Sherwood Anderson’s Critique of Modernity in Winesburg, Ohio
In his collection of short stories about a simple American country town, Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson offers a critique of the emerging modern society of the early 20th century. Anderson establishes his disillusionment toward modernity by presenting the contemporary times in a materialistic and somewhat mournful fashion. He uses literary devices, specific characters, and plot lines to showcase a small town that is on the verge of transitioning into a modern society, rebelling against traditional values to create a sense of isolation and degeneration. Throughout the novel, Anderson uses a plain and unobtrusive voice in an effort to portray the simplicity of those whose lives he reports on. Anderson uses one primary device to showcase how truly isolated the individuals in the town are: George Willard, the reporter for the local newspaper, The Winesburg Eagle. George serves as the middleman for the entire town. The residents of Winesburg feel so isolated and alone that they can only confide in a person who seems to be removed from the issues in the small town. Thus, the residents of Winesburg see George as a symbolic sanctuary in which to share their life stories, secrets, and private concerns. Doctor Parcival is one of the first characters to openly confide in George Willard. Parcival himself does not understand why he is drawn to George, saying, “Why I want to talk to you of the matter I don’t know. I might keep still and get more credit in your eyes. I have a desire to make you admire me, that a fact. I don’t know why.” Doctor Parcival’s words communicate a basic human longing – the wish to belong – a theme present throughout the book. Parcival feels that he has no one to share his life with in the new town of Winesburg. To Anderson, Parcival represents the typical turn-of-the-century man, struggling to accept modernity. He is not able to simply communicate his personal emotions. Instead, he singles out George as someone who may appreciate what he has to say. Anderson even addresses the degeneration of religion in America. The fact that Doctor Parcival wishes to write a novel where he theorizes that “everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified” represents Parcival’s distorted view of religion. When Parcival refuses to help the young girl who is thrown from the horse-drawn buggy, he demonstrates his unwillingness to help the same men who refuse his theories and concerns. Even further, Parcival’s fear that the men “will come again bearing a rope in their hands” is symbolic of the divide between modern man and his peers. “Godliness” is the word that is melancholically used to describe Jesse Bentley, the estranged town elder who borders on being labeled a Christian extremist. At the beginning of the chapter, there is a obvious contrast between Jesse and his descendants. Anderson provides a strong visual element in his writing: “By the standards of his day Jesse did not look like a man at all. He was small and very slender and womanish of body.” It is also relevant to the theme of religious degeneration to note that Jesse attempts – and later fails – at becoming a Presbyterian minister. Only then does he return to manage the family farm. Jesse proves to be the character most centered on power and capital. He is a metaphor for the commonality of the disillusioned modern man, who attempts to achieve happiness through capital gain and superiority. Jesse’s modern tendencies are evident in his ignorance of the sensitivity of those around him, and his goals of achieving money and power. Jesse is the only brother who left the farm to live in the city – another obvious symbol of the modern movement toward industrialism and away from “small, country towns”. When Jesse returns to Winesburg he is overcome by a need for power and a desire to reach out for God. He ignores everyone else, including his wife, and later even drives his own grandson away from him. In the end, his religious brutality and greed push all of his loved ones away, and Jesse is left as isolated as he always perceived himself to be. Finally, the story of Alice Hindman, in “Adventure”, is one of absolute tradition, showcasing Anderson’s negativity and avoidance of modernity. Alice and her suitor, Ned Currie, court traditionally, with long, moonlit walks down Main Street, until Ned decides to move to Cleveland to make money for their future. This is Anderson’s first indication of his distrust and dislike of cities and modern times. Ned cannot make enough money or be satisfied solely living and working in Winesburg; he must leave the small town to be successful. During their passionate last night together, Alice and Ned, “[become]lovers”, and make a vow to “stick to each other.” For a while, Ned and Alice write every day while he is away in Cleveland. However, as time progresses, Ned moves to Chicago and finds himself in the company of many other young people, including a woman who “attracted his attention and he forgot about Alice.” However, back in Winesburg, Alice, “after what happened in the moonlight in the field, felt that she could never marry another man.” Alice’s unwillingness to move on after giving her body to her lover symbolizes her belief in love and tradition. Even if she must live her life alone, Alice “could not have understood the growing modern idea of a woman’s owning herself and giving and taking for her own ends in life.” In the story of Alice can be found Anderson’s two-fold attack on modernity. First of all, Anderson sees Ned’s wish to leave Winesburg as the catalyst that begins destroying their relationship and future together. Ned feels he must leave the small town in order to make money and be successful – one of modern man’s most profound illusions. Secondly, Anderson sees the fact that Alice and Ned become lovers as a failure to demonstrate traditional values, which ultimately tears them apart. Perhaps if they had not made love in the moonlight, Ned would have had a stronger desire to return for Alice. However, despite Anderson’s strong feelings against modern society, in “Adventure” Anderson portrays Alice as helpless and unwilling to take charge of her own life. This is a stark contrast to Anderson’s previous sentiment with regards to modernity. Throughout the novel, Anderson outlines our understanding of the people of Winesburg, Ohio, by referencing his growing sentiment against the modernity of the times. By using literary devices, character development and plotlines, Anderson reveals his belief that post-turn-of-the-century America was sadly oriented around money and power. Ultimately, the individuals in Winesburg are symbols of of small-town citizens across the United States. They feel disillusioned and isolated from their relationships, families, and even from themselves; this, in turn, push themselves further toward isolation and the degeneration of the constantly-advancing society.
