Identity and Symbols in Fitzgerald’s “The Ice Palace”

June 24, 2008

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “The Ice Palace” deconstructs the assumptions, ideals, and tropes of contemporary society through symbols and parallelism. Specifically, the two geographies of South versus North symbolize stagnation versus progress, respectively, for both Sally Carrol Happer and Harry Bellamy. The two characters’ romance proves misfated, however, not because of any natural or inherent difference, but because of romanticized views on the part of each.

“The Ice Palace” appeared in the May 1920 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, and represents an early Fitzgerald work. Here, the protagonist, Sally Carrol, is courted by Harry Bellamy to move from her town in “southernmost Georgia” to his “Northern city” as part of their eventual marriage. She is optimistic about life in the North, which she associates with intellectualism and personal/societal progress:

Clark stared straight in front of him at a bolt on the clattering windowshield.
“Sally Carrol,” he said with a curious intensity, “don’t you like us?”
“Us down here?”
“Why, Clark, you know I do. I adore all you boys.”
“Then why you gettin’ engaged to a Yankee?”
“Clark, I don’t know. I’m not sure what I’ll do, but—well, I want to go places and see people. I want my mind to grow. I want to live where things happen on a big scale.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, Clark, I love you, and I love Joe here, and Ben Arrot, and you-all, but you’ll—you’ll—
“We’ll be failures?”
“Yes. I don’t mean only money failures, but just sort of—of ineffectual and sad, and—oh, how can I tell you?”
“You mean because we stay here in Tarleton?”
“Yes, Clark; and because you like it and never want to change things or think or go ahead.”

The Ice Palace

“The Ice Palace” as it appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. Photo courtesy of The University of South Carolina Web site:

The first line of the story sets up the South as an antithesis (in line with popular assumptions about such things) to the North, and the ice palace, a physical construct which Harry Bellamy and his like-minded northerners seem to worship: “The sunlight dripped over the house like golden paint over an art jar, and the freckling shadows here and there only intensified the rigor of the bath of light.” This description of Sally Carrol’s environ as a geographical and visual opposite to the North is complicated by the graveyard, however, which serves—like the Ice Palace—as a historical/cultural ideal for the corresponding denizen:

“Margery Lee”, she read; “1844-1873. Wasn’t she nice? She died when she was twenty-nine. Dear Margery Lee,” she added softly.

“Oh, she was sweet, Harry! And she was the sort of girl born to stand on a wide, pillared porch and welcome folks in. I think perhaps a lot of men went away to war meanin’ to come back to her; but maybe none of ‘em ever did.”
He stooped down close to the stone, hunting for any record of marriage.
“There’s nothing here to show.”
“Of course not. How could there be anything there better than just ‘Margery Lee’ and that eloquent date?”

Here, Sally Carrol’s romanticization of the Old South is achieved through reminiscences of the Civil War, images of the setting that women held during that time, and the subsequent absence of men in the idealized Margery Lee’s life. The comparison between Lee and Sally Carrol is obvious: “You’re beautiful now, so I know she must have been”, Harry Bellamy claims. Regarding the unmarked graves, she comments, “…they died for the most beautiful thing in the world—the dead South.”

And so the two eventually rendezvous up North, where the climate (physically and socially is conducive to building ice palaces, “…the first they’ve had since eighty-five. Built out of blocks of the clearest ice they could find—on a tremendous scale.” The palace, as well as the North itself, is presented as industrious, bold, and building things “on a tremendous scale.” This is partly what Sally Carrol grasps in her initial assumptions of the place, though she underestimates the level to which the palace (and that which it represents) is adored by Harry Bellamy and company.

Thus, the misunderstandings and misconceptions ensue. In a definitive Sally Carrol moment, Fitzgerald hints that a separation between the two is taking place in the subtext of the story:

“I’ll tell you,” he said softly, “if you just tell me you’re glad to be here.”
“Glad—just awful glad!” She whispered, insinuating herself into his arms in her own peculiar way. “Where you are is home for me, Harry.”
And as she said this she had the feeling for almost the first time in her life that she was acting a part.

