The Impotence of Words and the Vagueness of Truth in Winesburg, Ohio
Sherwood Anderson, in his masterpiece Winesburg, Ohio was “writing against the notion that stories have to have a plot which reveals a moral idea or conclusion” (Prof. Fisher, lecture). Like the “tales” that Doctor Parcival tells George Willard in “The Philosopher,” Anderson’s short stories also seem to “begin nowhere and end nowhere” (51). We as readers must, like George Willard, decide if such stories are little more than “a pack of lies” or if rather, “they contain the very essence of truth” (51). The ability (or lack thereof) of both his characters and his narrator to distinguish between “lies” and “truth” is one of Anderson’s central preoccupations. The people who inhabit Winesburg, Ohio are acutely aware of the impotence of words in the face of expressing any form of truth or meaning. Words, instead, serve as obstacles in uncovering “truth.” It is not only Anderson’s characters, however, which comprehend the impotence of words. The narrator, as we shall see, also struggles to find words that can express “truth.” It’s not surprising then that “truth”, in Winesburg, Ohio takes on a “vague” and amorphous shape that can be described using only the most vague and amorphous of words: “thing.”
Present in nearly all the stories of Winesburg, Ohio is a form of what Lionel Trilling has called the “American Laconic,” a kind of masculine refusal of words and language (Prof. Fisher, lecture). Anderson’s characters are intensely aware of the inability of words to capture, express and explain any form of truth or meaning. In “Mother,” Elizabeth Willard prays that her son, George, will “be allowed to express something for us both” (40). She thinks to herself, “He is groping about, trying to find himself…He is not a dull clod, all words and smartness. Within him there is a secret something that is striving to grow. It is the thing I let be killed in myself” (43). In this instance, “words” are portrayed as an obstacle in both finding oneself and expressing a vague “something,” a vague “truth” of some sort. Similarly, Kate Swift admonishes George to “not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say” (162). Again “words” are seen here as impotent, “mere”; it matters not what words people say, but the feelings and thoughts that are behind the words. Helen White realizes “that the world was full of meaningless people saying words” (239), George Willard decides not to use “speeches” as they “seemed utterly pointless” 237) and the artist Enoch comes to realize that “he knew what he wanted to say, but he knew also that he could never by any possibility say it” (169). Enoch’s case provides an apt example of Anderson’s belief in the impotence and uselessness of words in conveying truthful meaning. Enoch is an artist who hangs out with “talking artists” who “talked and talked” and believe that talking “matters much more than it does” (169). Not only are words portrayed as impotent, they are also viewed as irrelevant. No words could ever capture the truth of Enoch’s paintings; as he puts it “The picture you see doesn’t consist of the things you see and say words about” (169). Words don’t exist in the same realm as the “truths” of Enoch’s paintings, and as such, are not only utterly useless, but, given the context, completely absurd.
But what exactly are these mysterious “truths” which Anderson’s characters are unable to name with “mere words?” Unlike words, which are fixed and unyielding, “truth” in Winesburg, Ohio never takes on a definite shape, and as such, is incapable of being captured by concrete words. In the “Book of the Grotesque” Anderson tells us:
That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful…And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.
It was the truths that made the people grotesques…It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood (24).
“Truths” are composed of “many vague thoughts,” they’re essentially formless and “vague” without definite shape or definite meaning. “Truths” become “falsehoods” when Anderson’s characters try to possess them, like one would possess a solid, ownable object. In Anderson’s world, when persons try to “call” a truth their own, when they try to define it, to give it a name and a form, to use it as a “model” which can be explained and talked about, it is then that the truth becomes a “falsehood.” “Truths” resist naming, they resist labels and words and are constantly changing and reforming shape. For instance, in “Paper Pills,” Doctor Reefy erects “little pyramids of truth” and “after erecting knocked them down again that he might have the truths to erect other pyramids” (35). Later he forms a “truth that arose gigantic in his mind. The truth clouded the world. It became terrible and then faded away and the little thoughts began again” (37), thoughts which he eventually stuffs into his pocket to “become round hard balls” (38). “Truths,” therefore, resist definite shape, they are “pyramids” which are knocked down, they are “round hard balls,” and they resist singularity; which is to say, no single “gigantic” truth can ever take the place of the multitude of truths which exist. In essence, “truth,” as it functions in Winesburg, Ohio is shapeless, vague, un-nameable and multitudinous in nature.
