John and Ann are sharing breakfast one cold winter morning in their small farmhouse. There is a blizzard coming, but John insists that he will walk the five miles through the hills to his father’s house to check on the old man. Ann gazes through the frosty window at the bitter weather and asks him not to go, saying she doesn’t want to be left alone in the storm. She mentions that they both saw the double wheel around the moon the night before, which means that the storm will probably be a bad one. John insists that he has taken care of everything, and will be back by seven or eight pm at the latest.
The fact that John must walk five miles in the snow just to check on his father is evidence of the extreme isolation of his and Ann’s farming life. Further, that he insists on making this difficult and dangerous journey shows his willingness to make sacrifices for the people he loves. John is only concerned about Ann’s physical wellbeing and does not seem worried about her loneliness or potential anger at him for leaving her behind, because he sees her primarily as fulfilling the traditional role of “wife” rather than as a complex human being.
Ann relents, saying that she should be used to staying alone after seven years as a farmer’s wife. She continues to stare out the window, watching one of their horses drinking water, hunched against the cold. The sun glitters on the vast, snowy expanse of bleak prairie, dotted with the occasional farmhouse. Everything about the scene before her seems harsh and isolating. John offers to stay when he sees the brooding look on her face, but Ann insists that he should go visit his father. John reminds her that he has never broken a promise to visit her, even during the worst blizzards.
Ann feels guilty for failing to support John’s decision to visit his father, because she believes a wife should always be grateful to have a kind, hard-working husband. The landscape out the window reflects and seems to reinforce Ann’s feelings of isolation and frustration. John’s offer to stay is yet another example of his loyalty (to Ann, in this case). Ann makes a sacrifice of her own when she declines his offer to stay.
John is described as slow and simple. We learn that he was surprised and confused, during the beginning of their relationship, that someone like Ann could love him. Now, however, he is just proud and happy to have her as his wife, and takes her continued affection for granted. She finds it impossible to say no to his trusting, honest attitude, and offers to wrap his scarf up tightly for the long journey.
John’s intense loyalty to Ann over many years has blinded him to the evolving challenges in their relationship. The fact that Ann believes a woman should be primarily grateful and self-sacrificing towards her husband has prevented her from communicating the intensity of her feelings of loneliness and boredom to John.
John says he will stop by their friend Steven’s house on his way and tell Steven to visit Ann. Then when John returns in the evening, the three of them can share a game of cards and a social relief from the grinding isolation imposed by the winter weather. Ann protests again, saying that Steven’s house will add miles to a journey which is already too long. She says she will keep herself busy enough by painting the kitchen. John insists again, saying that Ann needs someone other than him to talk to.
John demonstrates his self-sacrificing nature again by offering to walk an extra two miles to make sure Ann has Steven to keep her company. The fact that a game of cards and an old friend coming over for dinner is a treat for Ann shows just how starved she is for human connection. Ann indicates that she wishes she could make time move faster by painting the kitchen.
Ann asks John to shave, if he is going to invite Steven over. She tells him that Steven will have shaved, and that John should spend a little time on himself. John says that he would, but that his unshaven face will keep him warmer for the long walk. Ann helps John dress, and he tells her to have dinner with Steven if he isn’t home by six.
Ann attempts to connect with John through nurturing, caring actions which she feels are appropriate for a good wife. She also indicates that she is dissatisfied with the way John expresses his masculinity with his unshaven face—and it seems like she is comparing him unfavorably with Steven. John does not notice any of this, and remains focused on practicalities.
With John gone, the house feels oppressively cold and silent. Ann tells herself that she’s being silly, and that she just needs to keep herself busy by painting the house. Talking to herself, Ann tries to convince herself that having someone more talkative than John around will make her feel less alone. She imagines that having more visitors over would help keep her and John young, and help them pass the brutal winter until spring comes along.
The emptiness and chill of the house reflect Ann’s feelings of emotional isolation. She thinks of ways to alter the passage of time, imagining that she could hurry along the arrival of spring while simultaneously slowing the process of aging if only they had more young visitors. Ann’s unhappiness with the way time passes shows that she would rather blame an external force for her unhappiness than confront the disconnection which has developed between her and her husband.
