to protect his brain from it—a plastic funnel with the spout cut out. (3.20)

    Very early in the book, we readers begin to suspect that Uncle Victor is absolutely cuckoo. It takes Sym a lot longer to come around to the idea, though—not because she's mad, too, but because girl lives in major denial.

    The two halves of the mobile phone had come apart, spilling the SIM card out of its slot. Victor picked it up and, with the air of a naughty schoolboy, tipped back his head, opened his mouth, and dropped the SIM card into his gullet […]. (3.75)

    Sym laughs her head off when Uncle Victor eats his SIM card. But there's something disturbing about this scene. Responsible guardians don't usually destroy their mobile phones before a big trip, right?

    This lion-maned Viking…was actually in awe of a cuddly Yorkshireman who favors nightshirts and for years has collected, in a Jacobs Cream Cracker tin under the bed, the pith of all the oranges he eats. (8.14)

    A tin of orange piths under the bed is not exactly a hallmark of mental health. Is Uncle Victor a harmless hoarder? Or is this a sign of something more sinister? We're thinking it's the latter.

    I did not want to remember: Dad drinking his way through the Christmas wine, the chocolate liqueurs, the cider vinegar. Trying to drown the rats he said were nesting in his skull. (10.39)

    Sym's dad went mad before his death and it seems like it was a pretty brutal descent to witness. Of course, it turns out he was being poisoned by Uncle Victor, not losing his mind organically.

    It was crammed with page after page of mathematical calculations […]. The writing, sprawling at the start, became smaller and smaller from page to page, as if Victor realized he might run out of space. (10.85)

    Uh-oh. A diary filled with tiny writing and weird calculations? Classic mental health crisis accessory. But when Sym finds it among Uncle Victor's things, she doesn't seem too alarmed.

    I've often wondered: Is madness hereditary? Or can you catch it from dirty toilet seats? (11.2)

    Haunted by her father's break with reality—he lost his mind before he died—Sym sometimes questions her own sanity. Seems like a perfectly reasonable concern.

    "So you poisoned them," I said, trying to sound as if the logic of it was plain for all to see. (15.33)

    Uncle Victor isn't just mad; he's also a murderer. Sym realizes she needs to be careful in questioning him. Who knows how he'll respond…

    "To my way of thinking, their science will be more advanced. Politics, too. Meritocracy, wouldn't be surprised. If my projections are right, it won't be a bad place to raise nippers." (18.52)

    When Victor tells Sym he wants her to live among the alien race that's indigenous to the other world within their world, she is… skeptical. And alarmed. And alone with him in the middle of nowhere. Gulp.

    Victor believes in it because he wants it so much to be there. He's mad. He probably has been mad for years. (19.90)

    Sym finally admits, without qualification, that Victor is bananas. It's about time. Unfortunately for Sym, he hasn't just been mad for years—he's been an influential figure in her life for years, too. Which means she's been told a whole heap of nonsense.

  • Loneliness

    She and I sit down at the computer every evening, like spiritualists at a séance, and check for messages from friends we don't have, family we don't possess. (3.45)

    This is a window into Sym's life with her mother. Sounds a little lonely, no? Here we thought one was the loneliest number, but peering in on these two makes two look pretty lonely, too.

    I like people. I like watching them. It's just that I'd prefer to do it from a mile away using very powerful binoculars. (5.55)

    Sym is shy and introverted. She finds being around other people to be difficult and exhausting. That doesn't mean she doesn't like other people, though.

    "This place, I just miss everyone and everything like I'll go crazy if I don't see them right now." (10.11)

    Mimi Dormiere-St.-Pierre feels lonely in Antarctica, which seems about right. Sym doesn't. Or maybe she does feel lonely, but she doesn't find that to be a bad thing.

    There was a feeling that everything would be all right if only the plane came, offering an escape route; if only they were no longer totally alone at the bottom of the world. (10.62)

    The Antarctic explorers do indeed feel cheered when the plane arrives. However, they feel decidedly bummed after it explodes. Nothing screams isolation like being stranded in the middle of nowhere.

