Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1057
A great wall of ice is moving southward over the land, bringing with it an unprecedented cold spell in August. In Hartford they are burning pianos, and it is impossible to reach Boston by telegraph. The people do nothing but talk about the looming catastrophe. So far, only the extreme cold reaches Excelsior, New Jersey, where Mr. and Mrs. George Antrobus live in an attractive suburban residence. Their rather commonplace lives are to be greatly changed by the extreme form that the weather takes.
Mr. Antrobus is a fine man, a sterling example for his community. He invented the wheel, the alphabet, and the multiplication table. Mrs. Antrobus is the picture of the middle-class mother, with the best interests of her children at heart. Their daughter Gladys is much like her mother, but their son is atypical. His name was Cain until an unfortunate accident occurred in which he hit his brother with a stone and killed him. As the result of that thoughtless action, his name was changed to Henry, and Mrs. Antrobus goes to some pains to keep his past history a secret. Members of the Antrobus household also include Sabina, the maid, a baby dinosaur, and a mammoth.
On this particular day in August, everyone is freezing and the dogs’ paws are sticking to the sidewalk because it is so cold. Sabina is in an agitated state because nothing seems to be going properly. She milks the mammoth, but she let the only fire in the house go out. Her plight is doubly humiliating because her career in the Antrobus house began when Mr. Antrobus brought her back from the Sabine rape. He gave her a life of luxury until he tired of her; now she is relegated to the kitchen. She, however, is a canny and observant individual, an apex to an age-old triangle.
She is waiting nervously for the return of Mr. Antrobus when a domestic altercation with Mrs. Antrobus prompts her to give a two-week notice. Later a telegram announcing the arrival of Mr. Antrobus and some salvation from the cold causes her to change her mind for the time being. When he arrives, Mr. Antrobus brings news that most of the outside world is freezing and that there is probably nothing they can do to escape the same fate. When some tramps and refugees from the ice come to the house for warmth and food, Mrs. Antrobus is not in favor of admitting them, but Mr. Antrobus insists. Mrs. Antrobus agrees, but only after the dinosaur and the mammoth are evicted. The refugees include a judge, named Moses; a blind beggar with a guitar, named Homer; and the Misses E., T., and M. Muse. The Antrobus family attempts to keep up some semblance of hope as they gather around their small fire. When Henry, in another fit of hate, murders a neighbor with a stone, Mr. Antrobus stamps out the fire. However, he is cajoled into having faith in humanity again, and all, including the audience, are asked to burn their chairs in order to keep the fire going and save the human race from extinction.
That crisis over, Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus go to the Atlantic City convention of the Ancient and Honorable Order of Mammals, Subdivision Humans. Mr. Antrobus, just elected president of the society for the coming year, makes a speech of acceptance, which is followed by a few words from Mrs. Antrobus. During an interview immediately afterward, it is learned that Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus will soon celebrate their five thousandth wedding anniversary. Mr. Antrobus judges a beauty contest in which the winner is the former maid Sabina, now Miss Lily-Sabina Fairweather from the Boardwalk Bingo Parlor. She decides, as a result of her victory, to take Mr. Antrobus away from his wife. As soon as she can easily do so, she lures him into her beach cabana. During her father’s sojourn in the cabana, Gladys buys herself a pair of red stockings and Henry becomes involved in an altercation with a boy, whom he hits with a stone. Mr. Antrobus is finally located, and he decides to leave his wife. Told of his intentions, she handles the situation very calmly and maneuvers him into staying with her. She is aided somewhat by a coming storm, which makes it necessary for the family and a large collection of animals to retreat to a boat in order to survive. Under the directions of a mysterious fortune teller, Mr. Antrobus takes them all, including Sabina, off to make a new world.
When the great war comes, much of the population of the world and most of Excelsior, New Jersey, are wiped out. The Antrobus household, including Sabina, manages to survive but not without considerable damage. Mrs. Antrobus and Gladys and Gladys’s new baby hide in the basement. When the war ends, they come out into the world, which in a very short time begins to function very much as it did before the war occurred.
Sabina, dressed now as a Napoleonic camp follower, enjoys the war. She feels that everyone is at his or her best in wartime. Henry, following up his stone-throwing activities, progresses from a corporal’s rank to the rank of a general; he becomes the picture of hate, the enemy of humankind. Mr. Antrobus orders that he never come into the house again or he will kill him. When Henry returns, he wants to kill his father, whom he hated all these years, and he brings a gun with which to shoot Mr. Antrobus. When Henry finally falls asleep from exhaustion, Mrs. Antrobus takes the revolver from him. Mr. Antrobus and Henry have an argument during which all the evil in the young man is revealed. Mr. Antrobus, in a fit of self-condemnation, admits that he would rather fight Henry than try to build a peace with him. His will to survive returns once again, however, and he asks Henry to try to live in peace. Henry agrees, provided he is given a freedom of his own will.
Mr. Antrobus, striving to regain his confidence in humanity, recalls the three things that always kept him going: the people, his home, and his books. In addition, he remembers the philosophies that he knew and through which he regains his hope for the future.
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