“In the Region of Ice,” first published in The Atlantic Monthly and later in the collection The Wheel of Love, won the O. Henry first prize in short fiction for 1967. It shares with other early Oates works, including the novel Son of the Morning (1978) and the story “Shame” (1968), a religious protagonist and a concern for spiritual issues. Sister Irene teaches the works of William Shakespeare at a small, Catholic university. For all practical purposes, she lives “in the region of ice”—a region void of feeling and passion. She is perfectly comfortable in front of a class lecturing on literature, but otherwise she is timid and essentially incapable of developing meaningful human contact.
Into her insulated existence comes Allen Weinstein, a brilliant but emotionally disturbed Jewish student. Having failed to cope successfully in his own discipline, history, and obsessed with the reality of ideas, he sits in on Irene’s class and, unlike the other students, challenges and engages her. Eventually he dominates the class, inspiring the hatred of his classmates but awakening intellectual and emotional life in the professor.
The story is narrated through Irene’s viewpoint, and Oates carefully charts the emotional journey she travels in response to Allen’s erratic and striking behavior. Inexplicably, Irene finds herself anticipating Allen’s presence and feeling hurt at his absence; her emotional life...
(The entire section is 563 words.)