    And since the electrical feedback stopped me from using my hearing aids, I was sealed inside my own personal silence as well. (11.15)

    In this instance, Sym can't hear because of feedback. But this passage provides insight into how her near-deafness is isolating. In this moment, she's in the middle of nowhere and can't hear.

    At home there is nowhere you can stand—the playground, the garden, the high street—and not hear the drone of an airplane. But here in Antarctica it is the rarest of sounds. (11.68)

    There's a lot of background noise in daily life that provides an auditory reminder that you're around other people. You take it for granted until you're some place quiet like the woods—or, you know, Antarctica.

    "Don't struggle! Keep still!" I said, knowing he wouldn't understand me. Never could, never will be able to make myself understood. A goldfish speaking gibberish, that's me. (16.6)

    Sym sometimes feels isolated because of her hearing loss, but she also feels isolated because she can't articulate the ideas that are in her head. She constantly feels misunderstood.

    In fact my Titus never existed. Just a pretend friend. Just someone I invented, out of loneliness. (19.89)

    Sym rarely feels alone because she always has someone to talk to: Titus, her imaginary friend. He's pretty good company for someone who doesn't really exist.

    It's true: Everyone needs a reason to stay alive—someone who justifies your existence. Someone who loves you. (21.68)

    Sometimes Sym feels like Titus, her imaginary friend, is the only person in the world who loves her. So when she finds out her father really loved her—she always assumed that he didn't—it's really important.

    There is a hollow inside me big enough for twelve nesting planets and as cold as Outer Space. (22.46)

    Sym has compared her interior landscape to Antarctica and outer space. So, um, just in case you didn't get the memo, she's a little bit lonely.

  • Sex and Sexuality

    "How many boys have you snogged?" There is no right answer. You say "none" and you're sad and frigid…. You refuse to answer and you are sadder still […]. (1.13)

    From early in the book, we understand that Sym feels out of step with her peers when it comes to developing an interest in boys. Her lack of interest is a source of isolation for her.

    Why is it that all the words to do with sex are ugly? Words to do with love aren't. No wonder Titus thought women were a nuisance. (1.14)

    Is "snog" an ugly word? Or is it that Sym finds sex to be ugly for some reason? It isn't clear, so we'll let you mull that one over for yourself.

    I could feel my cheeks burning, my guts churning. What's wrong with me? Is there something wrong with me? (1.76)

    Sym worries that her lack of interest in boys is a deficiency or a problem, and she longs to be just like everyone else. Growing up definitely isn't easy, and being yourself can be so hard.

    Then he kissed me on the mouth and told me again not to tell my mother. (9.65)

    Sym and Sigurd sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. Oh, and BTW, this is Sym's first kiss. While Sym totally doesn't notice it, Sigurd's using kissing as a way to make sure she doesn't call her mom. Ugh.

    While we kissed, I couldn't quite help thinking, "Well, that's my diploma in Kissing out of the way." […] I'm not sure kissing ought to be a thinking kind of pastime. (10.57-10.58)

    Though Sym seems to be maturing, she's still very self-conscious. She's also ambivalent about kissing, which isn't as all-consuming as she expected it to be—she can totally still think about other things while locking lips.

    What nursery am I locked in that I can't get out and go downstairs and join in the grown-up games? Can't want to join in? Am I like those poor kids who wait and wait for their growth spurt and it never comes? (12.93)

    Worse than the realization that she's not interested in sex is the concern that she may never be interested in sex. Sym just wants to be like everyone else. Fun fact: Plenty of people aren't interested in sex and lead totally happy lives.

    This was what I wanted: the quaint, chivalric chastity of my beloved Edwardian. . . (12.99)

    Part of the reason Sym sees Titus as a good love interest is the fact that he's unavailable. For one thing, he's dead. But even when he was alive, he was from a more laced-up culture.

