It’s the middle of winter on the Canadian prairies, and a storm is brewing. John, a farmer, tells his wife Ann that he is going to check on his aging father before the blizzard hits. This means walking seventeen miles each way over hill and dale in the deep snow, and Ann doesn’t want him to go. She doesn’t want to be left alone to care for the animals, and she’s worried about his safety. John is kind but firm, insisting that he has to go. He offers to stop by their friend Steven’s house on his way, saying that he will tell Steven to come keep Ann company, and join the two of them for supper and a game of cards when he returns in the evening.
John and Ann have been married for seven years. John is big, strong and quiet. He adores his pretty, lively wife, and wants to give her all the nice things she could ever want. He works day and night and refuses to hire a helping hand so that they can pay off the mortgage on the farm, move to a bigger house, and Ann can have some pretty clothes. Ann loves her husband, but she gets bored and lonely living on their farm. She knows that it will take many years before their mortgage is paid off, and she wishes they could have some fun and enjoy each other’s company while they are still young. She feels guilty for not appreciating all the things John does for her, and yet she cannot help but feel trapped.
When John leaves, Ann sets about tidying up the house for Steven’s visit. The snowstorm outside quickly reveals itself to be just as violent and extreme as she had suspected. Ann paints the bedroom door to keep herself busy and tries not to think about her frustration at being left home alone. She begins to wonder if John will really return that night, considering how bad the storm is looking.
Steven arrives in the afternoon, and Ann is overwhelmed by his presence. Although she has known him for almost as long as she has known John, this evening feels different. He is handsome and talkative, and she sees him as the opposite of everything that frustrates her about her husband. Steven takes care of feeding the animals, and then they sit down to eat and play cards.
Steven insists that John will spend the night at his father’s house rather than return to join them, but Ann protests. She says no blizzard has ever kept John away from her, but it’s unclear whether she is trying to convince Steven or trying to convince herself. As the tension between them grows, it is clear that Steven wants to sleep with Ann and that Ann is open to the possibility. Although they never speak openly about their intentions, eventually Ann decides that John will be away all night and sleeps with Steven.
Ann spends a restless, guilty night awake while Steven sleeps soundly. She imagines that she sees John, then wakes up to find it’s just the shadow cast by the fire. Ann realizes that although Steven is attractive, she loves John and would never consider cheating on him again. She silently re-commits herself to their marriage, feeling grateful for the life they share.
The next morning, John is found frozen to death just a little ways beyond the house. The neighbors decide that he must have gotten confused by the wind and wandered past his house, before getting caught in a snowdrift. Everyone is surprised that he even attempted to walk home in the blizzard, but Ann says that she knew in her heart that he always came home no matter what. When Ann is left alone with his body, she notices that on one of his hands is a little smear of the same white paint she used to paint the bedroom door.