Myth and Symbols essay: Wintergirls

Award-winning author Laurie Halse Anderson is known for her haunting young adult novels that explore the dark tumult of adolescence. Although her books focus on issues of rape, suicide and anorexia, she weaves classical mythology throughout her work, adding a new dimension to young adult realism.

Wintergirls has been said to be Anderson’s most powerful work, alongside her debut novel Speak. Scratching the surface of Wintergirls we uncover a plethora of metaphorical and lyrical writing. The novel includes two epigrams. One is taken from Sleeping Beauty, the other from Homeric Hymn to Demeter. The latter is an extract talking about Persephone’s fall into the Underworld. The following quote, taken from Anderson’s website, explains Anderson’s approach to writing Wintergirls:

“A few years ago I heard David Almond talk about the need that children have for myth. He said kids with really hard life issues can often see things more clearly in a myth than they can in realistic fiction. His words sparked my desire to use magical realism and myth in Wintergirls.

I struggled for a bit trying to understand the larger story of eating disorders. Then I realized that it was Persephone’s story. Persephone goes into hell and the world plunges into winter because her mother, Demeter, is scouring the earth, trying to figure out how to help her daughter. Everything fit into place for me at that point.”[1]

Firstly, I want to compare Persephone to our protagonist, Lia. As I’m sure you’re aware, Persephone was forced to stay in the Underworld with Hades after eating the seeds of a pomegranate. One of the turning points for Lia is when she binges at a bake sale. Despite her reluctance to eat, Lia succumbs to temptation:

“I take the cupcake guaranteed to taste the worst: pomegranate […] I lick off the seeds and bite […] I hear a door open, but I can’t see it.” [2]

This one cupcake spurs Lia into a mindless binge-session, where she has absolutely no control over her actions, and eats everything she can get her hands on. From here, Lia rapidly spirals further into darkness, her deteriorating mental health consuming her absolutely.

As well as pomegranates, the recurring image of roses is prevalent throughout the novel. In some versions of the Persephone myth, it is a rose – not narcissus – that she plucks, serving as the gateway to the Underworld.

To me, Lia’s failing psychological battle is a great parallel to Persephone’s descent into the Underworld.

The Underworld/Hell may be symbolic of the human psyche. When reading Anderson’s work, it becomes clear that the shackles of the mind (depression, anxiety) are her primary focus. For young people, depression, anxiety, and eating disorders warp the way we think and view the world. The mind becomes an internal, psychological. It is often difficult to liberate ourselves from this debilitating way of thinking, and we become prisoners, much like Persephone.

Lia has a strong connection to the seasons. She met Cassie in the winter of third grade; in the summer they swore sacred oaths to be friends forever, save the planet, and be strong (for Lia, strong becomes a synonym for empty); spring marks a moment of transformation for both girls – Cassie develops breasts, and Lia boldly stands up to her bully. New Seasons is the hospital where Lia is sent during her rehabilitation. At the opening of the novel, she has already been sent and released from New Seasons twice. She is sent back to New Seasons for a third time, and released during autumn.

Winter is a driving force and prominent theme. The novel takes place in the months of November – December, the beginning of winter (in America).Winter symbolizes the perpetual state of frozenness Lia and Cassie are in – stuck between worlds, not really living. “You’re not dead, but you’re not alive. You’re a wintergirl.”[3]

In a way, the girls are frozen in time and this is reflected in the presence of winter in the novel. Physically, Lia is always cold. The main reason for this is her lack of body fat, but it also echoes back to the theme of winter. Lia has put herself in a state of hibernation. She is refusing not just food, but the growth it will provide for her body.

Of course, going back to mythology, Demeter’s grief after losing Persephone puts the world in a frozen state. Lakes freeze over, leaves fall from trees, and nothing is able to be grown or harvested. This was the first winter.

When we think of winter, we see skeletal trees stripped bare of their leaves. There is frailness to nature during winter, and Lia’s thin body is representative of that.

Glass is another huge symbol throughout the novel. The second epigram of the novel comes from Sleeping Beauty. Lia repeatedly talks about a glass box:

“Go Away. Lia needs to sleep for a hundred years in a locked glass box.”[4]

I lie down in a glass-coffin dream where rosebushes climb the walls to weave me a thorny fortress.”[5]

The tale of Sleeping Beauty is of a young princess who falls into a deep slumber when she reaches adolescence. Sleep is just another, more literal, form of hibernation, a stagnation of growth. Lia is rejecting growth and change. Her body is frozen, and she longs to sleep. Lia and Cassie are stuck in limbo, neither one able to transcend to the next level of their lives (or, in Cassie’s case, death). They’re wintergirls, neither living nor dying.

The thing about stories concerning sleep of the underworld, is that it’s not just about the descent. There’s more to the myth than Persephone becoming a prisoner of the underworld, and Sleeping Beauty doesn’t just fall asleep. These are stories about waking up, returning to the world of the living. Persephone returns to the world of the living every year, heralding spring. Sleeping Beauty wakes up and marries her prince. And Lia, by the end of the novel, is on her path to recovery:

“I’m thawing.” [6]

It is Lia’s stepmother, Jennifer, who tells her about Cassie’s death. Jennifer mentions that Lia’s mother wants her to visit with her shrink ASAP; Lia says there’s no point, and continues to unload the dishwasher.

