Published in 1919, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson presents the lives of the residents of a small town through a series of related short stories. The main character who connects the stories is George Willard, an aspiring writer. The overall narrative, as related from a detached third-person point of view, follows the course of George’s character development from childhood to young adulthood.
“Mother” describes George’s relationship with his mother, Elizabeth Willard, in contrast to his relationship with his father, Tom Willard. There are several overlapping themes a reader can find in this chapter, including martyrdom, isolation, and ambition. These support the main underlying theme: the rite of passage a parent and child both must go through when a child grows up and decides to take responsibility for their own life.
The Willards operate the New Willard House, a hotel in Winesburg that Elizabeth inherited from her father. Both are reluctant to take care of the hotel. Elizabeth does it out of a sense of duty, while Tom stays away from the hotel to socialize in town and daydream about a political career. They are conflicted about George’s future: Elizabeth wants George to stay, but Tom is more ambitious for his son and gets him a job with the local newspaper, the Winesburg Eagle.
George’s maturation as a character depends on his decisions, and his agency as a character first appears in the “Mother” chapter. The chapter introduces Elizabeth as a woman in the prime of her life who has been reduced to a ghostly figure, physically and emotionally bound to the dilapidated hotel:
Although she was but forty-five, some obscure disease had taken the fire out of her figure. Listlessly she went about the disorderly old hotel looking at the faded wall-paper and the ragged carpets and, when she was able to be about, doing the work of a chambermaid among beds soiled by the slumbers of fat traveling men.
When Elizabeth isn’t cleaning the hotel, she sits in her room and gloomily observes the baker’s feud with the cat owned by the pharmacist. Elizabeth is no longer in control of her own life: she sleepwalks through it as a martyr and fulfills a role she doesn’t want but feels duty-bound to carry out.
Tom Willard, on the other hand, does all he can to distance himself from his wife and the hotel:
The presence of the tall ghostly figure, moving slowly through the halls, he took as a reproach to himself. When he thought of her he grew angry and swore. The hotel was unprofitable and forever on the edge of failure and he wished himself out of it.
Because of his parents’ emotional distance from each other, George looks to his work and his girlfriends for fulfillment. However, he has a bond with his mother that he will need to work through before maturing:
Between Elizabeth and her one son George there was a deep unexpressed bond of sympathy, based on a girlhood dream that had long ago died.
However, this bond is awkward, with mother and son unable to talk to each other, often sitting together in silence. In her youth, Elizabeth had dreams of being on the stage and traveling with a theater company, symbolized by the hidden makeup box she keeps in her room. She recalls her restlessness and ambition and admits,
It is the thing I let be killed in myself.
Because her of thwarted ambitions, Elizabeth wants to live vicariously through George. However, due to her inability to communicate with him and address her regrets, she’s trapped by conflicting feelings. She vows to help her son and advises him to go outside to socialize with boys his age. But when George leaves, she haunts his room and wants him to stay a child:
Pausing uncertainly, the woman stared about the boy’s room. “And do not let him become smart and successful either,” she added vaguely.
Tom, on the other hand, advises his son to “wake up,” saying,
You’re not a fool and you’re not a woman.
Thus, he attempts to sever the unhealthy bond between mother and son. Elizabeth overhears this conversation and responds with anger. She prepares to confront Tom by applying makeup from her hidden box to reclaim what she aspired to be—as well as her psychological ownership of their son.
But George breaks the impasse by telling his mother,
“I’m going to get out of here,” he said. “I don’t know where I shall go or what I shall do but I am going away.”
Finally, Elizabeth concedes and lets her son go outside, thus allowing him to grow up and create his own life. George’s act of closing the door signifies the end of his childhood and the beginning of the ambitions that will lead him to leave Winesburg.