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....
(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dream of a procession of grotesques, sets the pattern for the sequence of twenty-two stories that follows; the writer’s unpublished manuscript, “The Book of the Grotesque,” set forth his theory that the moment one took a truth and tried to live by it, it became a falsehood.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...
(The entire section is 908 words.)
Rather a single, well-defined plot, Winesburg. Ohio has a loosely interconnected set of stories with overlapping time frame and characters. Only when the town itself is considered the "main character" can one speak of an overall plot. In this macro-plot, the traditional small town life of nineteenth-century America comes to an end; its hard but stable community is broken into the dynamic but impersonal atoms of twentieth-century American society.
The historical macro-plot is composed of twenty-four micro-plots centered on individual characters, the inhabitants of Winesburg. Some characters appear as supporting players in more than one story, and one figure appears in several: George Willard, a youth working as a reporter in Winesburg's newspaper office. Many characters are connected to George, and his departure at the end brings the whole phase of Winesburg's history to a close.
Anderson prefaces his stories with a list of the tales and a chapter entitled "The Book of the Grotesque." This chapter suggests that a grotesque character comes into being when a man or woman takes one of the many truths of life and pursues it obsessively. Anderson's stories illustrate, often in a few terse pages, how a character becomes trapped by his or her obsession with freedom, lost love, sex, innocence, age, power, money, or indecency.
The first story, "Hands," focuses on an oddball named Wing Biddlebaum, whose hands are always in motion. A friend of...
(The entire section is 1494 words.)