Study Guide

The White Darkness Themes

  • Man vs. Nature

    Ah, man vs. nature—a classic literary theme. Man's struggle for survival against the elements is perhaps never felt so keenly as in the frozen desert of Antarctica. Even Sym, who finds the snowy landscape beautiful and fascinating, knows enough to be afraid of Mother Nature's deadly force. She seems to sense its hostility from the plane before they even land, and from there it only gets worse. Sym comes thisclose to death at least a half dozen times. She makes it—barely—but, alas, many of her travel companions do not. In The White Darkness, nature stands more than a fighting chance.

    Questions About Man vs. Nature

    1. Do you think Victor is respectful toward nature? What about Sym? Do you think these attitudes are connected to their fates in the story?
    2. What do you think of Sym's survival skills? Are you impressed, or could they use some work?
    3. Describe a moment in which Antarctica is something other than hostile (for example, friendly, forgiving, or indifferent) toward Sym or another character. How does this impact your understanding of the setting?

    Chew on This

    In the battle between man and nature in The White Darkness, nature is the ultimate winner.

    In the battle between man and nature in The White Darkness, man is the ultimate winner.

  • Madness

    To loosely quote the Cheshire Cat, most everyone is mad here. At just fourteen, Sym has had to deal with more than her fair share of people who are off their rockers in The White Darkness. Haunted by the memory of her father, who went mad before he died, Sym sometimes worries she's losing her mind. (Admittedly, she does have an imaginary friend, but she understands he's not real.) What she should be worried about is Uncle Victor, who is off his rocker and taking her farther and farther from civilization every second.

    Questions About Madness

    • At what point did you realize that Uncle Victor was out of his mind? Identify the passage and then dissect it to explain why this was when you knew.
    • Why do you think it takes Sym so long to recognize Victor's insanity? Back your answer up with evidence from the text.
    • Why doesn't Sym care when Sigurd accuses her of being crazy? How does Sym relate to madness?

    Chew on This

    Victor's insanity intensifies as he thinks he's getting closer to Symmes's Hole.

    Victor's descent into madness isn't inevitable; Sym could have stopped it if she'd tried.

  • Loneliness

    There are no two ways about it: Sym is a very lonely young woman in The White Darkness. She has, like, two friends, one of whom she doesn't even like. It's not that she's a social outcast or anything; Sym's just an introvert who's going through a difficult patch in life. Her father died recently, and she feels out of step with her age group because she's not that into dating yet. On top of all that she's partially deaf (even with hearing aids), which can be isolating. The desolate Antarctic landscape suits her temperament—and also serves as a symbol for her solitude.

    Questions About Loneliness

    1. Do you think that Sym will make more friends once she returns from Antarctica? Why or why not?
    2. On some level, does Sym enjoy her loneliness? Explain your answer using evidence from the text.
    3. Do you think Sym would feel just as isolated if she were blind instead of deaf? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The isolation Sym and her mother experience after Sym's father's death opens them to being victimized by Uncle Victor.

    Sigurd Bruch preys on Sym more easily because of her solitude.

  • Sex and Sexuality

    Like a lot of teenagers going through puberty, Sym finds sex to be a source of much angst—not because she wants to have it, but because she doesn't. Or at least that's how she feels at the beginning of The White Darkness. Over the course of the book, she seems to warm to the idea. She shares her first kiss with Sigurd, and even considers having sex with him. In the end she doesn't go through with it, which is probably for the best; her imaginary boyfriend Titus would probably have been jealous, plus Sigurd is totally pulling a fast one on her.

    Questions About Sex and Sexuality

    1. Why does Sym think Titus is the ultimate boyfriend?
    2. Why do you think Maxine teases Sym about her sexuality (or lack thereof)?
    3. Do you think Sigurd ever really cares for Sym? Or does he just put the moves on Sym as a means to an end? How can you tell?

    Chew on This

    Sym thinks Titus is the ultimate boyfriend because he's unattainable.

    In The White Darkness, sex (or the idea of sex) is wielded as a weapon.

