Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Young George Willard is the only child of Elizabeth and Tom Willard. His father, a dull, conventional, insensitive man, owns the local hotel. His mother, who was once a popular young belle, has never loved Tom Willard; she married him in the hope that marriage would somehow change her life for the better, because it seemed to her that the young married women of the town were happy and satisfied. Soon after her marriage, however, she realized that she was now caught in the dull life of Winesburg, her dreams turned to drab realities by her life with Tom Willard.
The only person who has ever understood her is Dr. Reefy. Only in his small, untidy office does she feel free; only there does she achieve some measure of self-expression. Their relationship, doomed from the start, is nevertheless beautiful, a meeting of two lonely and sensitive people. Dr. Reefy, too, has his sorrows. Once, years ago, a young woman, pregnant and unmarried, had come to his office, and shortly afterward he married her. The following spring she died, and from that time on, Dr. Reefy has gone around making little paper pills and stuffing his pockets with them. On the pieces of paper that become the pills, he scribbles his thoughts about the beauty and strangeness of life.
Through her son George, Elizabeth Willard hopes to express herself; she sees in him the fulfillment of her own hopes and desires. More than anything, she fears that George will settle down in Winesburg. When she learns that he wants to be a writer, she is glad. Unknown to her husband, she has put away money enough to give her son a start in life, but before she can realize her ambition, she dies. Lying on her bed, she does not seem dead to either George or Dr. Reefy. To both, she is extremely beautiful. To George, she does not seem like his mother at all. To Dr. Reefy, she is the woman he has loved, now the symbol of another lost illusion.
Many people of the town seek out George Willard, who works as a reporter for the local newspaper; they tell him of their lives, their compulsions, and their failures. Old Wing Biddlebaum, the berry picker, had been a schoolteacher years before in another town. He had loved the boys who were in his charge, and he was, in fact, one of those few teachers who understand young people. One of his pupils, however, having conceived a strong affection for his teacher, had accused him of homosexuality, and Wing, although innocent, had been driven out of town. In Winesburg, he has become the best berry picker in the region, but always the same hands that earn his livelihood are a source of wonder and fear to him. When George Willard encounters him in the berry field, Wing raises his hands as if to caress the young man, but a wave of horror sweeps over him, and he hurriedly thrusts them into his pockets. To George, also, Wing’s hands seem odd, mysterious.
Kate Swift, once George’s teacher, had seen in him a future writer. She had tried to tell him what writing is, what it means. George had not understood...
(The entire section is 1234 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Winesburg, Ohio offers detailed analyses of more than twenty of the residents of a fictional town in the region of Dayton, Ohio, and it introduces more than a hundred of the inhabitants of this community of some eighteen hundred people—the greatest number through incidental anecdotes and pointed, penetrating vignettes. The result is something akin to a novel, though there is no unifying story line and no central character or protagonist—George Willard, the young newspaperman, being merely the one through whose eyes the townsfolk are viewed.
The prefatory chapter, which concerns an old writer’s dream of a procession of grotesques, sets the pattern for the sequence of twenty-two stories that follows; the writer’s unpublished manuscript, “The Book of the Grotesque,” set forth his theory that the moment one took a truth and tried to live by it, it became a falsehood. Anderson’s book offers his implicit insight that any virtue that is overindulged or pursued uncompromisingly degenerates into its antithesis, a vice.
Winesburg, with its three doctors, three saloons, several churches, large residential hotel (the New Willard House, an ancient establishment), school, farms, newspaper office, and several specialty stores adjacent to the railroad station, is the quintessential small town of American legend. It is a quiet, gentle little town built upon the fundamental Protestant virtues and populated by industrious, frugal neighbors—or so it seems. Anderson, however, shows that Winesburg, representative of most small towns, harbors mainly people who are far from happy, successful, and contented.
His stories explore the backgrounds and private aspirations or motivations of representative inhabitants—doctors, teachers, clergymen, retailers, and shop assistants. All of them are, in one way or another, “alone and defeated” and living lives that are unfulfilled. They quietly nurse their hurts and failures, trying to hide them from others.
Most of the characters stand, lie, or sit by windows and doors: Symbolically they are separated, set apart from the town. Almost all are shown trying to reach out to touch others. Their hands are described in particular...
(The entire section is 908 words.)