The Flawed Notion of the City and a Superior Alternative in Winesburg, Ohio
The final sentence of Winesburg, Ohio imprints the image of the town fading away as George Willard departs for the city. In fact, to view the novel in larger units, the final chapter is conspicuously named “Departure,” and for any reader who bothers to take in the table of contents page before starting the book it is fairly easy to deduce how Winesburg, Ohio will end before it even begins. The notion of escape from the town of Winesburg is common throughout the book, and the intended destination for escape is usually some undefined “city.” As a recurring element, however, it fits into a broader theme of the novel, that of a need for change in general. The two means through which change can occur can be classified as outburst and escape, with each occupying slightly different niches in the novel. Escape, being the culminating event of the novel, is clearly given prominence. But examination reveals that flight to the city is a largely flawed notion which is idealized by many but yields results which are actually embittering and not much better, empirically, than life in Winesburg. Outburst actually serves as a slightly more successful outlet for the anxieties of Winesburg’s citizens.Outburst in Winesburg, Ohio can be defined as any of the many actions which happen suddenly and often rather spontaneously, undertaken by the adults of Winesburg. Prime examples include Alice Hindman running naked through the streets in “Adventure,” Kate Swift passionately embracing George Willard and then bursting out of the room in “The Teacher,” and the explosive series of events on the final night in “The Strength of God.”Escape needs little explanationflight from Winesburg occurs at the end of the novel, at the end of the “Godliness” stories, and it occurs or is discussed in many of the other stories in Winesburg, Ohio. The notion of escape also carries with it a unique pairing with the related element of entry into Winesburg. Doctor Parcival in “The Philosopher” and Wing Biddlebaum in “Hands” are two characters who have come to Winesburg from other places. A third idea that is related to escape and entry is the idea of what transpires outside of Winesburg. These three ideas are linked in that they represent the three states of being in relation to the city that is so frequently referred tomovement to the city, away from the city, and life inside the city. All three figure prominently in Winesburg, Ohio.The importance of the return from the city and the events which transpire in the city would not seem very important in analyzing escape to the city if not for the cult-like or mythical status that the city is given in the book. The final story in the book illuminates this, as George Willard leaves “to meet the adventure of life” (153). It is left ambiguous which city Willard is leaving for. This nonspecific terming of “the city” (or “some city”) appears frequently. Seth Richmond in “The Thinker,” Curtis Hartman in “The Strength of God,” and Alice Hindman in “Adventure” all use these vague words in their fairly vague plans to leave Winesburg.While this failure to name any specific cities as destinations might be attributed to the vagueness of their plans or their ambivalence, it seems rather to be a literary tool. First, it is unlikely that George Willard is without any formal destination, yet none is formally named in “Departure.” Second, the consistency with which Winesburg residents hoping to leave for a city neglect to name any actual city suggests that a deliberate decision in Anderson’s mind. This decision can probably be grouped with Anderson’s general tone of emphasizing the small-town bucolic worldview of Winesburg’s residents.Given this elevation of the concept of city, it is therefore necessary to examine the evidence that Anderson has provided regarding what actually happens in cities, and how much of that is known by the very people in Winesburg, Ohio who yearn to leave for them. There is actually a surprising amount of material here. Despite the alleged concept of the entire book as a chronicle of lives in Winesburg, many of the stories deal partially or entirely with events lived out in cities. “Loneliness” is one story which is framed in Winesburg but otherwise takes place in the city, as is “Hands,” to a lesser extent.Outside of Winesburg is actually where some of the worst actual events happen. The accusations of molestation and the threat of mob violence in “Hands” are two events that outpace anything within the limits of Winesburg in terms of sheer significance beyond the personal, psychological level. The city is where alcoholics live (“Tandy”), where affairs live to fruition (“Respectability”) as opposed to the adultery which blossoms but is never realized in Winesburg (“Death”), and where murder is a real event rather than a news item (“The Philosopher”).It seems, then, that Anderson utilizes the city for two distinct purposes. The first is as a means of writing about sensational or disastrous events that mar the lives of people without having to disrupt the superficial calm of little Winesburg. The second use of the city is as a somewhat undefined, hazy location that can nicely serve as an idealized “other place” for certain unfulfilled Winesburg residents.The aforementioned negatives that the city possesses should make it a less appealing and even unfavorable destination for the “thousand George Willards” who leave Winesburg for the city (152). The city is not completely written off, though, for two reasons. The first is that the people leaving Winesburg are not necessarily looking for a great, or even better, life. Their main desires are simply for change and freedom. When the Reverend Curtis Hartman muses about leaving for the city to “get into business,'” it is clear that he is only choosing such an alternative because of the concern that he will not be able to continue his preferred career and lifestyle (90). Similarly, Seth Richmond, in “The Thinker,” tells himself he will go “to some city and go to work'” only because he is “depressed by the thought that he was not a part of the life in his own town” (78). The city is not seen with any certainty as an paradise.The second reason why the city manages to exist as a destination of choice is because of the severe breach in communication in the town. Quite simply, it is possible that nobody knows about the bad things that happen in the city. The stories of Wash Williams, Wing Biddlebaum, Enoch Robinson, and other refugees from the city are untold. There is a distinct gap of contact between many groups, including the old and the young. And it is the young who want to leave for the city and the old who return from it. The only person who knows all of the stories of the city is George Willard, but the stories can be seen as an incentive for him, as a journalist, to go out to where they happened in search of more.Notable also is the fact that these stories are always specific in naming the exact city in which things happen. Clearly, the city loses its mystique once it has been reached. But not only is the city without a mystique, it is also fairly unreceptive to newcomers. Nobody who lives in the city either before or after living in Winesburg enjoys prosperity or much contentment at all. Ned Currie is one character who seems to carve a niche for himself in Chicago, but only as a reporter and only after a long spell of loneliness. The most financially successful character in Winesburg, Ohio is Jesse Bentley, who actually makes his fortune after coming to Winesburg from elsewhere.The pieces of evidence