The story opens in the languor of a Southern summer afternoon when Sally Carrol lazily greets her friend Clark, and agrees to go for a swim with him and some friends. They are concerned that Sally Carrol is “getting engaged to a Yankee.” She says that although she loves her friends it is unlikely she will stay in sleepy Tarleton. Sally Carrol reveals that she wants “to live where things happen on a grand scale.” She explains that she has “two sides” – a “sleepy old side” and the side which she is driven by “a sort of energy…the part of me that may be useful somewhere,” which may prove to give her purpose and value when her beauty fades.
Her beau, Harry Bellamy, visits Sally Carrol. They go for a walk to one of her favorite places, the cemetery. She romanticizes the life of Margery Lee, a young woman who died in 1873. Harry supports her in her idealistic portrayal of Margery. When they reach the graves of the Confederate soldiers, Sally Carrol is overwhelmed, proclaiming that “they died for the most beautiful thing in the world.” She explains that though tragic, she derives strength from acknowledging their sacrifice.
Sally Carrol and Harry discuss her visiting him in the North in January. Harry tells her it will be “like fairy-land.” Sally Carrol is concerned about the cold as she is a “summer child.”
The train journey is cold and uncomfortable for Sally Carrol. Harry and his family welcome her. Sally Carrol notices the contrast of the Bellamy library and the one at her home. Harry tries to counsel her in how different the North is, as they do not have the family histories of the South. She is affronted when he implies that she may make unwelcome comments. Sally Carrol is confused, and does not feel at home.
She talks with Roger Patton at dinner and likes him – nicknaming him Dangerous Dan McGrew. He can see that she finds the whole atmosphere cold. She shares her theory of categorizing people as feline or canine, and he shares his opinion on the Northerners becoming increasingly Scandinavian.
Sally Carrol realizes that the winter pastimes she enjoys are all activities for children and that the Bellamy crowd is just humoring her. She feels out of place, seeing the North and its people as “innately hostile to strangers.” She is offended that Mrs. Bellamy will not use her full first name, and that she disapproves of her bobbed hair and smoking.
Sally Carrol has a falling out with Harry after he criticizes Southern men as “lazy and shiftless.” Sally Carrol suggests they get married immediately to avoid other such quarrels, but Harry advises that they stick to their planned date.
After a cold night and a breaking storm, Sally Carrol and Harry visit the ice palace; she immediately feels oppressed and tense. She becomes separated from Harry and panic sets in. Sally Carrol is terrified and afraid she will die and be frozen in the ice. She reminisces about her friends and the warm, hospitable South. Sally Carrol then sees the ghost of Margery Lee and is comforted by her presence. She returns to full consciousness when Roger Patton finds her. Hysterical, she screams to be taken home.
The concluding sequence shows Sally Carrol back in the golden, dusty South. In a scene similar to the opening of the story, Clark’s ancient Ford rattles up to Sally Carrol’s home to invite her to go for a swim.
The title of the story seems incongruous with the opening of the tale. The setting is the sun-drenched, golden, sleepy South. There is a languid, relaxed quality to both the description and the affected dialogue in this first sequence. Sally Carrol Harper seems like a typical Southern belle, but she has the bobbed hair and the high ideals of a modern girl.
Harry Bellamy is as brisk as the Northern climate from which he hails. He indulges Sally Carrol’s desire to visit the cemetery, and her creation of the image of Margery Lee – however he does not share her fantasy. As they look over the Confederate graves, the irony of Sally Carrol acknowledging their sacrifice in the Civil War, and wanting to live “where things happen on a grand scale” is seen. The discussion of Sally Carrol visiting the North immediately changes the feel of the story. Sally Carrol is apprehensive of the cold, and a sense of foreboding enters the sunny tale.
The tone of the story becomes uncomfortable with the train journey through the night. Sally Carrol is immediately at odds with her new environment. The contrast between the Bellamy’s library and Sally Carrol’s recollection of the Harper’s library serves to illustrate further the differences between the Southern and Northern culture. The Bellamy library is “simply a room with a lot of fairly expensive things in it that all looked about fifteen years old.” Sally Carrol is used to medical-books, “oil paintings of her three great-uncles” and an “old couch that had been mended up for forty-five years and was still luxurious.” It is clearly a sensitive point for Harry, as he crudely advises her against making “unfortunate” comments about family histories, as he lives in “a three generation town.”
Cracks in the relationship begin to appear from this point, with Sally Carrol noting that they are not in “a kissable climate.” Sally Carrol already feels like an outsider, and is relieved when she meets Roger Patton at dinner who, curiously, seems to be the only person Harry does not introduce to her. She christens him Dangerous Dan McGrew in reference to the doomed prospector from a 1907 narrative poem. As a literature professor he is amused, but aware of her reference to popular fiction, and says he was “not supposed” to read such things – an idea mocking the “Dangerous” epithet he has just been given.
Further damage to Harry and Sally Carrol’s relationship is described in a vivid metaphor “she and Harry hovered on the edge of a dangerously steep quarrel.” The issue is as much the “sweepin’ generalities” of Harry’s comments about Southern men as the negative terms in which he describes them. The music at the end of the sequence - Away down South in Dixie – is another herald calling Sally Carrol back.
Another cold night, and a breaking storm add an atmosphere of foreboding to the awaited visit to the ice palace. Sally Carrol is already in a negative frame of mind, her thoughts filled with the past and spirits of the past. The metaphor “Ice was a ghost” illustrates this. She sees the ice palace as a primitive, heathen place – “the North offering sacrifice on some mighty altar to the gray pagan God of Snow. She is fearfully overwhelmed when lost in the palace, experiencing “some deep terror far greater than any fear of being lost”. She feels that she will die in this coldness, as emphasized in the personification in the rhyming phrase “an icy breath of death.” We can see echoes of Zelda's mental difficulties in the acute observations Fitzgerald makes of Sally Carrol's paranoia, reminiscent of Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night.
The story comes full circle as Sally Carrol returns to her home, eating fruit at her window as the golden sunlight surrounds her. The ice palace was almost a fairy tale: or a bad dream.