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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 351

“Pretty Ice” by Mary Robison is the story of a failing relationship between Belle, the narrator, and Will, her fiance. Belle, who can’t drive despite working on a doctorate, makes the decision to break up with Will based on several factors she “calculates” in her head. Will, a botanist, has just failed to secure a grant and that subtracts from Belle’s desire to marry him.

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The story focuses on two central symbols—one is the superficial nature of things and people, and the other is on calculation. The two ideas are related to one another in how they are presented. Belle, despite thinking Will, is superficial, is ironically making her decision not to marry him off of her superficial determinations.

Belle’s family ran a dance studio, and they were wealthy before he father killed himself. Will, her fiance, is not like her father—he is not wealthy, and he is getting fat. Despite their history, and Will’s seeming wisdom in explaining what the “pretty ice” means on their drive to find a motel, Belle rejects him because he is not living up to her expectations of what a man should be—rich and good looking.

Belle expresses her distaste for Will when he first arrives. She describes him as,

He seemed to have put on weight, girlishly, through the hips, and his face looked thicker to me, from temple to temple.

Will, in putting on weight, appears more feminine—not handsome like her father. Along with him putting on weight, he also loses his grant. She gets angry at him for spending seven years on something superficial but doesn’t recognize that her concerns about him are superficial.

The story uses the setting to explore this idea further when he offers the idea that beneath the pretty snow and ice are dying plants that will make a dreary Spring. Belle rejects this idea, instead choosing to think only of the surface, not what lies beneath. That rejection illustrates Belle’s nature in the story, always looking closely at the surface and refusing to go deeply into anything.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 447

Mary Robison is noted for her clean prose that neatly embodies a great deal in a few words, giving the reader insight into an entire life by looking closely at small moments of that life. One technique by which she compresses much into a small space is her suggestive use of images that take on allegorical importance. In “Pretty Ice,” the narrator is obsessed with calculations and numbers, with parting her hair down the middle to make sure that everything falls evenly into two equal halves. Even her study of music seems to have resulted not in a free-flowing approach to life, but in looking at high-tension towers and seeing in their cables memories of the staff lines on a sheet of music.

Most important, there is Robison’s play on the word “superficial.” Will’s research project has been rejected because it was seen to be superficial, criticism that Belle ultimately shares not only of the work but also, it seems, of Will himself. One might also say that Belle’s mother has a superficial way of relating to others, clear especially in her decision not to mention the research problem to Will and in demanding that her husband’s death not be discussed. She prefers to remember him as a beautiful dancer—someone who, in effect, skims gracefully across surfaces. Most pointedly, though, Belle unconsciously identifies with just this aspect of her departed parent: his preoccupation with cartography, atlases, and the distances between points.

Robison has chosen an unreliable narrator, therefore, because she provides the reader with enough information to force an ironic distance between what Belle observes and what a more objective reader might conclude. By having Belle conclude that Will is superficial in the very paragraph that she happily identifies with her father’s obsession with maps, Robison calls into question her narrator’s apparently freeing decision to end her engagement. The reader is left wondering whether Belle has condemned herself to a slow suicide at home, because beneath the surface beauty of the ice storm lie damaged trees that will have a difficult spring. This is the wisdom that Will brings the narrator, but it is an insight to which she pays no attention. Her father’s graceful dancing, however, did not save him from whatever deep-seated problems remained far beneath the surface.

The story’s play on types of superficiality provides the story with a certain ambiguity: Is Belle’s rejection of Will a healthy assertion of her own independence apart from a father who could not handle life, or is it her more complete identification with that father, at the expense of a deeper relationship with a living human being?

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