that reveal the city as a fairly inhospitable, non-ideal destination for those feeling stifled in Winesburg amount to an almost-moot point in any case, because few people leave for the city anyway. It is expensive. Based on the few cases when people who consider it actually do move to the city, the change is costly if it is intended to be permanent. Age also seems to be slightly prohibitive, as only the younger characters seem to consider it. Gender can also be assumed as a factor, with Helen White being the only female who leaves during the timeframe of the book.What remains, then, for the stifled citizens of Winesburg, Ohio (who amount to almost everybody)? What remains is the other type of drastic action that is taken by the characters in the noveloutburst of some sort, ranging from smashing a window (The Strength of God”) to running naked through the street (“Adventure”) to getting drunk and making up stories (“Drink”).Empirically, better results seem to be had with outburst than with escape. This is partly due to the encapsulated nature of an outburst as opposed to the open-endedness of escape. A specific outburst like running naked has a predetermined end, and is seen as one event that begins and ends. Moving to the city, however, is an action with an uncertain future. While this is its appeal to George Willard, wonder and discovery do not seem to be part of the motivation for the other people who move to the city. They move distinctly for a better life or a new job or because they feel they have to. So it can be said that outbursts often yield a better end result because the results are known from the beginning. There is a feeling in the book that once these actions of outburst take place, the pressure has been released from within the person and things have become better for a time. The city, in its open-ended vagueness and lack of a definitive goal, suggests an endlessness that is a few steps away from hopelessness.This is supported if specific events of outburst are examined. Tom Foster, in “Drink,” is “glad'” to have gotten drunk, and he views it as a successful experiment in his life (134). Alice Hindman’s adventure, in which she runs naked in the rain, is by no means an unequivocal success. But during the episode, she feels “full of youth and courage” (67). Afterwards, she weeps in her bedroom, but a critical realization has been reached”the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg” (67). This is a kernel of wisdom that results directly from Alice’s drastic but short-lived outburst. Such wisdom is not seen in the young people who leave for the city. They are much more doe-eyed, as if they are naïvely leaving and that same naïveté will make rare the acquisition of wisdom. The awakening that happens to George Willard at the very end of “An Awakening” is similarly the result of a moment of outburst, a release of emotion that flares up and dies down quickly, of which he is the victim in this case. The impression given of Windpeter Winters’ wild and extraordinary death in “The Untold Lie” is that it is viewed with a sort of awe or at least respect by “most boys” who would prefer it to “humdrum lives” (124). While it resulted in Winters’ death, it also fulfills the implicit requirement of being a drastic, memorable, unique event in a town where staying static is the thing most dreaded. On the contrary, people who leave seem to be generally forgotten or simply lose touch.Certainly, the general impression given to a reader of Winesburg, Ohio is one of entrapment regardless of how one chooses to act upon his or her stifling situation. Things are never portrayed optimistically. But for the level with which the city is a quasi-mythical place, it is striking that Anderson gives it such a damning portrayal through the stories of those who have lived there. Outburst within the limits of Winesburg is not better by much, but it does possess certain superior qualities as a release than escape, and these advantages are, in fact, borne out for the characters in the book.
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.
Hands Across Winesburg: Synecdochic Connections in Winesburg, Ohio
The sum of the partsthe vignettes of townsfolkof Winesburg, Ohio is greater than the whole novel. Winesburg, too, is only one town in all of Ohio, which is one of a host of states in the U.S. This magnification is at the heart of the novel, in which synecdoche is the main lens through which Sherwood Anderson allows us to regard the grotesques. This narrow aperture of perception does not compromise full characterization, but instead forces the reader into searching for subtle connections within and across the sketches. The opening story, “Hands,” launches the titular synecdochic motif whose pairings Anderson systematically and symmetrically deploys. Discounting the final brief story, “Departure,” and the prologue-like “The Book of the Grotesque,” the opening story complements the final story. Within this diptych and throughout the other pieces, Anderson feeds the epitomized symbol of human connection, the hand, into a matrix of binaries and hidden connections. He outlines the hand’s numerous antithetical uses (for instance, as both a formal farewell handshake and a lover’s caress) and reveals the gesticulative associations between ostensibly disparate characters. Though we may glimpse only a character’s hand, by tracing its antitheses and parallels we can blow up that portion into a full-sized portrait, just as we come to understand a town by all its citizens, a state by all its towns, and a country by all its states. And just as the U.S. is comprised of neither solely Ohio nor solely Oregon, but of the whole union, so does the hand embody neither exclusively intimacy nor exclusively alienation, but the entire spectrum of human contact.I will begin by examining what I find the crux of the novel’s conflict, the paradoxical deployments of hands within the stories. The paradox features an impossible or illogical state of being for the hand, but one that exists nonetheless. Anderson cues us to the paradox’s importance by showing Wing Biddlebaum “rubbing his hands together and looking up and down the road” (5). The gesture has little to do with his vision at the moment, but suggests that the reader similarly look both ways when reading through the book and exercise his depth perception. We take note of the perplexing admixture of human emotion under the surface of a simple handshake: “He put out his hand as though to greet the younger man and then awkwardly drew it back again” (141). The relationship between the two menthat of a doctor greeting a dead patient’s sonis summed up by the handshake, a formalized mode of greeting in a situation that requires the tact of more informal tactility. The ambivalence that meets a person when thrust into society, of desiring intimacy but fearing the proximity, is the central motivation of the grotesques, as voiced by an eighteen-year-old George Willard, who later recants his vows with angry, forced aloofness: “With all his heart he wants to come close to some other human, touch someone with his hands, be touched by the hand of anotherHe wants, most of all, understanding” (145).But such an understanding is difficult when the paradoxes reveal their irreconcilable and incomprehensible origins. Insecure about his baldness, Wing’s hands futilely play about his “bare white forehead as though arranging a mass of tangled locks” (5). The anxiety over the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” is indicative of Wing’s attempts to create connections or proclaim presence where none exists. Similarly