Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. 1919. Dover, 1995.
Summary of Work
Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is a novel that contains a series of short stories interwoven to create a picture of the town, its history, and its residents. The story is framed by the brief introduction of a writer who, upon reaching old age and spending most of his time in his room, has a dream/vision where he sees truth created and then people walking past and picking up a truth or two, some as many as a dozen, and then going about trying to live their lives by those truths, and in turn becoming corrupted because they take the truth and turn it, and themselves, into a falsehood, a grotesque. The idea is that a truth clung to fiercely creates all sorts of problems for people and can destroy happiness and lives. The whole of the novel functions with this frame.
The stories range from tragic to hilarious in nature. Wing Biddlebaum is the first character that we meet. He is talking to George Willard, the young and naive reporter for the newspaper in town, and George always wonders about Wing’s hands, but has enough respect for the man to never ask. Wing has the fastest hands for picking produce in the town, but he is always insistent on trying to hide his hands, as if he is ashamed of them. His past is tragic. As a schoolteacher, he is affectionate and caring for the boys in his classroom, but upon one boy deciding that the man’s hands were making sexual advances rather than more of a fatherly care, the townspeople become enraged and one comes into the classroom and beats him bloody. Afterward, the townsmen come to his house with intent to hang him, change their mind and let him run, but then decide after all that they want to hang him. He gets away, changes his name to Biddlebaum, and lives a life in Winesburg after his relative dies that he had been living with.
Doctor Reefy is an older man who is known for having had a very young wife. The story goes that she came to him one day after a suitor had gotten her pregnant and she didn’t know what to do. He decided to try to help her as he could by offering her company and advice, and after she miscarried the child, the woman found that she very much loved the doctor, and married him. He was known for keeping thoughts on small pieces of paper, which he would read to her, and then put them in his pockets and roll them into balls and then throw them away when they were fully rolled. A year after they married she died of illness.
Elizabeth Willard, George’s mother, is the wife of Tom Willard, who runs the hotel in town. The hotel was her father’s, and she feels trapped in the town, unloved and unseen, never having been on an actual adventure. She hates her husband and her life, and wants her son to have the adventures she never had. There are later stories about her telling of her affair with Doctor Reefy, of her father’s giving her 800 dollars to live a different life than the one she had, and her inability to tell anyone about it so her son could have the money before she died.
Doctor Parcival is one who believes in living life with little amounts of work and going around hating people and feeling superior to them. When he refuses to help during an accident that leaves people dead, he, terrified, tells George that people will be after him for it and that everyone is Christ and ends up crucified in the end. Louise Trunnion is a woman on the poorer end of town that sends George a message that he can meet her one evening. He goes and they spend an evening together, and they figure no one has to know about it.
Jesse Bentley is a boy from a farmer’s family who goes away to become a preacher but must come back to his family when all his brothers are killed in the Civil War. He goes back with his wife and he becomes very industrious, but everyone is unhappy under him, including himself, despite his extreme success. He talks to God and is convinced his mission is to be like the Israelites of old and to conquer the Philistines around him by buying up all their farms, and he is convinced he needs a son, David, to help him. His wife delivers a child, Louise, and dies in childbirth, and Jesse is upset more at the birth of a daughter than his wife’s death. Louise receives no love from anyone, and in an attempt to find love, married Mr. Hardy. She is still very unhappy and is more unhappy when she has a son, David. She is vicious and cruel to everyone, including her son. One evening her son runs away to try and get to his grandfather because he doesn’t want to go home, and he gets lost. A search party is sent out, and when he is found and taken back to his mother, he is surprised by her warmth and care and concern. When her father states that he would like David to come live on the farm with him, everyone is even more surprised when she agrees. David loves the farm and gets the love his mother denied him, but Jesse is still insistent that he is God’s chosen. The first time he takes David out to the woods to pray, David becomes terrified and runs from the man who no longer looks like his grandfather. He gets over it, but years later after Jesse has become the most successful farmer in town, he gets it in his head that he needs to offer a burnt offering to the Lord with David. They get a lamb and tie it up and go to the same spot in the woods. While Jesse gets a fire going, David unties the lamb’s feet and waits for Jesse, but is determined that both he and the lamb will run when needed. When Jesse pulls out a knife to kill the lamb, David thinks that Jesse is going to kill him, and he runs with the lamb. David finds a rock, puts it in his sling, and hits Jesse square in the forehead with it, knocking him out. David thinks he has killed his grandfather and runs away, and when Jesse wakes up, forever after he states that he lost David due to his pride.