It is not only, however, Anderson’s characters which are unable to name “truth” or express it through words, but Anderson’s omnipotent narrator as well. In “Sophistication,” Anderson’s narrator repeatedly uses the intentionally vague word “thing” to describe (or at least hint at) the truth and meaning of what his characters are experiencing. For example, when Helen and George walk together in the night, Anderson writes, “In the mind of each was the same thought. ?I have come to this place and here is this other,’ was the substance of the thing felt” (241)… “She took his arm and walked beside him in dignified silence. For some reason they could not have explained they had both got from their silent evening together the thing needed. Man or boy, woman or girl, they had for a moment taken a hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible” (243). Notice first of all, as was pointed out before, that it is only in “silence,” (without words), that the characters can grasp this truthful “thing.” Words are again portrayed as an obstacle to truth. But this vague “truth” is not only un-nameable and indescribable for Anderson’s characters. Anderson’s narrator, similarly, is only able to describe it as a “thing.” What, then, is this “thing” to which the narrator continually refers? Put tritely, it is a form of truth that allows Anderson’s characters to survive and persist in the “modern world.” But as with any Andersonian form of “truth,” it must necessarily be without definite shape, name or form. Thus to attempt to describe such a truth in any more specific or concrete terms than as a “thing” would be, for Anderson’s narrator, to turn it into a “falsehood.” For example, in the “Book of the Grotesque” the old writer becomes “filled with words” which puts him in danger of “becoming a grotesque” (24). What ultimately saves him is “the young thing inside him” (24). The old writer doesn’t allow himself to become filled with a definite “truth,” a truth that would then, inevitably, become a falsehood. Ironically what allows him to survive, to find an Andersonian form of “truth” can only be described as a “thing.” We see again that to describe it otherwise would be to metaphorically “kill” it, would make it into a concrete, describable, singular falsehood.
But how can we assert confidently that Anderson’s use of the word “thing” is meant to point to some form of “truth”? The old writer in “The Book of the Grotesque” has a dream where “He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes…They were all grotesques. All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques” (22). The old man understands people for what, he believes, they are: persons clinging to falsehoods, living their lives by a single, concrete, nameable (and hence essentially un-truthful) truth. Conversely, in “Sophistication” the young writer, George Willard, “Looks out upon the world, seeing, as though they marched in a procession before him, the countless figures of men who before his time have come out of nothingness into the world, lived their lives and again disappeared into nothingness” (235). Both writers have a vision of “figures of men” who are living seemingly meaningless, pointless lives; they are people living falsehoods, people who come and go through “nothingness.” There is therefore a direct correlation between George Willard’s use of the word “nothingness” and the old writer’s use of the word “grotesqueness” (i.e., the “falseness” of men). “Nothingness” is an interesting word choice given that the two words which compose it are “no” and “thing.” Remember, moreover, that that which sustains the old writer, that which allows George Willard and Helen to have a night of shared truth and understanding, and that which, in general, “makes life possible in the modern world” is repeatedly described as that “thing.” Therefore a “no-thing” takes on a symbolic meaning here, representing the inherent falseness of men whom attempt to name and possess a single “truth.”
Sherwood Anderson, by understanding the inherent impotence in words in describing and capturing the very nature of truth and what it means to be human, has created a powerful and deeply moving novel. Although Anderson understands the impossibility of ever fully capturing “truth” in words, I believe he comes closest when he writes, “One shudders at the thought of the meaningless of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into his eyes” (241). To attempt to analyze this passage would only kill the inherent truth that its words express.
Small Town, Big City, Same Old Story
Following the Industrial Revolution and urbanization in the United States and Europe, places such as Dublin, Ireland and Winesburg, Ohio would lie on opposite sides of the spectrum as far as geographic size, population, and industrial production. However, Sherwood Anderson and James Joyce share many similar techniques in painting a gloomy picture of life in their respective works of Winesburg, Ohio, and Dubliners. The titles of both works are very misleading in the fact that they boldly suggest that the book is a portrait of the life of people residing in Dublin and Winesburg in the 1910s. True, they do both depict certain aspects of life that apply only to small towns or big cities or something more specific such as Irish nationalism, but they are irrelevant when comparing what is without a doubt the most fascinating feature in both the collections, which is the psychology of the characters. Though any and all claims made about small town life and city life are valid, because they come from the life of the author, neither work is written with the sole intent of depicting a specific region of the world or certain kind of town. The point in both books is that the authors are transcribing the feelings and emotions of the characters when they are placed in these bizarre and often tragic and downright disturbing scenarios. They present life as it exists, not at all diluted because of some fear of presenting a poor image. Aside from the shock value of the books, they share some other similarities in form, style, and themes. As collections of stories go, they both are both extremely significant for their stylistic innovation and rebellion against conventional forms of short stories.