    How do you do it in the Antarctic is this: First you have to take off your overmitts, then your big jacket, then your quilted shell jacket, then your fleece jacket and glove liners, your neck gaiter and body bib […]. (18.10)

    Sex scenes in Antarctica are decidedly not hot. Which isn't exactly surprising, given the environment.

    "Wow! God, I'm sorry! Fourteen! God! All the men at Aurora were trying to pluck up the nerve to ask you out." (23.56)

    Even though Sym feels immature on the inside, it sounds like she is perceived by others as totally dateable. Interesting, right? What do you make of this disconnect? Does it change your assessment of Sym at all?

    "Keep in touch, won't you?" I say. "I'm planning on being older in a year or two." (23.61)

    Sym's flirting here, so ooh la la. Seems like all that worrying was for nothing—she's maturing just like everyone else, after all. Everyone develops at their own pace, yo.

  • Mortality

    "Up to a point I was very fit… until death set in. Death is inclined to undermine one's fitness." (1.55)

    Titus has a really deadpan sense of humor. Because he's dead. Get it? Ba dum tssshh. (Sorry, we couldn't resist.)

    And then the phone rang.

    And it was Mum to say that Dad had died. (2.12-2.13)

    Sym spends much of the book trying to work through her feelings about her father's death, even as she's faced with the prospect of her own. Death is a near-constant presence for her.

    The timing of the two things—Dad's death, Oates's arrival in my head—suddenly tripped me up, and my concentration faltered […]. (10.39)

    Sym describes her imaginary friend Titus as her love interest. But he's also a father figure who "came to life" on the same day as her father's death. It's probably best not to think too hard on the love interest/father figure thing.

    "Still startling, though. In the end. When Death won't take no for an answer." (10.146)

    Titus is often flippant when he speaks to Sym about his own death, but here he shows a more serious side. Notice that "Death" is personified here—it "won't take no for an answer" just like your mom.

    Suddenly the lack of gloves made Bruch real again—flesh-and-blood real, not a character in a play, not an object of disgust, but someone who had given Sigurd his first acting job, his big break, his first script. (15.22)

    Until they learn Manfred was poisoned, Sym and Sigurd assume he will die of exposure. Thinking of his uncovered hands is almost too much to bear because it makes his death seem all the more real.

    "I've been easing him out of the picture ever since we left base camp! A little something toxic in every hot drink he drank. I just made the last one plenty strong." (15.26)

    Victor's manner here is so nonchalant, he might as well be talking about the weather. Of course, he's not; he's talking about murdering Manfred Bruch. So it goes with Victor.

    "I'll help you kill him, if you like," said Sigurd when I told him about Victor murdering my father. (18.1)

    For a time, Sigurd and Sym plan to murder Victor. Ultimately, they're unable to follow through with the plan, though—murder isn't quite as easy as Victor makes it seem. Who'd've thought?

    Maybe Victor's right! Never say die! If Victor's right, there's a chance we won't. Die, I mean. (19.62)

    Spoiler alert: Victor is not right. But despite this, Sym does not die. Phew.

    Dark takes him in the blink of an eye. (20.72)

    R.I.P. Uncle Victor, who died as he lived: doing something super ridiculous, in this case, forcing himself through a crack in the ice. You do you, Victor; you do you.

    "Ah! That's Death for you," he says, with a twitch of the nose, dipping his eyes in embarrassment. "Does wonders for a man's reputation, don't you know." (21.15)

    One of the great ironies about (the real) Titus is that he was only famous in death. Had he survived his plight, no one would know his name.

  • Versions of Reality

    I watched so intently—concentrated so hard—that there was no sofa, and no screen…no whine from the fridge or thump from the central heating. And it became real. So real. So real. So real. So real. So real. (2.5)

    When Sym's father is dying, she fully immerses herself in the world of a TV show and one of the characters—Titus—becomes real to her. Or something like real, anyway.