Joe Welling is a man who runs around with all sorts of funny stories and ideas, and he falls in love with a woman who is part of the scariest, meanest, toughest family in town. When they come to tell him to stay away, he wins them over with his strange ideas, obliviousness, and charm. Alice Hindman waits for a lover that will never come back. Wash Williams was made a cuckold by a wife and he hates all women for it and spends his days as a telegraph operator in Winesburg after that. Seth Richmond is quiet and doesn’t feel he fits into the town. He loves Helen White, but determines that he cannot be with her because he isn’t part of the town, and he decides to leave to find a better life. Tandy Hard is a young girl who’s name is given to her by a drunkard who is passing through town. The Reverend Curtis Hartman is married and a good reverend, but he is tempted when he sees the schoolteacher partly naked and reading a book through his open window, which is stained glass with a picture of Christ with a child. He breaks a hole in the corner of the glass so he can “overcome temptation,” but he is never able to. He sees her naked, praying, and crying in her room one cold night when he has nearly frozen himself to death waiting in the bell tower to see her and walked with no shoes through the cold to do so, and he runs to George Willard and says that God has saved him and shown him new ways. Kate Swift is a teacher who is unmarried, bound to be an old maid, but who cares about her students and in a motherly and womanly way loves George Willard and tries to guide him but also fails because she loves him but doesn’t feel she can be with him. Enoch Robinson spent time in New York City and became an illustrator for an advertisement company, but he leaves his wife and two children to be with himself and his imaginary friends. He is happy in his small hallway-like space until a neighbor starts talking to him and he realizes she’s ruined everything because she understands him. He moves back to Winesburg a bitter and lonely old man.
Belle Carpenter loves the local bartender but does not feel like she can just see him because of her social station. So she sees George Willard, but isn’t really interested, and George knows it and is unhappy. George makes one more attempt to woo her, but the bartender has come by earlier to tell her not to see him, and so she uses that as an opportunity to make the bartender jealous. George is shoved out of the picture and his pride is wounded. Elmer Cowley feels like his father and his whole family are queer and that they will never understand that is how the whole town sees them and their little shop. He feels like he needs to let the town know, and particularly George Willard, that he isn’t queer like his family, and after several failed attempts, decides to leave town, and before he goes, he beats up George Willard. Ray Pearson reflects on his life and how if he hadn’t had gotten his girl pregnant he wouldn’t be married, and that perhaps he shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place because it wasn’t his responsibility to take care of a woman after he got her pregnant. He is going to tell a fellow farmhand this in regard to his same situation, but then determines that it is a lie and the farmhand decides to marry the girl he has gotten pregnant. Tom Foster is a boy who comes to Winesburg with his grandmother and does odd jobs around town. He tries things once so he knows what it is like and then never does them again.
Helen White reflects upon her time with George Willard and determines she has some sort of affection for him after spending time with city folk and academics and determining that she doesn’t like their company. She and George spend an evening together, and out of it they gain a mutual respect for each other. They never sleep together, but instead laugh and occasionally kiss and then get serious as they think about life. They do not get married, but instead George leaves the city in search of a job as a reporter in a bigger city, perhaps Cleveland or Chicago.
Brief Note on Themes
The themes of this work deal very much with the idea of the grotesque as outlined in the beginning of the book, but it also describes much of small town life in the Midwest and deals with the relationships between people in small towns as well as the mentalities and personalities that come with that town. The strongest, most overt themes come in the stories that deal heavily in religion, making commentary about how seemingly good things and religious upbringing and study can lead to a warped sense of reality and disaster for families and individuals as they lose their way by getting caught on certain particulars of religion. The idea of getting caught up on small things rather than seeing a bigger life picture is, in fact, what hooks all of these stories together outside of their happening in the same town.