confounding is his means of articulation: “The slender expressive fingers, forever active, forever striving to conceal themselves in his pockets or behind his back, came forth and became the piston rods of his machinery of expression” (6). Though his words are emphasized through gesticulation, the hands visually divert attention from the verbal meaning. His humanity may be revealed more clearly through his gestures, but it is also reduced by the robotic associations of “piston rods.”Moving beyond the paradox, contradictions play a key role in defining strictly alternative operations of the hand. Created through juxtaposition of two opposing uses of the hand, they showcase the multidimensionality of the hand that might evade notice if viewed as isolated instances. Wing, as schoolmaster Adolph Myers, touches his students with communicative love:In a way the voice and the hands, the stroking of the shoulders and the touching of the hair was a part of the schoolmaster’s efforts to carry a dream into the young minds. By the caress that was in his fingers he expressed himself. He was one of those men in whom the force that creates life is diffused, not centralized. (8)Three paragraphs later, the father of one of the students inverts Myers’s soft touch with his “hard knuckles” as he beats him. While his force is also one of diffusion, it is a dissipation of destruction: “Screaming with dismay, the children ran here and there like disturbed insects” (8). The violent is again paired with the nurturant in the modifying operations of utilitarian objects. An angry mob of men with “lanterns in their hands” carries the banal objects with venom, as does the man with a “rope in his hands” (9). Back in present time, Wing uses a knife, not even named in the passage, to “cut slices of bread and spread honey upon them” (9). Lanterns and rope as instruments of death and a knife as an aid for sustenance, each made so by the intent of the controlling hands, encapsulates the contradictory range of the hand as inevitably seeking both life and death, contact and alienation.How does the hand figure as an agent of these conflicting aims between characters? We are told that “[T]he story of Wing Biddlebaum’s hands is worth a book in itself” and, indeed, comparable details of supposedly unique gestures abound throughout Winesburg, Ohio. The laying of a hand upon a shoulder recurs among the characters, but with different intentions. In “The Thinker,” Helen puts “her hand upon Seth’s shoulder” in an “actof pure affection and cutting regret” (82). In “Sophistication,” George takes the touch of Helen’s shoulder as an advanced state of hand-holding: “In the darkness he took hold of her hand and when she crept close put a hand on her shoulder” (149). But his and Helen’s affection is borne not from pure affection, but from an insecurity of anonymous alienation, where neither lover nor the emotion is named: “‘I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,’ was the substance of the thing felt” (149). Wing is the progenitor of the shoulder motif, “caressing the shoulders of the boys” as schoolmaster in his “effort to carry a dream into the young minds” (9). In a moment of blissful oblivion from his manual torment, he repeats the verbal and accompanying physical lesson with George: “For once he forgot the hands. Slowly they stole forth and lay upon George Willard’s shoulders’You must try to forget all you have learned,’ said the old man. You must begin to dream'” (8).Though Wing is a pariah by any account, his shared tendencies with others implies that either he is not as alone as he believes, or that other, more socially fluent members of Winesburg are equally alone. He recoils from touching George, remembering his past: “With a convulsive movement of his body, Wing Biddlebaum sprang to his feet and thrust his hands deep into his trousers pockets” (7). In “The Thinker,” Seth Richmond fantasizes about an idyllic summer scene with Helen White, “her hand lying in his hand” (81). Then, when he returns to the somewhat starker reality with her, he echoes Wing’s actions nearly to the word: “Releasing the hand of the girl, he thrust his hands into the trouser pockets” (81). Wing’s closest ties remain with George, his only friend, and the unofficial bookends of “Hands” and “Sophistication” unveil their links of loneliness through the closeness of events. In “Hands,” we are told that “Winesburg was proud of the hands of Wing Biddlebaum in the same spirit in which it was proud of Banker White’s new stone house and Wesley Moyer’s bay stallion, Tony Tip, that had won the two-fifteen trot at the fall races in Cleveland” (6). In “Sophistication,” George feels “so utterly lonely and dejected” after the Winesburg Country Fair, but is spurred on by pride, “swinging his arms” much as Wing would (147). This is nothing extraordinary, but the gathering he happens upon is too similar to the communal pride described in “Hands”: “He came to Westley Moyer’s livery barn and stopped in the shadows to listen to a group of men who talked of a race Westley’s stallion, Tony Tip, had won at the Fair during the afternoon” (147). Though different horse races (the discrepancy in the spelling of Moyer’s first name seems to be a printing or authorial error), the related set of circumstances and the resulting emotiondesolate isolation within a communal celebration (if we infer that Wing does not share the same pride with the town over his hands)bonds Wing and George in ways neither comprehends on his own. While Wing beats his fists in frustration on the “walls of his house,” George puts his “hand against the wall to support himself” after seeing his dead mother (6, 142). The image of walls is not coincidental; the physical and invisible structures of the community keep its members apart, but Wing and George try, perhaps in vain, to break through those boundaries in their shared movements.The distanced endpoints of holding and touch extend towards the infinitudes of origin and end for Elizabeth Willard in “Death,” in the two “moments when her lovers Death and Doctor Reefy held her in her arms” (143). The touch of the doctor, preserver of life, is equated with that of death, which “like a living thing put out his hand” to Elizabeth (140). The hand, then, is the possessor of every possible form of contact, and it is fitting that the novel’s final moment of contact serves as a synecdochic farewell from the town to George: “Getrude Wilmothad never before paid any attention to George. Now she stopped and put out her hand. In two words she voiced what everyone felt” (152).
“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.
Emotional and Sexual Repression in Winesburg, Ohio
In the short stories “Hands,” “Paper Pills,” and “Drink” by Sherwood Anderson in the collection Winesburg, Ohio, Andersen shows that American emotions and sexuality are so repressed that people often choose isolation over human connection by revealing his character’s inner struggles against their deepest desires, even though these desires are natural and human. The main character of “Hands” is haunted by the claims of pedophilia that ended his life as a teacher, and is now living in constant fear that touching other people will have him beaten and brutalized again. The doctor of “Paper Pills” struggles to express himself emotionally after the death of his wife and closest confidant. In “Drink,” the reader follows a young man traumatized by his experiences of prostitutes growing up in an inner-city slum, and how his perception of women and sexuality changes after falling for a girl who is unlike the women he knew as a teenager.
