One key passage in Sherwood Anderson’s book Winesburg, Ohio that helps explain the purpose of the work appears in an introductory section of the work titled “The Book of the Grotesque.” In that section, an old writer describes his belief that
in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful. . . . And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.
It was the truths that made the people grotesques. . . . the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.
This passage seems especially relevant to the over-all themes and larger meanings of Winesburg, Ohio. The passage implies that individual “truths” become limiting, restricting, and distorting if they are obsessively embraced and allowed to dominate a person’s entire existence, including his or her relations with others. Anyone who tries to live entirely in accordance with a single, narrow truth will become a “grotesque” – someone who fails to achieve his or her full possibilities as a human, and someone who is instead defined and confined by a kind of tunnel vision.
This passage is obviously relevant to many of the ensuing stories reported in Winesburg, Ohio. Many of the characters in Anderson’s book have chosen to define their lives in very narrow terms, or sometimes (as in the case of the story titled “Hands”) they have had very narrow definitions of themselves forced upon them. A “grotesque” is a person whose life is limited in this way. A grotesque can be amusing, or tragic, or pitiful, or ugly, but a grotesque is never as complete a person as s/he could have been if s/he had been able to achieve a more comprehensive vision of life. Much of the darkness and gloominess of Winesburg, Ohio results from the fact that it deals, so often and so relentless, with a population of “grotesques.”