Water/Ice, South/North, Lazy/Hard: Binary Cultural Perceptions


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Yiran Sun

In 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald published a short story called The Ice Palace. Like many of his other stories and novels, this one is about disillusion as well. The story started in a fictional southern town called Tarleton, where a young woman named Sally Carrol Happer caused some dismay among her friends as she decided to marry a certain Harry Bellamy, a man from the north. However, when she travels to the north to meet Harry’s family, she starts to realize that the north is different than she’d expected, and reaches a point of mental breakdown when she finds herself lost in the winter carnival “ice palace”. In the end, she returns to her life in the south.

The main plot of the story is a young woman’s choice between two regions. This reminds me of the story of Persephone. Daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the Greek goddess was abducted by Hades and brought to the underworld. Every spring she returns to our world, and by the end of harvest she withdraws into the other side again. In a sense, the two stories run parallel: a young lady is allured/abducted to the opposite part of a world, finds there cold and dark, then returns to “our world”. Of course, Fitzgerald himself is of northern background (he’d spent most of his life in the north up to the point of this story’s publication, with two years maximum in the south; in fact, the northern town in the story is no other than his birth city St Paul), but the story took on a southern narrative, as the story took an earthly one. A very bipolar view on cultures is exhibited in these two stories, as well as in many others. Come to think of it, we always make sense of cultures by their anticultures (or anticultures by cultures), the mirror image of the given or “correct” culture (Lotman 220). What is not “ours” is “theirs”, that is majorly how we make sense of the complicated world. People are cognitive misers: we rely on mental shortcuts such as exemplars without paying much attention to their authenticity (Zillmann & Brosius). We assume an image of the other side by imagining the opposite of our own culture, and when many do this, a certain stereotype is created. Such stereotype feeds into the culture reservoir and transforms history into nature (Barthes 128).

Now let’s get back to The Ice Palace. One natural element is present throughout the three parts (south-north-south) of the story: water. Although whether Fitzgerald had used this consciously as a signification device is debatable, there is at least a certain degree of subconscious deliberation of using it. In the southern parts of the story, two words are constantly brought up: “humid” and “swimming”, while in the northern parts, another two are prominent: “snow” and “ice”. Of course, the words themselves embody the natural characters of south and north, but in the story those only play a small part; what they stand for seem more important: the concepts. In their most primitive meanings, the two states of water relate to certain temperatures, a natural phenomenon of shifting between liquid and solid state. However, upon the very moment when they are named different things (no longer liquid/solid H2O but water/ice), their meanings are emptied and distanced, while the concepts are filled with situations (Barthes 118). Here in the story, the concepts can be warm/cold, fluid/hard, and ultimately, lazy/rigid. Then we have the myth, the signification: south/north. It is a distorted version, for “south” and “north” themselves do not hold meanings like fluid/hard or laziness/rigidity. Yet the former pair has long before naturalized itself, because they are not entirely arbitrary: water does assume these two states in the two regions. Then these notions crept into our cultural encyclopedia, onto our understanding of personalities/lifestyles of the two regions. As for the latter, it apparently hasn’t been quite naturalized upon the moment of this short story, since Fitzgerald had spent some effort trying to establish the links. It had been built upon the cultural stereotype of the aristocratic south and the industrial north, which runs its root all the way to the moment when the first groups of Europeans colonized America (and to their status way before that). Such stereotype as a signification has been reinforced then by popular cultural works like The Winter Palace and Gone with the Wind, and served to form our understanding of the south and north before the Information Age.

 

Reference:

Barthes, R. (1984). Trans. Lavers, A. Mythologies.
Fitzgerald, F. S. (1920, May 22). The Ice Palace. The Saturday Evening Post.
Lotman, Y. M. (1978). On the Semiotic Machanism of Culture. New Literary History, 9(2): 211-232.
Zillmann, D. & Brosius, H. B. (2000). Exemplification in Communication: The Influence of Case Reports on the Perception of Issues. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.