By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Ice Palace’ is a short story by the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940), originally published in the Saturday Evening Post in May 1920. The story is about a southern belle who becomes engaged to a man from the North; however, she almost freezes to death in an ice palace at a winter carnival and this leads her to rethink the engagement.
Among other things, ‘The Ice Palace’ is about the North-South divide in the United States and the differing attitudes and outlooks Northerners and Southerners have.
You can read ‘The Ice Palace’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘The Ice Palace’: plot summary
Nineteen-year-old Sally Carrol Happer lives in the fictional town of Tarleton, Georgia. Although the local men are good friends with her and one in particular, named Clark Darrow, wants to marry her, she is engaged to Harry Bellamy, a man from an unspecified part of the northern United States.
Harry comes to visit her and she takes him to a local cemetery filled with the Confederate dead from the American Civil War. Sally Carrol is especially fond of the headstone of a woman named Margery Lee, who was alive during the Civil War.
During the winter, she goes to visit him and his family in the North. Sally Carrol finds the locals of Harry’s home state to be mostly cold and hostile, with the exception of Roger Patton, a professor who teaches English literature, who is a friend of the Bellamy family. But Sally Carrol clashes with her future mother-in-law, Mrs Bellamy, who insists on calling Sally Carrol ‘Sally’ and omitting her second given name.
Her fiancé, Harry, is also disparaging towards her fellow Southerners, telling her that he considers them ‘degenerates’. There is an undercurrent of racial prejudice to his view, since he blames the ‘lazy’ Southern attitude on the fact that white and black people live alongside one another in the South. Fearing that they are about to fall out, Sally Carrol proposes bringing their wedding forward, but Harry rejects the idea.
They both attend the winter carnival in the town, where a giant ice palace has been constructed. They go inside; Harry is very excited to see it, but Sally Carrol finds the place cold and unpleasant. When they go down into the underground labyrinth of the ice palace, Harry leaves his fiancée behind, and she panics, fearing herself lost in the maze.
She remains lost for two hours while Harry and his friends search for her. During that time, as she grows increasingly afraid in the darkness, she thinks she sees the ghost of Margery Lee, the woman from the headstone back in Georgia, and when Harry and the others find her, she says she wants to go home.
The story ends with Sally Carrol back home in Georgia, having chosen to remain unmarried rather than move to the North and be married to Harry. The story has, in a sense, come full circle.
‘The Ice Palace’: analysis
Fitzgerald’s ‘The Ice Palace’ is, first and foremost, about the differences between the North and the South in the United States, and the differing temperaments of the people who inhabit each. Whereas Sally Carrol’s South is associated with sleepiness, laziness, and warmth, Harry’s North is associated with coldness: both the coldness of the weather and the detached and even hostile attitudes of the locals. In the North, we might say, the coldness is a matter of temperament as well as temperature.
But in ‘The Ice Palace’, Fitzgerald also equates the North with progress and modernity, and the South with nostalgia and a fondness for the past: a quality most neatly summed up by Sally Carrol’s affection for the names on the headstones in her local cemetery in Tarleton.
Sally Carrol doesn’t wish to marry the local men because they, too, are stuck in the past, but she comes to realise that the alternative is far worse: it’s better to remain a spinster than to embrace the cold of the North.
Of course, the ice palace is associated with death, too, described as being like a tomb. (There’s also a nod to classical myth in the fact that Harry appears to abandon her in the ‘labyrinth’ under the palace, echoing Theseus’ abandonment of Ariadne after they had escaped from the Labyrinth of the Minotaur on the island of Crete.)
But whereas Sally Carrol’s headstones mark where the dead lie peacefully at rest (another nod to the ‘sleepiness’ of the South), the underground caverns of the ice palace have the potential to disturb the dead, as the ghostly appearance of Margery Lee suggests.
The North, then, represents modernity, while the South symbolises tradition. Even Roger Patton, the Northerner whom Sally Carrol warms to most out of all Harry’s friends, equates the coldness of the Northern climate with modernity via his reference to the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, in many ways the first modern dramatist (who, fittingly enough, ended his most famous play A Doll’s House with a married woman walking out on her husband in order to find herself).
In this connection, it is deeply symbolic that when Roger finds Sally Carrol reading Ibsen’s work, she is not reading one of his later, progressive naturalist dramas about headstrong women (whether A Doll’s House or Hedda Gabler) but his earlier play set in the world of traditional fairy-tale and myth, Peer Gynt.
Harry’s treatment of his fiancée, and his attitudes towards Southerners, suggest a flawed and prejudiced character. Conversely, Sally Carrol is a flighty and impulsive young woman who objects to Harry’s disparaging remarks about Southerners, but – as Harry points out – doesn’t consider any of the men back in Tarleton to be good enough for her. When she argues with Harry, she impetuously suggests bringing forward the date of their marriage: hardly the behaviour of someone capable of acting in a measured and rational manner.
The denouement of the story, which sees Sally Carrol lose her husband-to-be in the underground labyrinths of the ice palace, is obviously filled with deep symbolism. Losing her way with him, they drift further apart until she is left alone, in the darkness, panicking and crying to be rescued. Is this what their marriage would end up being like?
The whole sequence is dreamlike, not just because – like Fitzgerald’s description of the Washingtons’ chateau in ‘The Diamond as Big as the Ritz’ – the place is dreamy and ‘a phantasmagoria’ of light and illusion, but because Sally Carrol’s experience is oddly like a dream, laden with symbolism whose significance she soon begins to decipher. Like many dreams, the ice palace acts as a premonition or warning of what life with Harry in the frozen North would be like for her.