One of these new features was to create characters in their stories that seem to go against the grain of society, so to speak. In Winesburg, Anderson calls them grotesques in the prologue, although he gives a very vague description as to what they actually are. Joyce does not label these characters, but he places characters similar to Anderson’s grotesques in the stories of Dubliners, and they are always the focus of the story or have a profound effect on the main character. It is important to note that as Anderson says, “the grotesques were not all horrible” (Anderson 5), and what he means is that they often lead what seems to be perfectly normal lives, and yet on the inside they have some burning passion for something that will inevitably go unsatisfied. Others, because of some traumatic or effectual event in their past, are controlled by emotions that cause them to exhibit behavior that is conceived by the reader as outrageous by all moral and social standards. In both cases the character demonstrates some fascinating psychology. They seem to be motivated by a fixation on an idea, either something from the past they cannot get out of their mind, or a desire in life that will inevitably go unfulfilled. Occasionally in Dubliners, much will go unknown about these grotesques, if I may now apply the term to certain characters in Dubliners, which epitomize the former. Sometimes Joyce does not give as much of a background of these characters, while Anderson usually manages to give a full description of what makes these characters what they are.
But enough generalizing; let us now look at some specific examples and see what makes these grotesques so unique, what motivates them psychologically, and what it is about their behaviors that is so disturbing.
Anderson and Joyce both present very early on one of the more alarming taboos of society, still a major issue today especially with recent scandals in the priesthood, which is pedophilia. Authors from the early Romantic period and before would be reluctant to even mention such a twisted and controversial topic, but after Freudian psychology and a renewed interest in sexual desires, Modernist writers were anxious to portray the taboo side of sex. Anderson writes, in “Hands,” of his first grotesque, Wing Biddlebaum. Accused of molesting a “half-witted boy,” Wing, then known as Adolph Myers, was driven from town after other students told of how Myers would run his fingers through their hair. It is a depressing first tale, in that Myers appeared to have been a perfectly good teacher, though rather affectionate, but because of the paranoia of others becomes a recluse for the rest of his days, “forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts” (Anderson 9). Even though he never did the deed he was accused of, everyone from his past views him as a sex offender and a homosexual. Even though it has been years since the incident, Wing does not associate with anyone, most likely from fear they will know or even want to know about his past. Because Wing never actually committed any act of pedophilia, Anderson is making more of a statement about the overt concern “with homosexual panic and with the privilege of self-assured heterosexual men to mark and brutalize those who differ in appearance, speech, and behavior” (Yingling 115). So Wing is conceived as a grotesque in this case because he appears to be different (sexually) from others. He is a grotesque within Winesburg because of his inability to function socially within the town. Ray Lewis White attributes this to the fact that “self-ignorance and public stupidity have destroyed the good that Wing Biddlebaum could have given to a world already starved for intellect and inspiration” (White 58). Likewise, the second story of Dubliners presents a nameless character obviously twisted with a desire for young children. “An Encounter” climaxes with the narrator of the story and his friend Mahoney sitting in a field having a seemingly normal conversation with a strange, old, man. The man excuses himself, and they observe him as Mahoney says, “I say! Look what he’s doing!” and “I say…He’s a queer old josser!” (Joyce 20). Joyce leaves it up to us as to what he actually does, but from what Mahoney says and the conversation that ensues regarding the old man’s love for whipping children, one would assume he is gratifying himself in front of these youngsters. Though Joyce gives us little information about the man, he is the grotesque of this story as he is obviously a sexual anomaly. Though most everyone would agree that what the characters desire (or appear to desire) is very wrong, these characters show sexual repression, and this theme is important in many other stories as well.
Similarities in other grotesques of each book will be discussed again, but let us now move on to some major themes of psychological motivation that can often be applied to these grotesques.
