Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Caroline Gordon is often associated with the Agrarian movement of the 1920’s and 1930’s, which advocated a return to an economy tied to the land and opposed an industrialized society. Indeed, “The Ice House” can be read as a criticism of the North and its commercialism. The contractor is a Yankee who has come south for the opportunity it provides, a character type often found in Agrarian literature. He is preoccupied with attaining success. He advises Doug, “Farm work’s all right if you can’t get nothing else to do, but a smart young feller like you wants to be looking out fer oppertunity.” At the conclusion of the story, the contractor is more eager to make a profit than to fulfill an obligation. In addition to swindling the government, he deceives the families of the men who died in battle. They will assume that their sons have been buried while, in fact, some of them remain in the pit in the ice house. The contractor does not consider the implications of his action, however, only his profit. In Gordon’s fictional world, a character who is concerned solely with money is morally bankrupt.

Gordon, a southerner, is not limiting her criticism to the North. Rather, “The Ice House” is a comment about commercialism everywhere. The contractor is materialistic, but so is Doug. He is prepared to go to work before six in the morning; he worries about not getting paid the full amount; he is preoccupied with getting ahead. Engaging the contractor in conversation, Doug inquires, “Had he ever worked for the government before? And how was he paid? By the day or so much for the job?” Doug’s concern with the skeletons is all business. He even appreciates and almost seems to admire the contractor’s solution to the remaining empty pine coffins. Doug’s...

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