(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...

(The entire section is 563 words.)


(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 not altogether relevant question, so she asks to see him after class. He argues vigorously and somewhat chaotically for permission to attend her lectures. Against her better judgment, Sister Irene allows him to join her class. Passionate and needy, the new student, Allen Weinstein, causes a sympathetic resonance in the usually restrained and self-sufficient professor.

Sister Irene notices that her excitement about her William Shakespeare class is heightened because of the presence of Allen’s inquiring and disquieting mind. Her emotional and intellectual sympathy with Allen leads her to have expectations of him, and consequently to be capable of being disappointed by him. When he fails to meet his first paper deadline, she finds herself making an unusual concession for him, only to be given a paper that is twice as long as she has assigned, entitled “Erotic Melodies in Romeo and Juliet.” Allen becomes increasingly emotionally demanding and yearns inarticulately for some kind of human intimacy. He presses her urgently to walk with him, to talk with him, to read a long and rambling poem he could show only to her. In his great need, he is immune to subtlety; he does not respect the conventional glass wall between teacher...

(The entire section is 717 words.)