One major theme that cannot easily be missed in either collection is that of escape. The feeling of being trapped, whether geographically or emotionally while in a relationship, comes up time and time again, and is often the cause of the twisted persona of the grotesque. Early on in Winesburg, Anderson tells about George Willard’s mother, Elizabeth, daughter of the owner an obvious grotesque, made that way partially from physical illness, and also from some deep-rooted emotional frustrations. She is obsessed with death, mostly her own, as if she can feel it approaching. More importantly, as a younger woman Elizabeth had a dream of escaping Winesburg to join a touring theater company and see the world. This, of course, never happened, but Anderson suggests that she would sleep with travelers in order and share her fantasies with them, and they would only tell her that their life “[is] as dull and uninteresting as this here,” referring to her life in Winesburg (Anderson 31). She hates her husband, Tom, who has “defeated” her by marrying and taking over the hotel, leaving her wishes unfulfilled. Her grotesque really shows through when she becomes obsessed with not letting George fail like she did, enamored with his idea of leaving home as she feels she will be able to live through him. The way Anderson describes this, it seems she wants George to succeed more out of spite for Tom than anything else. This need for geographic escape is apparent in Dubliners as well. The aforementioned boys from “An Encounter” have a youthful sense of adventure and long for an escape from school as the year comes to a close. In “Eveline,” Eveline wrestles with the idea of escape, as it will mean giving up caring for her aging father. Escape is used differently here than with Elizabeth Willard, in that Eveline is torn between her need to escape Dublin with her new husband, Frank, and her devotion to her father. It is clear throughout the narration that she is struggling with what is the right thing to do. In the end, she becomes grotesque as the struggle in her mind proves too strong to be able to behave with such finality, and she stays. There is a simile used here: “She set her face to him, passive, like a helpless animal” (Joyce 36). She is like a helpless animal because from her own thoughts she is overcome by fear so severely that it paralyzes her and leaves here unable to do anything (Riquelme 76).
Escape is used in both of these works in a more metaphorical sense as well, as in wanting to escape the reality of the past and what has come to be. Alice Hindman presents an interesting case in “Adventure.” She shows incredible faith towards her lost lover, Ned Currie, even though she knows he will never return. She is fixated on her past relationship, yet she desperately wants to escape from it. Since it is too late to leave Ned, her need for escape results in her bizarre behavior. Her stripping naked makes her seem reborn, as if having escaped her old life to start anew. By calling to any man around to “go with” her, she is finally escaping her relationship with Ned. Seth Richmond, “The Thinker,” is trapped in a world of his own isolation, unable to ever express himself adequately. Even when he opens up to Helen White, she still rejects him. We leave him convinced that “when it comes to loving someone, it won’t never be me. It’ll be someone else some fool someone who talks a lot…” (Anderson 137). “A Little Cloud” in Dubliners presents the character of Little Chandler, who is frustrated with every aspect of his life, desperately wanting an escape. Meeting a childhood friend, Gallagher, for drinks, who is on business from London, Little Chandler cannot help but compare the two’s lives. Even though Little Chandler is superior to Gallagher in education and upbringing, clearly Gallagher has had more success. The idea of physical escape is mentioned as Chandler informs his friend that he has never traveled beyond the Island of Man. However, as the story comes to a close, it appears that Chandler feels most trapped by his marriage and family life. He refers to marriage as putting “your head in the sack,” and appears to regret having done so himself (Joyce 79). Everything comes crashing down when Chandler comes home to his usual domestic problems; he has forgotten his wife’s coffee, and now his infant will not stop crying. In a moment filled with frustration and clarity, Chandler screams at the baby; the child stops for a moment, then cries even more. When his wife picks up the baby and calms him, Little Chandler begins to cry himself. In this story Little Chandler longs for escape because he hates his life. His dream of being a famous poet will go unfulfilled while Gallagher is now a famous journalist, due to the fact that he left Dublin. Chandler never escaped, but now he longs to escape the life that has become his. He regrets having married, and longs to escape that relationship as well; eventually he lets it all out on the innocent child.
Many other examples of escape recur in both works, but for sake of space, let us move on to the theme of mortality, or more specifically finding life in death. Although at times in Dubliners and Winesburg it can seem as though time seems to be standing still, the characters remind us that time inevitably progresses toward with their fixation on death. Often, it is death that will be the sole escape from the characters’ alienation, hence finding life in death. Elizabeth Willard, as we have already seen, knows she will die soon with her dreams unfulfilled. Even though she has one taste of a new romance with Doctor Reefy, she embraces death, as she passes with “her lovers Death and Doctor Reefy held in her arms. Jesse Bentley, in “Godliness,” has a fixation on finding life in death in a more biblical sense. Definitely a grotesque, he was prepared to sacrifice his grandson, David Hardy, in order to fulfill some religious passion within himself, thus finding life in death. David, having looked death in the face in the form of his own grandfather, flees, never to return. Finally, Enoch Robinson has a twisted run-in with death when he gives up his world of imaginary friends in order to get married because “he began to get lonely and to touch actual flesh-and-bone people with his hands” (Anderson 169). This virtually obliterates his imaginary world to live a more conformist life with a wife and children. His longing for his past world proves too much eventually, and motivated by this Enoch banishes his family, only to find that his old friends are gone for good as well.