Wing Biddlebaum, the main character of “Hands,” is terrified by human touch after the friendly, innocent touching between him and his students was construed into accusations of pedophilia and molestation. After he was forced to flee twenty years before the events of the story, Wing begins to constantly flap and move his hands to avoid touching other people. Despite this forcing a permanent outcast status upon him, Wing is so deeply traumatized that he does not stop moving his hands. This causes him to have just one friend, who is the young George Willard. Wing’s fear at human contact is shown after he touches George in a moment of passion and introspection. Anderson says, “Again he raised the hands to caress the boy and then a look of horror swept over his face. With a convulsive movement of his body, Wing Biddlebaum sprang to his feet and thrust his hands deep into his trousers pockets. Tears came to his eyes.” Wing’s visceral panic with physical contact serves to show and emphasize the feelings of emotional disconnect suffered by other characters in other stories. Considering that Wing’s is the first story in the anthology, “Hands” provides a lens through which all other stories can be seen through.
Dr. Reefy of “Paper Pills” lives an extremely isolated life after his young, beautiful wife dies. His “paper pills” were little bits and ends of thoughts he collected, and after they were married, he shared these thoughts with his wife. Despite the fact that they were married for less than a year and many found the pairing of a young wealthy girl and an old, jaded doctor strange, his wife still fell in love with him. This is because after having many suitors whom she did not love, she found him, who had been kind and sweet, much like the gnarled but delicious apples that grow in the Winesburg orchards. Anderson directly makes this analogy between Dr. Reefy and the hideous but exquisite apples by stating, “On the trees are only a few gnarled apples that the pickers have rejected. They look like the knuckles of Doctor Reefy’s hands. One nibbles at them and they are delicious.” While they were together, his wife had been his close confidant, the person to whom he could share his deepest thoughts with. After her death, Dr, Reefy found himself once again alone and isolated from others, with no close friend to share his ideas with. Dr. Reefy’s emotional loneliness shows how American society at large has difficulty expressing deep, meaningful, or intimate thoughts and emotions to others.
The protagonist in “Drink,” Tom Foster, thought of women as pure, gentle beings due to his close relationship with his grandmother. However, his feelings change after he loses his virginity to a prostitute in his native Cincinnati slum. He is traumatized by this experience of having sex with a woman who is so unlike his naive and childlike vision of womanhood and sexuality, and so for years he completely closes himself off to the idea of ever being with another woman, even after he leaves the slums of Cincinnati for the cleaner town of Winesburg. Eventually, the sight of other young people around him falling in love gets to him and he begins falling for Helen White, and despite his feelings, he never pursues her and finds himself attempting to put all thoughts of her out of his head. Anderson describes his struggle as “a fight, a quiet determined little fight of his own, to keep his desires in the channel where he thought they belonged, but on the whole he was victorious.” Tom’s internal conflict to keep his longing at bay and avoid connection with another person illustrates Anderson’s message of emotional and sexual repression.
These three short stories all demonstrate, to some extent, characters aversion to human connection. In the story “Hands,” Wing Bibblebaum’s aversion to human touch stems from him being accused of pedophilia, and he can not connect to others even decades later. Dr. Reefy’s isolation after he loses his wife means that he suddenly has no outlet for his deepest and most personal thoughts. Tom Foster isolates himself from the idea of love with a woman due to his troubled and complicated past with the prostitutes of his hometown. The thread that binds all of these characters is that they all feel extremely isolated and repressed in their emotional and sexual desires, much like American society at large.
Too Much Commitment: The Paradox of Marriage in Adventure
In “Adventure” from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, the protagonist, Alice Hindman, embodies the truth of marriage. As Alice’s story demonstrates, however, marriage leads to two seemingly contradictory traits when it is taken as a personal truth to be lived. On the one hand, marriage means that Alice is committed, because she is loyal to Ned Currie, even though he is not interested in her anymore, and she refuses to forget about him. On the other hand, her insistence on marriage also leads Alice to isolation, as she ages all alone, not allowing anyone to enter her life. Thus, Alice is a grotesque, according to Anderson’s definition of the term, because in trying to embrace marriage, Alice becomes both committed and isolated, portraying the paradox at the heart of marriage and showing that no truth is simple once it is lived.
In insisting on marriage, Alice embodies commitment in her approach to love and sexuality. At the beginning of the story, when Alice and Ned Currie become sexually intimate, Ned told her he loved her and that they would live happily together. Having that idea stuck in her head, Alice waits for Ned, feeling she is committed to him and never losing faith in being with him, even though he is far away. At first, Alice did not feel she was important to Ned, but once they become intimate she feels loved by him because he says, ‘“Now, we will have to stick to each other, whatever happens, we will have to do that”’ (Anderson, 99). Because Ned makes this promise, she has faith that Ned will come back for her; therefore, she waits for him. Feeling she has that commitment to Ned, Alice does not talk to other men, for she feels as if she would be betraying Ned. She tells herself, “‘I am Ned’s wife and shall remain his wife whether he comes back or not’” (Anderson,100). Even though she is not Ned’s wife, she thinks if she dates other men Ned will be hurt and that is not the right thing to do if you are married to someone. Throughout “Adventure”, there is no evidence of Alice talking to anyone other than herself. Alice goes to work every day, but she saves all her money for her and Ned. She wants to save it because she wants it for Ned rather than for herself: ‘“Ned always wanted to travel, I’ll give him a chance. Some day when we are married and I can save both his money and my own, we will be rich. Then we can travel together all over the world.”’ (Anderson, 101). Because Alice is very committed to Ned and does not see beyond him, she has no other attachments; we do not encounter Alice having any afternoon activities or family commitments. All Alice sees in her future is her life with Ned, remaining married to him in both her actions and her emotions.
