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If we accept the enotes study guide reading of the novel, one of the major themes in the short story is the complexity of human relationships. Certainly, Sister Irene is the prism through which Oates displays this theme to the reader. For Sister Irene, emotions are challenging elements because they are antithetical to the controlled and "ice"- driven world that she has constructed for herself. The ability to control elements within her world and maintain control of her emotional state of being is challenged with Allen's presence and what his uncontrolled emotional sense of being does to her. In this light, Sister Irene's function in the short story is to display potential paths to dealing with emotional discomfort. Essentially, the short story examines if Sister Irene is going to melt some of the ice around her world and allow a place and presence for emotional contact to be a part of this world. In her character, Oates brings to light how some construct worlds of ice around them in order to offset the emotional challenges of living in the modern setting. The primary thematic purpose of Sister Irene is to display how emotions and emotional contact needs reflection, rumination, and some level of validation in order to achieve a level of affect that creates effective and caring human beings. Oates is wise enough to leave this up to the reader in assessing if Sister Irene has undergone this level of emotional reflection and change.
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