In Dubliners, mortality is an issue from the very first story, “The Sisters.” The deceased priest was a friend to the youthful narrator, and it shows the indelible impression death makes on young people. The story demonstrates life in death in two ways. First, there is an unmistakable transition from old to young as the narrator is a child and Father Flynn was an old man. His death is superceded by the youthfulness of the narrator. Additionally, the way the sisters speak of the bizarre behavior of Father Flynn after his death gives him new life in that the narrator will never remember him the same after hearing about him “sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession-box…laughing-like softly to himself” (Joyce 11).
Another fine example of life in death is in the story “The Dead” the final tale in Dubliners, which will tie into yet another similarity, which is the ending of both books. At the end of “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy is wrestling with a number of feelings, mostly the way The Lass of Aughrim affected his wife, Gretta, and the reason behind it. He was at first angry with her wife for being so passionate about a past relationship, until he learns that her lover died years ago. He is relieved, but sentimentalizes with her. He weeps as he realizes how much he loves Gretta, and as the snow falls outside he considers his “journey westward” (Joyce 236). This can be interpreted as death, or as the continuation of life, just as when Michael Furey died, it allowed Gretta to find Gabriel. In Winesburg, George Willard is leaving on a westbound train to start his life in a big city. He had been planning his departure for a long time, yet it is questionable as to whether or not he would leave before his mother’s death. As he leaves Winesburg behind, George thinks not of profound thoughts like death or love, but random images of Winesburgian life invade his thoughts. Although these two endings differ in plot, Anderson and Joyce get inside George and Gabriel’s heads and describe their thoughts like no other time in the stories. “The Dead” switches from action to Gabriel’s thoughts after Gretta falls asleep, leaving him alone to contemplate while the snow falls “upon the living and the dead” (Joyce 236). Likewise, when George gets on the train, for the first time in the book we get to read George’s exact thoughts, how his hope for the future is bright, and how his hometown has “become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood” (Anderson 252).
It is so imperative for both Winesburg and Dubliners to be read as entire works, not just as separate stories. When this is done, one will notice that there are some stylistic similarities. As aforementioned, Anderson finally transcribes George Willard’s thoughts at the end of the book, something that would seem out of place in earlier stories. Throughout the course of Winesburg, Anderson shifts from simply stating the facts about characters, to actually describing their feelings and emotions, making their existence as grotesques easier to understand. The storytelling more or less stays the same, but as the book progresses, Anderson shows off the objectivity of a character’s self. Dubliner’s stories are so different from the beginning to the end that we can actually place them into categories. The first three stories are from the point of view of a child, and hence they are merely sketches (O’Connor 305). The characters are underdeveloped, as if it were a child describing them. One could see these stories as being in the first two chapters of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (O’Connor 310). Starting with Eveline, however, the main characters become older, and Joyce uses a more descriptive style. By the time Joyce reaches “The Dead,” he has spent the last few stories toiling with the complex emotions of aging people, and this will continue through the conclusion. “The Dead” is a more complete story than most of the others in that there is a long drawn out story that serves merely as an introduction to the climax of the story in Gabriel’s room. It is safe to say that “The Dead” marks the end of Joyce’s story writing because he found that when he really started to get into the characters minds, it lost the conciseness of a short story, as “The Dead” nearly does (O’Connor 312-313).
Perhaps simply mentioning objectivity of the self will not suffice. Writers like Joyce were obsessed with aesthetic theory, and for Joyce it meant that art exists solely as an object of creation, a composite sum made up of consonant parts. This carries over into the literature; when a narrator projects his or her own thoughts onto the characters, such as Anderson with George in “Departure” or Gabriel in “The Dead,” the self exists as an object unique from the author or the character. It seems to hang in space, somewhere between the author and character.
The thing to walk away from Winesburg, Ohio and Dubliners with is that the eclectic group of personalities portrayed in the stories could and do emerge from all societies all over the world. The mind, as separate as it may be from the body, still relies on the physical organ of the brain. The brain can malfunction and the results can be terrifying; Anderson and Joyce portray this with chilling effects. It is important to keep in mind that these cerebral imperfections are not typical of small town life, or big city life. It happens to people everywhere, of every ethnic group and every social class.
Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. New York, NY: Penguin Books Ltd., 1993.
Joyce, James. Dubliners. New York, NY: Penguin Books Ltd., 1991.
O’Connor, Frank. “Work in Progress.” Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes. Ed. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York, NY: Penguin Books Ltd., 1986. pp. 304-315.
Riquelme, John Paul. “Metaphors in the Narration: “Eveline.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Dubliners. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York, NY: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.
White, Ray Lewis. Winesburg, Ohio: An Exploration. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1990
Yingling, Thomas. “Winesburg, Ohio and the End of the Collective Experience.” New Essays on Winesburg Ohio. Ed. John W. Crowley. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1990. pp. 99-125.
An Examination of the Nature and Perception of Success in Sherwood Anderson’s “Paper Pills”
Through “Paper Pills,” Sherwood Anderson illustrates the importance appearances play in society when measuring success. The opening paragraphs introduce the two main characters, the doctor and his wife, not by name or even personality, but predominantly by appearance. The narrator recalls the physician as “an old man with a white beard and huge nose and hands” (Anderson 293). Again, as if preoccupied with physical characteristics, the narrator later comments, “the knuckles of the doctor’s hands were extraordinarily large. When the hands were closed they looked like clusters of unpainted wooden balls as large as walnuts fastened together by steel rods” (294). The reference to the sheer size of the doctor’s nose, hands, and knuckles insinuates physical deformity. The word “unpainted” implies the knuckles are unpolished blemishes, the hands rendered hard and unyielding by the metaphorical “steel rods.” The comparison of the doctor’s knuckles to the “gnarled apples” (294) in the orchards of Winesburg, the town in which he lives, suggests that his physical imperfections could, like the substandard apples, lead to repudiation. “On the trees are only a few gnarled apples that the pickers have rejected. They look like the knuckles of Doctor Reefy’s hands” (294). It appeared an anomaly therefore, to the residents of Winesburg, when so unattractive a man should secure a wife of such a pleasing presence. “The girl was quiet, tall and dark, and to many people she seemed very beautiful. Everyone in Winesburg wondered why she married the doctor” (294). The impressions cast by the couple imply different levels of success: the girl seems perfect, the doctor less so.
In “Paper Pills,” the metaphor of the unblemished apples symbolizes perfection. The apples, like the doctor and his wife, have been assessed on their outward façade rather than the quality of what lies within: “The apples have been taken from the trees by the pickers. They have been put in barrels and shipped to the cities where they will be eaten in apartments that are filled with books, magazines, furniture, and people” (294). The placement of the word “people” at the end of the sentence signifies that material possessions seem of greater importance than the people themselves. The possessions embody their success, rendering it unnecessary to identify the people. As a doctor, the main character of the story also had the potential to lead a successful life in terms of material comforts: “Winesburg had forgotten the old man, but in Doctor Reefy there were the seeds of something very fine” (294). The character only receives an identity through his role as a doctor. Without it he seems anonymous, almost irrelevant to society.
Left “a large fertile farm” (293) on the death of her father, the girl the doctor will marry also had the potential for a successful life. The agricultural image of “seeds” and fertility encapsulates the idea of potential growth and a successful yield. The girl’s inheritance attracts numerous suitors eager to share her wealth and the accompanying feeling of success: “The death of her father and mother and the rich acres of land that had come down to her had set a train of suitors on her heels” (295). The word “train,” whether it refers to the vehicle or a long attachment, emphasizes the quantity of the suitors, and together with the phrase “on her heels” implies their dogged pursuit much like hounds in search of a kill. The image of hungry beasts continues. The girl dreams that one suitor has “bitten” (295) into her body, his jaws “dripping” (295). Another suitor, in his moment of passion, does actually bite her leaving “the marks of his teeth (295)” in her shoulder. The violent imagery emphasizes not just physical lost for the girl but an almost inhuman appetite to own her and her wealth.
In contrast, the doctor does not desire the material symbols of success. Although he had the financial means to dress well, the doctor chose to wear the same suit for ten years, indifferent to its shabbiness or the negative opinions it drew from others. Aspiring to live not in a city apartment but “alone in his musty office (294),” even after he inherits his wife’s wealth, Doctor Reefy does not share his society’s greed for these hallmarks of success. The description of his removal of a patient’s tooth reminds the reader of the teeth marks left on the girl’s shoulder by the greedy suitor. By removing the tooth, Doctor Reefy symbolically counters the insatiable appetite of society to possess and own. When the doctor and the girl marry, they do so willingly with genuine affection and respect for each other. In choosing to marry, the doctor becomes her “twisted apple” (294) and she his (her loss of virginity renders her incomplete and therefore imperfect). Each looks past the imperfections of the other and acknowledges those virtues that have gone undetected by others: “Only a few know the sweetness of the twisted apples” (294). They achieve fulfillment in the beauty of genuine affection.