However, Alice’s commitment leads paradoxically to its reverse as well, for Alice also becomes entirely isolated by her refusal to give up on Ned. Because she waits for Ned for a very long time, she does not focus on her own life, only concentrating on her imagined and anticipated marriage with Ned. Therefore, one day she realizes she has never been married to Ned and she has been all alone since he left; thus, she tells herself, ‘“It is not going to come to me. I will never find happiness. Why do I tell myself lies?”’ (Anderson, 102). Becoming aware of the reality Alice has been living on, she realizes how long she has been waiting for Ned and how she was never happy while waiting for him. Seeing that Alice does not talk to any men, men start losing interest in her and stop talking to her. She then begins feeling the absence of men being she pushed them away because she thought she would be betraying Ned if she talked to them, but Ned had already forgotten her. However, if she were to date other men, she would do it because Ned will want her and like her better; she tells herself, ‘“I am becoming old and queer. If Ned comes he will not want me”’ (Anderson, 103). Therefore, she tries to go out with a drug clerk, but later realizes she is governed made by the fear of being solitary than by true desire to be with Ned: “‘It is not him that I want, I want to avoid being so much alone. If I am not careful I will grow unaccustomed to being with people’” (Anderson, 103).
Alice, becoming aware that she is “becoming old and queer” (Anderson, 103), is frightened by the loneliness of her position in life. Therefore, at age twenty-five, she becomes a member of the Winesburg Methodist Church, so that she does something else other than thinking of Ned. Time passes by very quickly and Alice becomes conscious of how in the past years she has been an isolated woman who has not accomplished anything in her life. She has no friends because she does not see beyond Ned, thus, has no life on her own because she has more interest in Ned returning and being with him than in her own personal life and goals. When Alice saves all her money for her and Ned, she is not fully aware that saving all that money affects her because she is not thinking on herself and on her necessities. Because Alice is extremely isolated and has no experience at socializing with other people; one cold, dark, rainy night; she runs outside, she runs towards a man who is unable to hear and shouts, for she wants the attention she had not received since Ned had left her. But before reaching the man, she becomes aware of what she is about to do, and feeling ashamed of herself, drops to the cold grass and crawls back home feeling penitent. She then thinks: ‘“What is the matter with me? I will do something dreadful if I am not careful’, and began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg” (Anderson, 105). Because Ned left Alice, she did nothing other than wait for him; hence, she grew all alone becoming old and queer.
Thus, Anderson’s “Adventure” portrays the paradox at the heart of marriage. Anderson shows that to be married is to be both committed and isolated because to be committed requires you to abandon some things for others, and if you leave all your priorities for someone else, you will become isolated and be left with nothing. Alice is thus a grotesque because Alice cannot be simply committed; Alice must also be just the reverse, becoming isolated in her efforts to assert the truth of marriage as her own personal truth.
Capitalism in Sherwood Anderson’s “Mother”
In Sherwood Anderson’s “Mother,” Tom Willard takes centre stage as the role of the obnoxious, vain husband who shamelessly blames his wife, Elizabeth Willard, for his own unhappiness. He views her with blatant contempt and finds her existence unbearable to the extent that her very presence is regarded as “a reproach to himself.” But for what reason does Tom vehemently loathe his own wife? It is not simply because of the illness that had taken away her spirit and beauty. The only explanation provided to readers to justify his animosity is the superstitious conviction that Elizabeth’s illness is somehow linked to the hotel’s financial decline.
Tom may, indeed, have been a fortune hunter. He had been one of the many “traveling men” who were “guests at her father’s hotel” whom Elizabeth “paraded through the streets with.” It was always evident that Elizabeth would one day inherit her father’s hotel, and on top of that, she had been a beautiful young woman, full of ambition and vivacity. Thus, in addition to marrying a woman of her passion and charm, Elizabeth’s husband would obviously be blessed with the added bonus of inheriting her parent’s business. So it is implied that Tom’s marriage to Elizabeth had not only been explained by some “wild emotions” driven by physical intimacy, but also by his interest in her wealth.
Unfortunately, now that the business is “forever on the edge of failure,” Tom detests the hotel and selfishly holds his wife accountable for its fate. Anderson states how hopeful Tom had been to begin life with the hotel business, and yet now it has disappointingly turned into “a mere ghost of what a hotel should be.” Similarly, Tom sees his wife as a “tall ghostly figure,” as she is no longer the lovely wife he had married. Elizabeth’s appearance therefore reflects the state of the hotel. She is no longer a beauty, but has become so frail and lifeless that she is compared to a ghost. Age has taken its toll on her, just as the hotel is now “disorderly” and “old,” with “faded wall-paper” and “ragged carpets.”
Due to poor health, Elizabeth has been unable to do any exacting work for the hotel. The business probably deteriorated as a consequence of her lack of contribution. Tom therefore sees her as the cause of the hotel’s financial failure. Now he despises his wife and the hotel alike, both of which are “things defeated and done for” as both marriage and business had once made him hopeful of satisfying his ambitions.
The fact that Tom objectifies his wife, seeing her as a “thing” which is useless unless generating some income, has affected Elizabeth’s self-esteem tremendously. From a tall young woman who had once been brazen enough to cycle down “Main Street” clad in men’s clothing, Elizabeth Willard has been depreciated to such an extent that her confidence has been extinguished along with her health and youth. She has grown to feel unwanted and unneeded. Her low self-esteem is emphasized through elements of the narrative such as her room, which is “tucked away in a corner of the Old Willard House,” and her “chambermaid” work, such as cleaning the “beds soiled by the slumbers of fat travelling men.” These descriptions prove Elizabeth’s tendency to isolate herself and hide from the eyes of others by doing work that removes her from the presence of other people.