The glasses vibrate with little screams. If I pick them up, they’ll shatter.”[7]

Personally, I have always thought of ice and glass akin. Glass and ice may be seen as tangible symbols of the human psyche. Both are delicate, hard surfaces that can hold so much, but are so easily broken. The above quote tells us exactly how fragile Lia’s mind is; one wrong move, too much force, and her mind will shatter.

As children, Cassie had a tiny treasure chest. Her prized possession was her ‘see-glass’, which she claimed could show people their future. Lia is immediately infatuated by the see-glass, and often wonders how it will work, and what it will show her. Lia places the see-glass in Cassie’s coffin, in hope that Cassie will stop haunting her, but it isn’t until she gives the glass to Cassie’s ghost that both girls are able to move on.

The see-glass never revealed to the girls what their futures held, but it was the key to their transformation and growth.

Cassie’s ghost offers a seductive alternative to the world of adults. She offers perfection in the form of stasis: a girl forever frozen in the memory of her peers, someone who will never grow older, or fatter, or change in any way.

Lia is haunted by Cassie throughout the novel. As well as symbolising the ultimate form of stagnation, Cassie has become a manifestation of Lia’s guilt. Ghosts being tied to the protagonists mental awareness is also a point brought up in Hamlet. Hamlet’s sanity is put to question when he begins to see the ghost of his father. Suffice to say, Lia is considerably mentally unstable, but her irrevocable guilt over Cassie’s death is a catalyst for her destruction.

Knitting is another subtle element of the novel. Lia spend a lot of time knitting. The only thing she has bothered to unpack in her room is a box of books and her knitting basket. When she visits Cassie’s wake, she wonders to herself why no one put Cassie’s knitting needs and yarn into the casket with her. Lia distracts herself by knitting during her therapy sessions.

“Knit, knit, purl […] Dr. Parker keeps her tiny spider eyes locked on mine.”[8]

At one point, Lia mentions that she’s been reading Charlotte’s Web, and multiple times she talks about spiders dancing and spinning silk. This makes me think that Lia’s knitting is connected to a spider weaving a web.

Spiders are seen as an ancient symbol of mystery, power (especially with females), and growth. The Greek myth of Arachne is the tale of a mortal who was an exceptional weaver. A contest was held, a duelling of looms. Arachne and the goddess Athena were equally skilled. But, Arachne was smug and declared that she was the best weaver. This infuriated Athena, so much so that she smote Arachne with a intense guilt and consciousness. Arachne was so overcome by guilt and sorrow that she took her own life. Athena felt awful for what had happened, so she resurrected Arachne into a spider. [9]

The above myth implies that spiders can also be symbols of cycles, death and rebirth (along the lines of the phoenix). This ties in with the theme of Lia’s transformation.

Spiders hatch and crawl out of my belly button, hairy little tar beads with ballerina feet. They swarm, spinning a silk veil, one hundred thousand little spiders woven together until they wrap me in a cosy shroud.”[10]

The above quote gives the image of Lia being tied into a cocoon that she will later emerge from (that’s more along the lines of caterpillars, but Anderson gets away with it).

The symbolism of spiders can also bring up numerology. Spiders have eight legs and eight eyes. The number eight, when turned to its side, become the infinity symbol. This becomes symbolic of cycles, passages of time, and evolution.

Cycles have become a strong element of the novel. The cycle of seasons, the cycle of time, life and death. These recurrences make readers wonder whether or not Lia is truly on her way to recovery.

The novel ends with the simple line: “I’m thawing.” We don’t have a nicely tied up happy ending. Instead, the reader is meant to put their faith in Lia that she will be okay. But, we’ve gone into the novel knowing that she’s already been to New Seasons twice and relapsed every time. For all we know, she may relapse again, and repeat this cycle for the rest of her life.

“I spin and weave and knit my words and visions until life starts to take shape.”[11]

Lia is weaving her life, like spiders weave a web. Spiders are quite genius when they weave. They take into consideration functionality, home and food storage, and incredible design.  Whether Lia will be mindful of her behaviour and past patterns, and create a “web” that will serve or enslave her, remains ambiguous.

One of the main reasons I adore Anderson’s work is because I too write about Young Adult realism. My motivation for buying Wintergirls was as research for my own novel. Reading Anderson’s – has more than inspired me. And to see how she has so eloquently threaded mythology and symbolism throughout her novels, especially Wintergirls has opened my eyes.

I have rediscovered my love for subtlety, and have been enlightened on how to better include themes, symbols and classic stories into my work. It’s nice to know that writers don’t need to blatantly shove their point into their readers’ face. On top of that, it’s nice to come across an author who gives credit to the readers’ intelligence. I can only hope that I can one day be as talented a writer as Anderson.


[1] www.madwomanintheforest.com – Laurie Halse Anderson’s website

[2] Wintergirls, pg. 203

[3] Wintergirls, tagline; pg. 195

[4] Wintergirls, pg. 34

[5] Wintergirls, pg. 227

[6] Wintergirls, pg. 278

[7] Wintergirls, pg. 2

[8]Wintergirls, pg. 247

[10] Wintergirls, pg. 43

[11]Wintergirls, pg. 277

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