Rejecting the shallow values of society, the doctor looks elsewhere for a sense of fulfillment. Prior to his marriage, he had already begun the routine of jotting down thoughts on scraps of paper. “The habit had been formed as he sat in his buggy behind the jaded white horse and went slowly along country roads. On the papers were written thoughts, ends of thoughts, beginnings of thoughts” (294). The description of Doctor Reefy traveling “slowly” behind his “jaded” horse to conduct house calls suggests a weariness or disinterest in his job as a medical doctor. He distracts himself by writing scraps of thoughts onto pieces of paper as he travels. The syntax of the line, “on the papers were written thoughts, ends of thoughts, beginnings of thoughts,” suggests that the ideas as yet lack clear formation. When the scraps of paper form “hard balls” (294) in his pocket, they literally resemble paper pills. Yet the title of the story works on a deeper level as well. The description “Paper Pills” refers not just to the round appearance of the scrunched up paper, but infers that the thoughts themselves serve as medicine to benefit others.
Doctor Reefy, dissatisfied with the mindset of his world, struggles to form and communicate new ideas to improve its well-being. He “worked ceaselessly, building up something that he himself destroyed. Little pyramids of truth he erected and after erecting knocked then down again that he might have the truths to erect other pyramids” (294). The triangular shape of a pyramid suggests that the doctor’s search for an absolute truth symbolizes a search the meaning of life. The fact that he keeps destroying and rebuilding the pyramids implies either a lack of success or rather that the truth, too dynamic or potent, intensifies his disillusionment of the world and its need for change. The passing of Reefy’s wife supports this notion – the doctor had shared his ideas with her and her unexplained death implies that the thoughts themselves destroyed her. Doctor Reefy’s ideas result in his own isolation. The narrator describes how “he smoked a cob pipe and after his wife’s death sat all day in his empty office close by a window that was covered in cobwebs. He never opened the window” (294). The fire from the “cob pipe” symbolizes the doctor’s desire for truth and the smoke his swirling thoughts. The cobwebbed window blocks his vision, literally and metaphorically, while the locked window separates Reefy from the rest of his world. Alone and unable to communicate, his perception of success cannot be realized.
Anderson presents opposing perceptions of success in his text “Paper Pills.” For the majority, appearances alone signify success or failure. Doctor Reefy’s physical abnormalities deem him less than perfect, irrespective of the virtues that may lie within. Personal assets, in the form of material possessions, indicate achievement for some, like the residents of the city apartments. Through their pursuit of the girl’s wealth, the greedy suitors demonstrate that the pursuit of success exhibits selfishness at the expense of others. The Doctor rejects materialism and seeks his own fulfillment through thought and the quest for truth. Perceiving his society as unhealthy, the doctor does not want to cure people’s physical ailments but heal their misguided beliefs. At the end of his life, Doctor Reefy stands alone, imprisoned in a cell, both literally and metaphorically. Trapped with his own irrepressible ideas, he remains unable or unwilling to be part of a society whose values he cannot share.
“Sophistication”- Anderson’s Blidungskurzgeschichte
Of all of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio, one stands out as a clear example of character growth through emotional maturity and connection with another human being. “Sophistication” tells that story, one of the simultaneous climax of two peoples’ youth, and their epiphanic transition into adulthood and maturity. Through the internal and shared conflicts of the characters, their subsequent resolution, the structure of the plot, and the fundamental style and word choice of Anderson’s writing, a pair of confused and isolated adolescents find the companionship they need for the moment in time they need to grow into adults together. Anderson’s choice of words and style throughout the story clearly establish the themes of the story, namely domesticity and coming of age.