    I like to do my dreaming when I'm awake; but I didn't say so, because that would sound loopy. (4.52)

    Sym is a champion daydreamer, perhaps to a fault. Sometimes she's more interested in what's going on inside her own head than the world around her. She senses not everyone would understand this, though, so she keeps it to herself.

    Titus never says anything that I don't, in my heart of hearts, already know. (9.70)

    The thing is, Titus does say some things that Sym doesn't know. So what does that mean? Could he be real? Could Sym just forget some of what she knows? What is going on here?

    Sometimes I'm not me at all, you know? Sometimes, when I need to get away farther than usual, I'm Florence Chambers. (11.98)

    Sometimes it's not enough for Sym to talk to her imaginary friend. Sometimes reality is so difficult that she has to pretend to be someone else entirely. Poor girl.

    This isn't somewhere that you can trust what your eyes are telling you. Maybe Manfred had simply taken a minute or two to comprehend the danger of a naked flame. Or perhaps he had just been teasing. (12.7)

    The thing is, Sym's instinct is totally correct in this instance: Manfred was not confused or teasing; he was definitely thinking about committing murder.

    After Bruch's confession, it should not have surprised me that Sigurd came from Norwich and not from Norway. Yet I had no end of trouble separating him from the tissue of lies he had come wrapped in. (15.5)

    Why do you think Sym has trouble accepting the fact that Sigurd is a con man? Is she genuinely confused? Or does she simply not want to believe it?

    Also, since belief is optional in these parts, I'm choosing not to believe in the cut in my leg. This is not a good place for getting injured. (18.17)

    Sym's cut definitely exists. Is she living in denial? Or is she simply redirecting her attention since she can't do much about it?

    The mind's a three-ring circus! Music. Lights. Happiness. Wonder. Color. All my life I've gone there when Life got too drab or unkind or lonely or miserable, and it's hardly ever let me down. (22.2)

    Sym daydreams to escape her difficult reality. It's a means of survival, a way of giving herself a boost in order to keep going.

    When the bombs are falling, what's so clever about staying outdoors? Inside my head I've built this air-raid shelter. (22.59)

    Sym's description of her imagination as an air-raid shelter is telling. She daydreams so she can continue living, slipping into her mind when the outside world gets to be more than she can bear.

  • Deception

    "What say we don't tell Lillian, eh? Let's keep it our little secret." (3.34)

    It's one thing when your uncle asks you to keep a second helping of dessert a secret from your mother. A secret trip to Antarctica, though? That's something else entirely—and it's entirely not cool.

    I kept trying to think what I'd say when Victor got back. About finding Mum's passport. Not that he would have taken it on purpose, of course. Of course not. (3.64)

    Sym is trying to tell herself that Victor didn't take her mother's passport on purpose, but she doesn't sound terribly convinced. And with good reason, too; Victor definitely stole her mom's passport.

    All he was sure of was that I shouldn't call my mother. In fact, every time I mentioned wanting to call her, he changed the subject, and that usually involved kissing. (10.57)

    Sigurd isn't really romantically interested in Sym, but he needs to fool her so she doesn't call her mother.

    "Mr. Bruch! Mr. Bruch, sir! Please!" begged Sigurd […]. (11.84)

    Gee, we wonder why Sigurd is calling his father "Mr. Bruch." Oh wait—no we don't. It's definitely because Manfred isn't Sigurd's father. Duh.

    "Except for a certain incontinuity of dialect," said Titus, but I shut my ears to him. (12.66)

    When "Titus"—a.k.a. Sym's alter ego—says something unpleasant, she tries to ignore it. This may be the biggest evidence of the extent to which Sym deceived herself: She knows Titus is a figment of her imagination and only knows what she knows, and yet she ignores him anyway.

    Thinking about it, I'd never once heard Sigurd and Manfred talk to each other in anything other than English. (13.33)

    Q: How many red flags will Sym ignore before she realizes that Sigurd and Manfred aren't who they say they are? A: A lot. Like, a lot. Denial isn't just a river in Egypt.

