In the Region of Ice by Joyce Carol Oates

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In the Region of Ice Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“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 becomes dependent on his behavior, moods, and ideas. Their relationship, through her perception, is like a dance of intellectual passion and spiritual magnetism.

Then Allen stops coming to class. After a prolonged absence, he contacts Irene from a sanatorium with a veiled plea for help: quoting Claudio in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (1604), he begs her to communicate his passion to his father. As Irene goes to the Weinstein home to do Allen’s bidding, she feels a religious awakening, a sense of her Christianity and the true meaning of sacrifice, but her heroism quickly fades, and she allows herself to be bullied by Allen’s hateful, exasperated, unsympathetic father.

Later, released from the sanatorium and desperate to leave the country, Allen comes to Irene for emotional and financial support, but she painfully and inarticulately denies him. Now, as throughout their unusual relationship, she is equally aware of his desire to establish a meaningful communion and of her own inability to oblige. She is simply terrified of being connected to another human being. While Allen is clearly on the edge of sanity, Irene’s situation is more pathetic, for she is knowingly trapped within the trivial limits of her own selfhood. Even the inevitable news of Allen’s suicide provokes only a longing for feeling but no true emotional response.

Like “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?,” “In the Region of Ice” details the effects of a male intruder into the life of a female protagonist. Here, the emotional power of the story lies in the lack of response, in the utter sterility that remains invulnerable against great passion and anguish. Oates depicts in Sister Irene the very human discrepancy between the ideals of the mind and the limits of the individual will in real life. The “ice” of the title goes beyond the cold clarity of academia and the chosen celibacy of the nun’s habit to describe the irony of an emotionally frigid human being taking refuge in a frail travesty of spiritual and humanitarian fullness.

Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Sister Irene is praying for the energy and resolve to get through her first semester of teaching at the Jesuit university at which she has arrived. Although she is fully confident of her teaching ability and her vocation as a nun, she is somewhat anxious and timid about the world outside her classroom, which frequently startles and confuses her. Two weeks after the semester begins, a new and impetuous young man turns up in her class. In a breach of classroom etiquette, he interrupts her as she attempts to answer his...

(The entire section is 1,280 words.)