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Anyone seeking a single paragraph in Sherwood Anderson’s book Winesburg, Ohio that sums up the main theme of the entire work should turn to the book’s introductory section, which is titled “The Book of the Grotesque.” Several paragraphs in that section are relevant to the work as a whole. One of those paragraphs describes an old writer who is obsessed with the idea of the different truths by which people try to live. The narrator reports that
The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.
Each of the “truths” is beautiful in its own, limited way, but none of the truths, taken individually, amounts to the entire truth of human life. No single “truth” can do justice to the immense complexity of human existence. Therefore, anyone who tries to make one limited “truth” the sole, defining truth of his life will distort his life and will become a “grotesque.” Moreover, by insisting on the exclusive truthfulness of any particular individual “truth,” he will paradoxically turn that truth into a falsehood.
Winesburg, Ohio is a book that depicts character after character who tries (or is forced) to live life according to a single, limiting, distorting “truth.” Such characters often suffer as a result, and, just as important, they often bring suffering into the lives of others. A richer, fuller, more complete, and more satisfying life (Anderson implies) would be a life capable of embracing many truths, or at least more “truths” than merely one.
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