As she continues to paint and tidy the house, Ann remembers how spring brings its own struggles. The hopeful blooming of flowers after winter is quickly overshadowed by the long, exhausting days of farm work which leave John too tired to talk, much less take Ann into town. John refuses to hire someone to help him with his work, because he is saving up money to pay down the mortgage as quickly as possible so that he can buy Ann a new house and pretty clothes. Ann knows that it will take years to pay off the mortgage anyways, and wishes that John would spend more time with her instead of working day and night. Although he sees his work as a pure expression of his devotion and love for Ann, she feels that every year of sacrifice makes him a little uglier and less appealing to her. She wishes that she didn’t resent him for the sacrifices he makes, but she can’t help it.
John has a very simplistic understanding of his wife, one that is largely based in traditional gender roles. He believes that she will be happy if he can buy her nice things someday, and he cannot understand that this attitude makes her feel as though they are wasting the best parts of their live in the presents. Their respective attitudes show that the passing of time is subjective—For John, it is steadily ticking away towards something better. For Ann, it seems to be racing towards old age and death.
Ann describes how even though in the winter they have time to relax and socialize, both of them feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t doing work. She wishes she had someone to talk to, but finds the conversation with John or even their neighbors boring and repetitive—it’s just crops, cattle, and the weather, over and over again. The thought occurs to her that each spring really just marks another year closer to death, but she shakes it off. Ann returns to painting and tending the fire, with the heavy ticking of the clock providing an ominous soundtrack. She watches the gathering storm out the window, and reassures herself that John will be on his way back soon.
Both Ann and John feel in their own way that sacrifice is an important expression of love and loyalty. This means that they both feel guilty when they relax and take time to enjoy themselves, even if there is no actual work to be done. This obsession with work contributes to Ann’s feeling of isolation, because it means that she has very few interactions which are purely social. It also is one cause of her uncomfortable awareness of time’s passing.
Ann starts to complain to herself about how stubborn John is, but stops herself. She knows he is doing his best, and that her complaints seem silly. Still, she can’t help but feel frustrated by having lived in a two-room house full of the same old furniture for seven years. She glances out the window at the increasingly violent weather, suddenly worried for John’s safety. She tells herself he won’t risk the journey home and will stay with his father, because he knows better than to set out in this kind of weather. She doubts whether or not Steven will even make the one-mile trip to visit her.
Ann struggles to fully express her frustration with John, even when she is alone. She goes so far as to police herself for mentally stepping outside the boundaries of the “good wife” role. The storm makes her isolation feel even more extreme than usual, and causes her to imagine that she will be abandoned by both John and Steven.
Ann finds the prospect of spending the night alone exciting. She imagines braving the wind and snow to feed the animals, thinking how this small adventure will add a bit of much-needed drama to her life. After spending an hour trying on warm clothes and planning her strategy, she ventures out into the raging storm. The wind is powerful enough to knock Ann off her feet, and she finds herself buried in a snow drift almost instantly. After panicking and struggling for a few moments she realizes with overwhelming certainty that she cannot withstand this brutal storm, and retreats into the house without ever reaching the stables.
Spending the night alone is a rare opportunity for Ann to take action and make decisions which are not purely in support of her husband. Because feeding the animals is necessary, she feels it is acceptable to do something which, as a woman, she would never normally do. When she tries to go outside, however, she is physically defeated by the violent wind and snow. Ann’s isolation is now proven to be complete—she knows that she cannot survive outside, so she must wait for Steven and John to come find her.
Steven then arrives and Ann lets him in. He comments on how shaken and cold she looks, and Ann bursts into tears. Steven comforts her in a slightly condescending tone, and Ann immediately feels embarrassed by her outburst. She dwells on Steven’s boyish, almost insolent smile, and the strong contrast between his looks and John’s. She remembers with distaste how John seems to almost bow before her, whereas Steven looks at her as though nothing about a woman could ever intimidate him.
After this intense experience of isolation, Ann reacts very strongly to the presence of another human. She collapses gratefully in the face of Steven’s reassuring male energy. While around John she is calm and reliable, around Steven she is hysterical, then just nervous. She has taken on a new kind of female role in response to a different kind of masculinity.
Ann is surprised to find herself in a flirtatious mood. Steven’s condescension has inspired her to use her femininity in a way that John’s kindness never does. She describes a feeling of excitement which she can’t quite identify. Steven goes outside to feed the animals and do the other farm chores before the sun sets, and Ann changes into a nicer dress and fixes her hair.