Tom’s behavior only encourages the depths of Elizabeth’s lack of confidence, with his “slender, graceful,” and well-dressed figure coupled with the brazen condemnation of his wife. Besides that, his passion for politics and his strong desire to achieve a prominent status of leadership have caused him to develop a sense of capitalism. This ideology is the foundation of the American Dream: the notion that every man must work for himself to achieve greatness – and that such greatness is plausible regardless of circumstances. It also inspires Tom to find Elizabeth worthless, as the idea constitutes to the belief that unless she works, she is useless to him. His outlook therefore reflects capitalism. Hence, Tom believes that Elizabeth’s illness is the illness of the hotel. Getting rid of his wife may eliminate his business problems. He may perceive his wife as the useless cog in the wheel, getting in the way of success. However, ideally, he mentions his desire to be rid of both burdens and to start fresh, as the hotel and his wife are markedly linked in his mind.
From Tom’s point of view, capitalism is what will aid him in achieving his goals. However, Anderson has conspicuously presented this idea in an unpleasant and repulsive manner, thus challenging the notion of capitalism by portraying its supporter and activist as a pompous husband with idealistic ambitions. Tom harbors the hope of turning “the tide of things political” by changing the “strongly Republican community” into a Democratic one. His dream of changing the minds of an entire society reflects the magnitude of his aspirations. Capitalism is therefore illustrated in a negative light in this story, since it drives a man to selfishness and greed. After all, if Tom had truly married Elizabeth for her inheritance, then this action only proves his persistence in achieving the American Dream, and shows how little he values emotional sincerity in attaining his goals.
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.
Ostracism and Identity Intertwined: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio
Perhaps the most poignant dichotomy of the American social condition is the juxtaposition between a tight-knit community and the inevitable outcasts it relies upon to maintain itself amid a changing world. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, published in 1919, explores this paradox from the bottom-up — that is, through the individual tragedies of characters who find themselves estranged from the communities in which they live. Anderson highlights the complexity of estrangement by presenting characters that seem to be alienated by their own merits: Wing Biddlebaum by his unwavering guilt, Jesse Bentley by his messianic ambition, and Enoch Robinson by his immense egotism. The ostracism, whether brought on by a communal effort or self-imposed, is the leading contributor to their identity, and furthermore, the cause of a fundamental character flaw that drives them even further from the Winesburg community. In Ostracism: The Power of Silence, social psychologist Kipling D. Williams argues that the idiosyncrasies of an ostracized person often play a large role in the origin of their alienation. “Some individuals may simply possess certain undesirable characteristics or behave in ways that cause others to ostracize them … Some people elicit ostracism because of what they do or say” (58). Anderson’s characters certainly adhere to this model — but more jarring than the ability of personality traits to spur ostracism is the power of ostracism to shape identity over time. In the very first scene of “Hands,” Wing Biddlebaum is described as nervously “walking up and down” upon the decrepit veranda of his house on the outskirts of Winesburg (8). This small detail is significant, for Wing was not at ease in his own home. Indeed, Wing was not at ease with himself. For twenty years he lived in Winesburg as a recluse, connecting only with the young reporter George Willard. For twenty years, Wing “did not think of himself as in any way part of the life of the town” (9). For twenty years he lived with the guilt of a horrific episode that left him “forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts” (9). It was this horrific episode that drove Wing—then Adolph Myers—from a small Pennsylvania community into Winesburg and into obscurity as a man who, at the age of forty, looked sixty-five. The young school teacher was marked as a pedophile and physically exiled after the accusations of one student created a “shiver” of hysteria in the town, as “hidden, shadowy doubts that had been in men’s minds concerning Adolph Myers were galvanized into beliefs” (13). The man took refuge in Winesburg under the guise of a new identity: Wing Biddlebaum, who emerged internalizing the same “shadowy doubts” of the community from which he was driven. Formerly passionate and vivacious, Wing was overcome with guilt and self-doubt. “Although [Wing] didn’t understand what happened he felt that his hands must be to blame” (14). The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands. Their restless activity, like unto the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird, had given him his name … The hands alarmed their owner. He wanted to keep them hidden away and looked with amazement at the quiet inexpressive hands of other men who worked beside him in the fields, or passed, driving sleepy teams on country roads (10). Wing’s ostracism from the Pennsylvania community shaped his identity so significantly that despite reinventing himself in Winesburg, he still marked himself as different and fundamentally “wrong.” Williams discusses such a characteristic in Ostracism: “Targets inferring [the punitive] motive assume that they are being ostracized as a form of punishment” (54). These targets often become “highly self aware,” argues Williams—a psychological state that can draw attention to perceived inadequacies. Wing’s glaring self-doubt, manifested in his nervous obsession with hands, his perpetual silence, and his overall social trepidation, spurred further alienation from his surrounding community. “There’s something wrong, but I don’t want to know what it is,” remarks George Willard. “His hands have something to do with his fear of me and of everyone” (12). Likewise, Wing’s hands had a lot to do with why the people of Winesburg failed to understand his peculiar lifestyle, and why he could never truly “belong” there. Like Wing, Jesse Bentley never belonged in Winesburg. He also did not belong in his era. “[He] was a fanatic,” describes the narrator. “He was a man born out of his time and place and for this he suffered and made others suffer” (49). Anderson addresses Jesse’s alienation from the Winesburg community directly after we are introduced to him, thus implying that his social distance from the town occupied a dominant role in his life. Over time, his fervent ambition and ostracism would become fundamentally intertwined. Fate thrust the “odd sheep” Jesse Bentley to the helm of his family farm, and for this he faced endless rumblings of doubt and scrutiny from the Winesburg community. The skepticism was not unfounded. At twenty-two, Jesse was “slight,” “sensitive-looking,” and “womanish of body”—a far cry from the brawn and brute strength of his elder brothers who had brought success to the Bentley farm in the preceding years. “By the standards of his day, Jesse did not look like a man at all” (48). Consequently, “the neighbors were amused