Themes and Meanings
Joyce Carol Oates has returned repeatedly in her prodigious fictional output to the theme of the complexity of human relationships. The Wheel of Love (1970), the collection in which “In the Region of Ice” appears, contains many stories of men and women struggling with issues of physical and emotional intimacy. For the characters in most of these stories, the risks of human connection appear to far outweigh the benefits, and violence is always about to happen.
Sister Irene is a particularly touching character, because of the huge disparity between the depth of her feelings and the narrow range in which she is able to act. When she sets out to talk with Allen’s parents about his desperate cry for help, she feels an intense affinity with the mysteries of Christianity and the sufferings of Christ; this would be remarkable hubris if it were not for her obvious personal insecurity. When Allen asks Sister Irene in her office for permission to touch her hand, that simple human act of human affection takes on such dramatic proportions for her that it becomes an impossible favor to grant.
In the classroom, where Sister Irene is in complete control, she can let her brilliance range freely, and she can be what the student Allen requires of her. Outside the classroom, in the chaotic, messy world outside the “region of ice,” she is passive and sterile in ways that infuriate him. Sister Irene is not physically and emotionally alienated because she is a nun; she is a nun because she has made a conscious choice to remain isolated, alone, and, most of all, safe. Although some readers might see Allen Weinstein as a possible avenue of redemption in her life, Sister Irene clearly experiences him as a possible agent of annihilation. She consciously chooses the ordinary over the heroic, and she is patiently resigned to the consequences.