Sherwood Anderson’s Critique of Modernity in Winesburg, Ohio

August 26, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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