Winesburg, Ohio Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Winesburg, Ohio has the stature of a modern classic. It is at once beautiful and tragic, realistic and poetic. Without constituting a novel in the usual sense of the word, the connected stories that make up the work have the full range and emotional impact of a novel. In simple though highly skillful and powerful language, Sherwood Anderson tells the story of a small town and the lonely, frustrated people who live there. Although regional in its setting and characters, the book is also intensely American. No one since Anderson has succeeded in interpreting the inner compulsions and loneliness of the national psyche with the same degree of accuracy and emotional impact.

Using young George Willard as protagonist and observer, Anderson creates his probing psychological portrait of small-town America. Although his characters outwardly seem dull and commonplace, Anderson is acutely tuned to the tensions between their psychological and emotional needs and the restrictions placed on their lives by the small-town atmosphere of Winesburg. Although not methodically psychoanalytical, Anderson’s work probes deeply into the psychological lives of the characters to discover the emotional wounds that have been inflicted by the puritanical attitudes of the midwestern village. Anderson may not have been directly influenced by Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung, but his interests clearly parallel the interest in psychology among American intellectuals during the first quarter of the twentieth century. In this respect, Anderson can legitimately be called America’s first psychological novelist.

Anderson believed that the traditional forms of the novel were too restrictive and formal to adapt well to his American subject matter, so Winesburg, Ohio represents in part an experiment in form. Rather than unifying his work through a plot in the usual sense, Anderson uses patterns of imagery, tone, character, and theme to achieve a sense of wholeness. It is, however, George Willard’s narrative voice—and his presence as either observer or protagonist—in the stories that ultimately unifies them. As a small-town reporter, Willard can credibly serve as a confidant for his townspeople. Also, he is a kind of professional observer recording the surface lives of his people for the newspaper. At the same time, readers see him as a budding artist who is interested in discovering the deeper and more meaningful truths of individuals’ lives than those seen at the surface. Eventually, George must make his choice as to which of these roles he will elect, and his function as the central consciousness of the book is vital to its aesthetic success.

Winesburg, Ohio also follows the classic pattern of...

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