    "I'm sorry to break it to you, Victor, old man," he said loudly, calling from where he sat on the metal steps, "but I'm afraid I've been keeping you short on a few facts." (14.75)

    When Manfred tells Victor he's "been keeping [him] short on a few facts," he means he's been lying his face off. In this regard, Manfred and Victor are kind of a match made in heaven—they both lie constantly.

    "I find an obsessive with money to burn and I take it off him. It's what I do. I'm good!" (14.79)

    Here Manfred finally admits to being a con man. Victor doesn't seem to care, though. Why's that? Oh, because he's been deceiving Manfred all along, too. Go team.

    But he believed me, because he had learned better than to believe his eyes in Antarctica. (15.43)

    In Antarctica, as in life, looks can be deceiving and seeing is not believing.

    There again, everyone's capable of deception; that's another thing I've learned. (19.43)

    It may be a cynical life lesson, but there's definitely some truth to Sym's understanding that "everyone's capable of deception." It takes her long enough to accept, but at least she has the rest of her life before her.

  • Exploration

    Somewhere near here—out on the Barrier or up on the Polar Plateau—lies a geographical soft spot, like that hole in a newborn baby's head. (8.19)

    So Victor is searching for a place called Symmes's Hole. Will he find it? (Ha ha, just kidding—we all know the answer is no.)

    In point of fact I was very glad for someone to talk to about the Great Quest. How would we get there? (10.56)

    To Sym, exploration isn't about finding a leader; it's about companionship. This makes sense when we consider that part of her personal journey is coming to see herself as lovable.

    We are going in search of a hole in the Earth's crust, and if we find it Uncle Victor says no one is going to care about our little truck. (11.2)

    Uncle Victor steals a very expensive vehicle to aid him in his exploration. He downplays the crime and plays up the importance of his exploration, but since pretty much no one but him believes in Symmes's Hole, we're thinking no one's going to be stoked about his theft.

    The twin cones of yellow electric light no longer lit the fog, but it was a small loss. What good is a torch to a blind man? (13.42)

    Driving through Antarctica without headlights is probably a bad idea. Right? Then again, it doesn't seem like they were helping much to begin with.

    Geographers can't map the chaos of the Shear Zone; it is always changing. (14.21)

    Gosh, it's almost as though Antarctica is hard to explore or something. Shmoop doesn't even like driving without GPS, much less unmapped terrain.

    As an afterthought, I went back to the cab and got out two of the ice axes. If we lost our footing on an ice slide or went over the edge of… something… we might need them. (14.37)

    With good reason, Sym feels uneasy about exploring. Nevertheless she seems to be pretty good at it. In fact, she seems better at it than many of her companions.

    "Don't you get it, Briggs? Those coordinates! I made them up! Invented them! Faked it! Listen, Briggs, there are no coordinates!" (14.96)

    When Manfred reveals that he made up the coordinates for Symmes's Hole, we know for sure that Victor's quest has been a wild goose chase. The only person who doesn't realize it is Victor.

    "This happened to Captain Scott, you know? He and Taff Evans. On the first trip, the 1904 trip. They got out fine! Just took a while, that's all!" (16.14)

    Sym constantly makes comparisons between her own situation and her beloved explorers from the early 20th century. She seems to really identify with them; it's as if they're her kin.

    By tonight we'll find Symmes's Hole! We will! We must! This is an adventure! That's what happens in adventures! (19.64)

    Adventures tend to be goal-oriented, right? But there is no Symmes's Hole. So what's the point here, Sym? And why is she still telling herself Symmes's Hole exists? What does this reveal about where she is in her emotional exploration process?

    "I hope he found something. Paradise. At the bottom of the hole. Some kind. Paradise." (21.17)

    Victor never does find Symmes's Hole (you know, because it doesn't exist), but in a way, he still finds what he's looking for: a hole to go down into the earth.