Leading into the climax of the story, the pair approaches the ice palace on a dark, snowy night. Sally Carrol “found herself repeating over and over two lines from ‘Kubla Khan’: ‘It was a miracle of rare device, / A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!’” The palace is the object of the Northerners’ blind worship, so I think that the allusion to Kubla Kahn is noteworthy in its adding to the dazed sensibilities that seem to overcome them during the moment when Sally Carrol becomes lost in the labyrinth of the building and traumatized. As the commotion grows…

Still no answer. The sound she made bounced mockingly down to the end of the passage.
Then on an instant the lights went out, and she was in complete darkness. She gave a small, frightened cry, and sank down into a cold little heap on the ice. She felt her left knee do something as she fell. But she scarcely noticed it as some deep terror far greater than any fear of being lost settled upon her.

With a furious, despairing energy she rose again and started blindly down the darkness. She must get out.

Throughout, there is reference to sounds, scenes, and the psychological effects of war, no doubt taking scenes from The Great War in Europe, another way in which Sally Carrol is linked to Margery Lee and her experience during the Civil War: “… chant of marching clubs.”; “… keeping time…”; “…a long column of gray-mackinawed figures… torches soaring and flickering as their voices rose along the great walls.”; “then came a long platoon of blue and white, of green, of white, of brown and yellow.” (A variety of colors here brings thoughts of the varying nation-states’ uniforms.)

This is amplified by the earlier quote of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn.” In his 1816 poem, the narrator describes the hallucinatory sense of being amidst an awesome yet brooding force. Here is some context for the quote:

…Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

Ultimately, Sally Carrol returns home, and the final scene, back in Georgia, has so many parallels to the first—the laziness and seeming contentment and with the status quo—that the story seems to have either a really simple message, or a similarly complex one, requiring analysis of the deeper-than-skin components of the story’s structure. Commenting on the idea of the ending of “The Ice Palace” as expressing a complex ending (courtesy of Fitzgerald’s insight regarding the subtleties of cultural commentary, David W. Ullrich writes:

Fitzgerald encourages his Post readers to identify with Sally Carrol’s credo of enfranchisement through utility and her recognition that beauty is transitory. Such sentiments espouse a potent mix of Puritanism and industriousness endorsed by mainstream America in 1920. As such, Sally Carrol’s anticipated marriage would be read as uniting the separate economic mythologies and geographic regions of the agrarian Old South and industrial Gilded North. However, Fitzgerald’s social criticism states explicitly that, although Sally Carrol desired to incorporate these mythologies, neither geographic region offers her participation in these cultural practices. Her willingness to assimilate both local economic structures actually exacerbates her historical position as a modern woman, alienating her from the South/past and fostering naive fantasies about the North/future. In fact, Sally Carrol discovers that the material forces of culture operating in the North are almost identical to those of the South, and equally repressive.

I think this analysis accurately reflects the meaning at the end of the story. My instinct is to assume that Sally Carrol, as she stands at that same windowsill as is mentioned on the first page, is the same Sally Carrol as appears on that page. Ullrich puts forth—and I agree—that Sally Carrol is the 1920s every-woman; she is a person locked between the two worlds of past/stagnation and future/movement. Here, the protagonist has a desire to actuate the noble ideal, but is kept down by the realization (perhaps overstated, in that the ice palace experience was so traumatizing that she could not return and was compelled to sever ties to the North, including those with the person who purportedly convinced her there, Harry Bellamy) that she does not belong in that environment. Similarly, while Sally Carrol had her misconceptions about her present environment as it relates to her ideal one, so too had Harry Bellamy created an amnesia-inducing social construct.

The notion of paralysis (on both the individual and societal level) which so summarizes James Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners, here is powerful; however, I sense that there is a difference between paralysis as experienced by Eveline & company and the “not belonging” experience by Sally Carrol, perhaps only as simple as the fact that Fitzgerald is to early-century America what Joyce is to early-century Ireland. I look forward to exploring this comparison in the future.

Sally Carrol’s search for identity—complicated by romanticized notions—represents a larger theme which I know Fitzgerald to have explored in other works such as The Great Gatsby. What does the 1910s and 1920s mean for a country traumatized by war and just around the corner from more hardship? Embracing (or shunning) technology, engaging in the “modern” lifestyle, and exploring the concept of self advancement (by women, minorities, social classes, etc.) as a reaction to contemporary events are themes in this early Fitzgerald short story.

1. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Kubla Khan”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Period. Ed. S. Greenblatt. New York: W W Norton & Company, 2006; 446-8.
2. Fitzgerald, F.S. “The Ice Palace”. Babylon Revisited and Other Stories. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960.
3. Ullrich, David W. Memorials and monuments: historical method and the construction of memory in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Ice Palace”. Studies in Short Fiction 1999; 417-37.