On the face of it, Sherwood Anderson presents us with a slice of old-fashioned Americana in introducing us to the small town of Winesburg, Ohio. Winesburg appears to be like many small Midwestern towns, a place where nothing much ever happens and where everyone is part of an organic society whose component elements are united by bonds of religion, politics, and race.
In actual fact, however, this is a thoroughly misleading picture of what's really going on in the town. Beneath Winesburg's respectable facade lies a much more complex and interesting town, where society is a good deal more atomized than one might think.
It seems that just about everyone in Winesburg has two lives: the outwardly respectable life they show to other people and the more complex inner life that they seldom get the chance to express. Elizabeth Willard can only express herself through her son George and the illicit relationship she has with Dr. Reefy.
The Reverend Hartman also has his public face, that of the respectable Presbyterian minister. But he, too, has a darker, more complex side, that of a man struggling with the temptations of the flesh.
Society in its outward form doesn't seem to be able to give many people in Winesburg what they really want in life. This forces people to engage in illicit behavior, such as voyeurism and sex before marriage, that is widely frowned upon in this part of the world.
The main consequence of this development is that society becomes more atomized, with people going around doing their own thing, catering to their own personal needs and desires, instead of seeing themselves as part of a bigger whole.