The Meaning Of Grotesque In Winesburg, Ohio
Sherwood Anderson authors a number of tales from a fictional town in Midwest Ohio known as Winnesburg. He addresses people’s way of life and emphasis the word “grotesque” many times. Anderson defines grotesque as an obsession of one’s truth in life that leads to distortion of reality. He states: “it was his notion that the moment of 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” (Anderson 25). Other scholars like Malcolm Crowley disagree with Anderson’s definition or views of the term grotesque. According to Anderson, people live by their version of the truth as they sometimes distort the truth to make themselves believe conveniently. The extent to which the truth is distorted represents grotesque. Crowley on the contrary, defines grotesque as people’s inability to communicate effectively. In “Hands” for example, Anderson describes a man who has difficulties controlling his hands to himself. His behavior caused him to be accused of child molestation as a student complained he was being too touchy. Such behaviors when pictured, feel uncomfortable, ugly, or simply grotesque. However, the man was living his truth even though he ended up being accused. Crowley will argue that it was his lack of expression and choice to use his hands that should be characterized as grotesque. Although, Anderson’s argument has some valid points, Crowley makes a stronger case because lack of communication and obsession could lead to actions that can be grotesque.
Lack of communication is addressed in Winesburg, Ohio many times. It begins with a prelude describing an old writer who employed a carpenter to rebuild his bed, so it will be level with his window. After the work is completed, the old writer lies in bed and thinks about death. As he nears sleep, all the people he has ever met pass slowly before his eyes. He sees them all as ‘grotesques,’ some amusing, some terribly sad, and some horrifying. Immediately after this experience, he ascends out of bed and corresponds everything that he saw down in a book, which he calls ‘The Book of the Grotesque.’ In the book, he presumes that the world is full of divergent truths, all of them engaging, but when someone takes on and tries to live by only a single truth, that person’s life becomes distorted. Then, the old man writes on this subject for hundreds and hundreds of pages, his obsession almost making himself a grotesque; in the end, he never published a book. He was able to make progress and be recognized because of The Book of the Grotesque. One day he was lying in bed, then he was in semi conscious dream. He realized that people are living in their falsehood: “It was his belief that the minute one of the folks took the truth away, he called it his truth and tries to live his life by it, he became grotesque and the truth he embarrassed became not so much true”.
Furthermore, the true nature of the “grotesque” in the book is revealed through the character’s actions that lead to misconceptions, but end up being grotesque for obsession. Crowley argues that Anderson’s description of the “Tandy” story is more an example of individual obsession for the desire to own a woman, he sees into a 5 years old girl. Crowley’s made valid critics when he argues; “Tandy is different” and adds “Only Tandy is captured and possessed by the truth of another”. Crowley’s point is that while Anderson is focused on one’s truth to be the grotesque, the grotesque is actually the act of obsession a man is having about owning a woman for love and fantasizing over a very young and innocent girl. Among the many tales, one stood out in particular: ‘Hands.’ It tells the story of Wing Biddlebaum, an eccentric, nervous man who lives on the outskirts of the town of Winesburg, Ohio. Despite having lived in Winesburg for twenty years, Biddlebaum has never become close to anyone, with the exception of “George Willard, a young man who works as a reporter for the Winesburg Eagle. On this particular evening, Biddlebaum is pacing on his porch, hoping that George will visit.” As he paces, he fiddles with his hands, which are famous for their dexterity and wanton behavior. ‘Their restless activity,’ Anderson writes, ‘like unto the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird, had given him his name.’ He has difficulty controlling his hands, which have a tendency to wander inappropriately of their own accord. The last time he was talking with George, he was terrified once he realized he was caressing the young man’s face.
Finally, in the story of “Tandy,” grotesque and lack of communication are addressed in many ways. Tandy is a fictional character, who was the object of a man’s expressing his obsession for love over a confused little girl. Unfortunately, the girl’s father doesn’t give her the time and communication needed. The young girl tries to talk with her father, but sadly he always ignored her. The lack of communication with her father makes her wanting to become the fictional character, “Tandy.” She doesn’t want anyone else to call her by her actual name. It feels like a grotesque story about an adult having sexual fantasies about a little girl. This story is the worst grotesque as it describes the little girl’s father lacking parental responsibility and role modeling.
In conclusion, I strongly believe although, Anderson’s argument has some valid points, Crowley makes a stronger case because lack of communication and obsession could lead to actions that can be grotesque. Wing Biddlebaum, the first character introduced, supports an element of the grotesque in his odd connection to his exceptional hands, which are the source of all his problems. Crowley’s argument that Anderson’s definition of grotesque as people’s truth is debatable, but he has a valid case that grotesque should be defined as the lack of communication and individual obsession that feels inappropriate like in the story of “Tandy.”
- Anderson, Sherwood. The Book of the Grotesque-Winesburg Ohio. Penguin Books Publishing, 1984. https://americanliterature.com/author/sherwood-anderson/book/winesburg-ohio/the-book- of-the-grotesque
- Cowley, Malcolm. “Introduction to Winesburg Ohio.” Winesburg, Ohio: Text and Criticism, edited by John H. Ferres, Penguin Book,1996. https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?an=sherwood%20cowley%20malcolm %20anderson&cm_sp=det-_-bdp-_-author
- Dunne, Robert. “The Book of the Grotesque: Textual Theory and the Editing of Winesburg, Ohio.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 35, no. 3, Summer 1998, p. 287. EBSCOhost, ccc.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=f5h& AN=6343470&site=eds-live
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