when they saw him” (49). When he came home to take charge of the farm, that had at the time grown to more than six hundred acres, everyone on the farms about and in the nearby town of Winesburg smiled at the idea of his trying to handle the work that had been done by his four strong brothers (48).Riddled by the doubts of his neighbors in Winesburg, young Jesse aspired to usher in an era of industrialization that would create a great shift “in the lives and in the habits and thought of [the] people of Mid-America.” Thus began Jesse’s “absorption in himself and in his own destiny” (51). Motivated in large part by cynics in the Winesburg community, he sought to become a new man—an “extraordinary man.” Within this new identity, Jesse “wanted terribly to make his life a thing of great importance, and as he looked about at his fellow men and saw how like clods they lived it seemed to him that he could not bear to become also such a clod” (51). The wedge was driven. Jesse began to view himself as fundamentally different than the other men in Winesburg, declaring himself “a new kind of man” who would serve as leader of an emerging “new race of men” (52). Entrenched in his vision, Jesse withdrew from society and “everyone retired into the background” (49). When he was summoned back to Winesburg by his father, “he shut himself off from all his people and began to make plans … It was the indefinable hunger within that made his eyes waver and that kept him always more and more silent before people” (50). With his mind “fixed upon the things he read in newspapers and magazines,” Jesse Bentley cared little about the affairs of the small community of which he was still a part. “Something like an invisible curtain appeared to have come between the man and all the rest of the world” (80). The break was mutual. In line with Williams’ theory, Jesse’s individual characteristics seemed to cause further segregation from the community. In his model of ostracism, Williams cites “insensitivity to others,” “obnoxiousness,” and “perceived dangerousness” as traits that can cause such a break from society. Given the rhetoric of the time, it is probable that Jesse was ostracized from Winesburg because his cosmopolitan mentality presented a threat to their agrarian way of life, though this is not explicitly stated in the text. If Jesse Bentley’s curtain was his ambition, Enoch Robinson’s bulwark was his egotism. “He always was a child and that was a handicap to his worldly development,” explains the narrator. “He never grew up and of course he couldn’t understand people and he couldn’t make people understand him” (152). Quite simply, Enoch lacked the most basic capacities of human communication. He could never truly connect with people, and for that reason nearly all of his thoughts, feelings and emotions centered on himself. Throughout his time in New York, Enoch’s small apartment was filled with “talking artists”—young urbanites who, like Enoch, had a deep appreciation for art. In his Washington Square apartment, the artists observed and discussed his paintings, which depicted pastoral scenes from his native Winesburg. Amid their banter, Enoch remained silent. Tortured by his own ability to communicate with the artists and convinced that no one would ever understand the meaning behind his paintings, Enoch “began to doubt his own mind.” In an act of self-ostracization, he “stopped inviting people to his room and presently got into the habit of locking the door” (154). Alone in his room, Enoch invented a social circle to replace the real people with whom he could never speak. Amid his “shadow people,” Enoch was unafraid to speak freely and boldly. For the first time in his life, “he talked last and best” (155). In the deepest fantasies of his mind, Enoch was an orator and a socialite. In the grim realities of the world, Enoch was alone. When finally he longed “to touch actual flesh-and-bone people with his hands” (155), Enoch married the girl he sat next to in art school and sought to resume his life as a social being. For awhile, he was pleased with himself, for he saw him self as a “real part of things” (156). This sentiment proved fleeting. In his years of solitude, Enoch was never conditioned to be a social being. At heart, he remained an egotist. One night something happened. I became mad to make her understand me and to know what a big thing I was in that room. I wanted her to see how important I was. I told her over and over. When she tried to go away, I ran and locked the door … A look came into her eyes and I knew that she did understand. I was furious. I couldn’t stand it. I wanted her to understand, but don’t you see, I couldn’t let her understand. I felt that then she would know everything, that I would be submerged, drowned out, you see (160-1).Enoch drove the woman from his apartment and from his life—and his shadow people “all went out through the door after her” (162). Defeated, lost, and alone, Enoch returned to Winesburg a stranger. Enoch was incapable of building meaningful social relationships, thus he became more and more distant in the eyes of the community. For years, Enoch ostracized everyone around him out of his sheer terror of vulnerability. Williams’ calls this motive “defensive”: “[A] source may intentionally ostracize another person … preemptively to defend against being harmed in some way” (47). Enoch’s self-imposed alienation shielded him from socialization to the extent that when he finally craved human interaction, he was inept. Moreover, society was unwilling to accept him. “Nothing ever turned out for Enoch Robinson” because he would not allow it (152). Later, Winesburg would not allow it either. The primary purpose of Williams’ model of ostracism is to “delineate the consequences of ostracism on the person or groups who are being ostracized” (45). Through much research and analysis, he concludes that continued exposure to incidents of ostracism leads to “detrimental psychological consequences,” much like those evident in Anderson’s characters in Winesburg, Ohio. Indeed, the social, and at times physical, isolation of Wing Biddlebaum, Jesse Bentley and Enoch Robinson is both self-imposed and perpetuated by society. Williams accounts for this behavior in his model: “Instead of making deliberate attempts to regain his or her lost or threatened needs, the target will succumb to the lost needs and internalize the meaning that their loss represents” (64). Through Williams’ conclusions and the experiences of Anderson’s characters, we see how ostracism and its effects are cyclical. An initial alienation from society develops characteristics that cause the men to be even more distant from the community. In recognizing a difference between themselves and the “others,” the victims become self-stigmatized. Within Williams’ theory, the “continued diminution of their self-esteem [leads] to negative expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies resulting in a downward spiral toward lower self-esteem and undesirable behaviors” (62). The tragedy of ostracism in this form, and therefore the tragedy of these characters, is the gradual process by which they fade into oblivion. Their pain is prolonged, and lasts over the course of their troubled existences. Their ostracism is like an undertow pulling them farther and farther out to sea.Works CitedAnderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.Williams, Kipling D. Ostracism: The Power of Silence. London: The Guilford Press, 2001.