Ann embraces this new way of relating to another person. Flirting with Steven is a welcome relief from sitting in silence with her husband. Steven’s arrogance and attention make Ann feel wanted and understood. She does not admit to herself that she is being flirtatious, as she still feels a strong loyalty to John. When she thinks about his sacrifices for her, however, she is only more attracted to Steven’s confidence.
Ann comments that John will be home for supper soon. Steven disagrees, saying no man would risk a walk home in a storm like this. Ann insists that John has never failed to come home, no matter the weather. Steven seems to find it almost funny that she is so adamant about John’s return, and Ann is suddenly self-conscious that she has made herself look nice for him. She feels an intimidating energy, something dangerous and exciting in the way he smiles at her.
Steven’s presence continues to excite Ann, which causes her to insist even more aggressively that John will be home eventually. She is very uncomfortable with her own attraction to Steven and tries to deny it by talking about John.
Ann and Steven play cards, but Ann is distracted and anxious. Steven’s presence and the idea that John may not return have awakened a feeling which she hesitates to name or fully acknowledge. They pin blankets over the door to keep out the draft, and Ann accidentally smudges the freshly-painted doorway. As Steven continues to insist that John will not risk the storm to come home, Ann realizes that she has been attracted to their young friend for many years.
Ann remains resistant to Steven’s subtle advances, while beginning to acknowledge to herself that she might consider his tacit proposition. The painted door represented Ann’s dedication and care for the life she and John are making together, and when she smudges it going through the doorway it shows that Steven’s presence has caused her to forget what is usually so important to her.
There is a break in the text, and then the narrator describes Ann lying in bed next to Steven, who is sleeping quietly. She watches the flickering light of the wood-burning stove through the bedroom door. As she dozes off, the shadows transform into an image of John standing over her in bed. She feels a hand on her throat, then catches a glimpse of John’s face in the moonlight. His expression is not angry, but rather calm and hopeless. Ann begins to protest that the situation isn’t what it looks like, and then jolts awake. John’s presence was just a guilty nightmare. Awake now, she tries to comfort herself by listing all of the reasons John couldn’t possibly come home tonight.
The break in the text suggests that Ann and Steven have given in to temptation and slept together, though Ross never states it outright. Although Ann has chosen to do this, she feels intensely guilty about it immediately afterward. Her dream (which may not be a dream at all, as we see later) shows us that she is not worried about John’s anger, but rather her own guilt at having betrayed his loyalty. She tries to comfort herself by imagining that he will express his usual loyalty by staying safe at his father’s house tonight.
Ann can’t sleep, and rises to make a fire. She is wracked with guilt at the thought of her infidelity, and feels that she has wronged John unfairly. She is terrified for a moment that John will in fact arrive home and discover what she has done. Gazing at Steven’s peaceful, sleeping face, she decides that she is just being paranoid. Ann realizes that Steven does not feel guilty about what they have done, and believes that because of this it is her responsibility alone. She feels sure that John is the man she wants to spend the rest of her life with, and decides she will spend the days and years to come trying to make up for having cheated on him. She spends the rest of the night standing in the cold draft from the door, listening to the clock ticking away.
Ann understands that the youthful, exciting elements of Steven’s masculinity were momentarily attractive, but that they do not offer any depth or future. She tried on the role of flirtatious young woman, and has discovered that she feels safer as the good, loyal wife. For the first time in the story, she mentions the passing of time without feeling anxiety about it, when she says that she is sure she wants to spend the rest of her life with John. This indicates that her anxiety about time is a result of her feeling dissatisfied with her own life.
John is found the next day, frozen to death. His body is just a little ways beyond the house, and the neighbors assume that he must have been confused by the wind and walked right past it. When Ann kneels next to his body and holds his cold, frozen hand, she notices something. There is a little smear of white paint on his palm.
This ending gives the story its “twist” and makes Ann’s epiphany and decision of the night before—to stay with John and renew her commitment to him—all the more tragic in its futility. When Ann tells the neighbors that anyone who knew John wouldn’t have been surprised that he tried to return home in the storm, she is admitting that she knew all along that he would probably come home. The smudge of paint on John’s hand shows that he returned home safely, but then saw Ann and Steven asleep in bed and chose to walk back out into the snow to die. He sacrificed his own life in despair, but also so that he would never have to confront Ann and be anything other than loyal and supportive to her. His suicide only isolates Ann further, however, by forcing her to live alone with the knowledge that her infidelity drove John to kill himself.