First, Anderson begins by setting the story in the wake of the county fair, a place for juvenile merriment for adults and children alike if there ever was one. By combining the adult with the juvenile here, Anderson establishes that this story will discuss the lines between the two, and what separates a man from a boy, and a woman from a girl. Further, Anderson brings up the transience and meaninglessness of life time and again in the story, noting that 18-year-old George “Already… hears death calling”, and that “It seemed to [Helen] that the world was full of meaningless people saying words” (151). His concluding sentence to a paragraph describing the emotions one feels at a deserted fairground, “One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life…”, further demonstrates this notion. However, the conclusion to that very sentence, “… and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes”, demonstrates that Anderson is not hopeless (154). He reassures the reader that, though they may be confronted with such problems from time to time, the moments of existential despair are often counterbalanced with moments of equally existential joy, and that life is a wonderful and terrible curse and spell that is placed on us. George’s former immaturity is a theme in the center of the story, as an exercise in reflection that George undertakes, and for which he feels shame. This immaturity is displayed through the style in which Anderson portrays the summer night that George and Helen spent together. What is telling about the scene is the complete lack of speech from Helen, and the blustering speech of George.
Anderson makes clear that an insecure George had wanted Helen to respect him, that he wanted “to make himself appear big and significant in her eyes” (151). Anderson makes certain that the reader knows that under the talk, George is a frightened young man, longing for validation from this girl before him. Several phrases cut in one after the other, “The confused boy… His voice trembled… In his desperation George boasted” (152). George is consistently attempting to display an outward front of masculinity, while inwardly he is isolated and alone. What is more, George isolates Helen in his attempt to get closer to her, by removing her agency, as manifested by her lack of dialogue. He says “‘I want you to do something. I don’t know what. Perhaps it is none of my business. I want you to try to be something different from other women. You see the point. It’s none of my business I tell you. I want you to be a beautiful woman. You see what I want.” (152). Not only is George silencing her, all he is discussing is what he wants for her, not accounting for her desire, and despite stating twice himself that it is ‘none of his business’. It is no coincidence that Helen also does not speak over the instructor who has come as a suitor, despite his many lines of dialogue. This immaturity acts a foil to George’s later thoughts in the fall, when “He [has] reverence for Helen” (154). The characters George and Helen go through much of this story with a parallel conflict towards each other, not of contempt or opposition, but of longing. They each think on the other simultaneously, “Helen White was thinking of George Willard even as he wandered gloomily through the crowds thinking of her”, and they both want desperately for the other to appreciate them, and to value them as adults worthy of respect (151). From George’s perspective, “he wanted to be with her and try to make her feel the change he believed had taken place in his nature”, while from Helen’s, “She wanted him to feel and be conscious of the change in her nature.” (151).
Note that Anderson chooses the word nature to end the lines, because both Helen and George believe that they have become entirely different during their time away. This is true; they have both changed a great deal since the encounter Anderson relates that took place during the summer, and George in particular remembers his former self from that evening with shame (152). However, they are not yet adults, as evidenced by the emotions Anderson expresses that they are feeling. Helen is “no longer a girl, and hungered to reach into the grace and beauty of womanhood”, where George’s transition is described thusly, “The mood that had taken possession of him was a thing known to men and unknown to boys” (150-151). Through these two lines, the reader sees that the two have begun their transition from adolescence into adulthood. The conflict of longing begins to resolve itself when the two meet to travel to the hill overlooking the deserted county fair. Once George finds Helen, he is dumbstruck, and despite the fact that he has spent the entire walk over to her house vocally proclaiming his intentions to speak with her, “George wonder[s] what he had better do and say” (153). This line begins the tension of the story, built through an unusual manner of emotional relief for the characters. The key tension of the conflict is whether George and Helen will embrace domesticity and adulthood together. Anderson draws out the slowly fading tension in the characters, using phrases like “the irritation was all gone. The presence of Helen renewed and refreshed him” (154), and “‘I have come to this lonely place and here is this other’” (154). The images of domesticity are reinforced by the mention of “Farmers with their wives and children” (154). An apparent climax of this conflict occurs with the simple phrase “Mutual respect grew big in them” (155), and with that moment, the reader is led to believe that they have made their choice, and that they will live and love together. But the exact opposite is true.
In a way, it is a tragedy when Anderson writes, “For some reason they could not have explained they had both got from their silent evening together the thing needed… the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible” (155). With these closing lines, Anderson hints towards the next story, “Departure”, and how Helen and George neither speak to nor see each other. In essence, the two have gained what they needed from each other. They were stepping-stones on each other’s journey, and will depart from each other’s company, possibly forever. To conclude, “Sophistication” is Anderson’s attempt to show the way that George and Helen cross the threshold into adulthood simultaneously during one night of chaste emotional ecstasy. Anderson demonstrates the power of an emotional connection, and the joy that accompanies it. To the reader, he portrays a tragedy, characterized by the realization that they have garnered from each other the lesson they needed, and now they will go their separate ways, perhaps never to meet again.