In his short story “Hands,” Sherwood Anderson uses the Modernist literary technique of fragmentation—the breaking up of story elements like descriptions and narrative structure—to create a jarring, incomplete view of reality. Examples of fragmentation as a motif throughout the story are metonymy (the use of parts to represent the whole)...
In his short story “Hands,” Sherwood Anderson uses the Modernist literary technique of fragmentation—the breaking up of story elements like descriptions and narrative structure—to create a jarring, incomplete view of reality. Examples of fragmentation as a motif throughout the story are metonymy (the use of parts to represent the whole) in descriptions of characters and action, changing identity, and a nonlinear narrative structure.
Anderson introduces and portrays the protagonist Wing Biddlebaum through parts of his physical body. Biddlebaum is first seen from a distance when he hears
a thin girlish voice. "Oh, you Wing Biddlebaum, comb your hair, it's falling into your eyes," commanded the voice to the man, who was bald and whose nervous little hands fiddled about the bare white forehead as though arranging a mass of tangled locks.
A disembodied speaking voice, which represents the townspeople separate from and in opposition to Biddlebaum, sets the man's hands in motion. The reader glimpses parts of the old man, not him as a whole person.
Biddlebaum’s restless hands reveal his nervousness and discomfort. Only when he speaks with the reporter George Willard does he feel at ease enough to open up to another person. Anderson describes this transformation through disembodied details:
The voice that had been low and trembling became shrill and loud. The bent figure straightened. With a kind of wriggle, like a fish returned to the brook by the fisherman, Wing the silent began to talk.
The slender expressive fingers, forever active, forever striving to conceal themselves in his pockets or behind his back, came forth and became the piston rods of his machinery of expression.
When conversing with George, he gains power and agency. He closes his hands into fists to beat them on a table or wall while indoors or pound them on a stump or fence post outside. In an effort to connect with him, Biddlebaum gazes at George.
His eyes glowed. Again he raised the hands to caress the boy and then a look of horror swept over his face.
With a convulsive movement of his body, Wing Biddlebaum sprang to his feet and thrust his hands deep into his trousers pockets.
Again, Sherwood portrays the old man through body parts only: his eyes, hands, face, and feet. The author accompanies this physical fragmentation with diction implying unspoken thoughts and hidden feelings of despair: “glowed,” “horror,” “convulsive,” “thrust,” and “deep.”
Biddlebaum’s identity to others is also fragmented. In Winesburg, Ohio, he is well-known for his hands, which
picked as high as a hundred and forty quarts of strawberries in a day. They became his distinguishing feature, the source of his fame. Also they made more grotesque an already grotesque and elusive individuality.
He is seen not as a person but as a machine. Before he taught school in Pennsylvania, his hands were “fluttering pennants of promise.” When he teaches, they become tools of compassion that raise suspicion. Anderson provides snapshots of Biddlebaum’s contact with his students:
Here and there went his hands, caressing the shoulders of the boys, playing about the tousled heads. As he talked his voice became soft and musical. There was a caress in that also. In a way the voice and the hands, the stroking of the shoulders and the touching of the hair were a part of the schoolmaster's effort to carry a dream into the young minds.
His touches could be innocent and nonsexual. Without specific and complete detail, nonetheless, Anderson implies—but does not confirm—that Wing expresses forbidden homosexual feelings toward the boys.
Unfortunately, this dream turns into a nightmare as one boy—who dreamt unspeakable things one night—accuses Biddlebaum of inappropriate touching. After these words fall from his “loose-hung lips,” other boys follow suit with statements like, "He put his arms about me" and "His fingers were always playing in my hair." The effect of this fragmentation is shaky, incomplete, and unreliable testimony. The reader wonders what really happened.
When the town turns against Biddlebaum, hands become weapons; he is beaten by hands, almost hanged on a rope carried by hands, and driven away by hands hurling sticks and mud. Hands also become forbidden objects, as the grownups admonish the boys to "Keep your hands to yourself" in order to prevent what they view as any possible inappropriate future interactions.
Biddlebaum’s identity is fragmented by his name change. In Pennsylvania, he is Adolph Myers. After moving to Winesburg, he changes his surname to Biddlebaum. It is a name “he got from a box of goods seen at a freight station as he hurried through an eastern Ohio town.” The name “Wing” was given to him by the town because of his hands and their restless activity, like "the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird.”
The fragmentation of his identity reflects the fact that no one really views or understands Biddlebaum as a whole person. The pieced-together moniker “Will Biddlebaum” is not even his actual identity. Furthermore, no one—in Pennsylvania or Winesburg—knows his complete story or the emotions and motivations behind his physical actions.
This fragmentation of reality is underscored by the story’s broken, nonlinear narrative structure. Sherwood destabilizes the tale’s reality by segmenting the narrative and moving action from the present, in the afternoon with Biddlebaum by his house; to an unspecified past, his friendship with George; to a flashback to a distant past, decades ago in Pennsylvania before moving to Winesburg; and back to the present, later that evening in the house.
Anderson ends the story with Biddlebaum’s disembodied fingers flashing in the shadows, nervously and rapidly feeding crumbs into his mouth. He has fingers which could be “mistaken for the fingers of the devotee going swiftly through decade after decade of his rosary.”