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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591

“The Icicle” is a structurally complex story. It is told by a first-person narrator to “Vasily,” who, the reader later learns, is a future incarnation of the narrator himself. In the story’s preface, the narrator urges Vasily to find and marry Natasha “before it is too late.” The narration that follows will explain this advice.

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Shortly before New Year’s Eve, the narrator, who has yet to be identified, and Natasha are sitting outside discussing the unseasonably icy weather. During their conversation, the narrator attempts to push his memory as far as it will go and suddenly finds himself projected into what is apparently an Ice Age landscape. The unnerving experience lasts only a moment, but as the couple begin to walk home, they are approached by a large woman walking on the ice. The narrator fancies that he knows her life’s story and that in the near future she will slip and fall on the ice. His prediction comes true, and in the conversation that follows, his surmises about her past are confirmed as well.

Against his better judgment, the narrator is persuaded by Natasha to attend a New Year’s party at which her former husband, Boris, is also expected to be present. As the New Year approaches, the narrator compares the candles burning on the tree to a man’s life. He identifies with one particular candle, and as he whimsically attempts to guess how long he will live, he has a compelling vision of himself approaching death at age eighty-nine. In an effort to dispel the mood of his vision, he offers to read the minds of the party guests. His performance is entirely convincing, but in the course of it he begins to perceive more than one individual in each of the people present. In particular, he realizes that one young man has in previous existences been primarily either prostitutes or priests. He tries to avoid subjecting Natasha to this kind of scrutiny, but as they leave, he realizes that she is missing part of her head.

During the days that follow, the narrator becomes acquainted with his own various pasts and futures. At one point in the twenty-fourth century, he is addressed as Vasily by his wife, who asks him about Russian literature. On another occasion, he realizes that the incarnation that he is watching is aware of him as well. The threat to Natasha that was suggested by his vision of her at the New Year’s party is finally articulated: She will be killed by a falling icicle on the nineteenth of January. In a vain attempt to avoid fate, the narrator extorts fifteen hundred rubles from Boris in order to take her out of town. Boris, however, denounces him to the police, and they are arrested before they reach their destination. The narrator attempts to warn Natasha, but as he does so, he realizes that by articulating the threat he has made it inevitable. The narrator’s considerable gifts are put to the service of the state, and Natasha, at his request, is put under surveillance, but at the appointed hour on the appointed day she does walk under the icicle and loses her life at the same moment that the narrator loses his gift. In one of his last visions, the narrator sees himself as Vasily standing outside a lighted window trying to attract the attention of Natasha, who sits inside reading. His story is addressed to that Vasily of the future whose happiness with Natasha is still possible.

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Themes