  • Mortality

    Like Antarctica, Sym's heart is a veritable graveyard in The White Darkness. She is haunted by three central deaths: her father's, Titus's, and the prospect of her own, which seems increasingly likely as she navigates the treacherous landscape (the first two occur before the story begins). As the story progresses, the body count racks up to include a nameless journalist, Manfred Bruch, and Victor.

    Sym's struggle to come to terms with all this loss is mirrored in her final face-off with the elements. As she struggles through wind and snow, Titus forces her to face what happened to him: "OATES IS GONE! His body was food for the leopard seals and the crabs" (21.93). This helps Sym realize how much she wants to live just in the nick of time.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Whose death seems to weigh most heavily on Sym: her father's, her uncle's, or the prospect of her own? Explain your answer.
    2. Why do you think Sym didn't kill Uncle Victor? Back your answer up with proof from the text.
    3. How does Sym come to terms with her father's death? Be specific, please.

    Chew on This

    Sym learns a great deal about life—including how much she values it—when she is faced with the prospect of her own death.

    Sym's experience in Antarctica helps her come to terms with her father's death.

  • Versions of Reality

    Sym knows her imaginary friend, Titus, isn't real, but talking to him helps her hide from the hard reality of her loneliness and her father's death. Sometimes, when faced with serious trauma, she retreats even further into her imagination, resorting to pure fantasy. Make believe may sound like a childish form of play, but for Sym it's serious business—a matter of survival, even. When she almost dies in the snow, these versions of reality collide as Titus makes her confront the fact of his death, which happened a century before.

    Is this reckoning what saves her? Does Sym's imagination come to the rescue again? Or is it just possible that her savior Titus is, on some level, real? The White Darkness leaves this pretty open, so over to you, Shmooper.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. Sym has an imaginary friend, Titus. Is she using a healthy coping mechanism? Or is it a dangerous retreat into fantasy? Explain your reasoning using evidence from the text.
    2. Do you think there's any possibility that the "real" Titus saves Sym? Or is he a pure figment of her imagination? Why?
    3. Is there a reality in which Victor is a loving uncle instead of a psychotic murderer? Can he be both of these things at once? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Sym has a strong hold on reality and uses her vivid imagination to better understand the world around her.

    Sym has a loose hold on reality, and her vivid imagination is a liability that makes her confuse fact and fiction.

  • Deception

    Whoa boy—the characters in The White Darkness are guilty of telling some real whoppers. Among the most egregious are Manfred and Sigurd Bruch, who are con men posing as Vikings, and Victor, who is a horrible nightmare person posing as a caring uncle. While Sym is our hero, she's guilty of telling lies, too. She constantly tries to trick herself into believing people are trustworthy when she knows full well they aren't. Why does she feel the need to lie to herself in this way? Is the reason behind it more understandable and noble than the lies the other characters tell?

    Questions About Deception

    1. What is the most devastating deception described in the novel? Explain your answer.
    2. Do you think Victor realizes his deceptions are wrong? Or would he say the end justifies the means?
    3. Who is the biggest deceiver in the book? Explain your choice.

    Chew on This

    Sym is deceived by a lot of people, but above all, she's guilty of deceiving herself.

    In the world of The White Darkness, no one can be trusted. People are inherently untrustworthy.

  • Exploration

    Would you believe that a novel about Antarctica explores the theme of exploration? Yeah, of course you would. It almost seems mandatory. There are two main types of exploration in The White Darkness: physical (regular old walking around-type stuff) and emotional (a.k.a. feelings). Sym is much better at the former; she can get around fine by land. It's more difficult for her to explore her emotions, which seem like more treacherous territory. By the end of the book, she's explored plenty of both, though, and seems wiser for it. Phew.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. Do you think Sym ever believes in Symmes's Hole? Or does she go on the expedition with Uncle Victor for other reasons? If so, what are they?
    2. What seems more important in The White Darkness: the exploration of the external world or the exploration of internal emotions?
    3. Why do you think Sym identifies with dead explorers from the early 20th century? Bust out evidence from the text to support your claim.

    Chew on This

    In the world of The White Darkness, exploration is a difficult and fulfilling pursuit.

    In the world of The White Darkness, exploration is a difficult and empty pursuit.