Use of Repeated Imagery
When Sherwood Anderson wrote fiction in the early 1900s, he was consciously experimenting with new short-story forms and with a new kind of written language to fit the new forms. In Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction, Robert Allen Papinchak describes Anderson’s style as ‘‘less cluttered with lengthy sentences and multisyllabic words than that of Irving, Hawthorne, Poe, and other American writers to that time. Instead, Anderson used short, direct sentences, frequent modifications of nouns, series of prepositional phrases, and the repetition of phrases and ideas, which often depend on a structural circularity.’’ Papinchak asserts that in ‘‘Hands,’’ all of Anderson’s stylistic qualities may be observed. In this essay I examine one of these qualities—the use of repeated phrases and ideas.
Walter B. Rideout, in an article in Shenandoah, traces several elements that run through the entire Winesburg, Ohio. These repetitions contribute to a sense that ‘‘the seemingly artless, even careless, digressions are rarely artless, careless, or digressive. . . . If this is simplicity, it is simplicity— paradox or not—of a complicated kind.’’
The most obvious example is the word ‘‘hand,’’ which by Papinchak’s count occurs in the singular or the plural thirty times in the story, which runs just over 2,350 words. The image of Wing Biddlebaum’s fluttering, fiddling, nervous hands is repeated so many times that it becomes a symbol of his alienation and loneliness, as thoroughly documented by Papinchak and others. More interesting is the repetition of the idea of beating hands—not yet another look at the movement of nervous hands, ‘‘like unto the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird,’’ but the picture of Wing as he ‘‘closed his fists and beat them upon a table or on the walls of his house.’’
This beating, which seems so out of character for a man ‘‘forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts,’’ actually makes Wing feel more comfortable. He seems unable to talk without something to beat on. If he and George Willard are out walking, and he feels the urge to speak, he finds ‘‘a stump or the top board of a fence and with his hands pounding’’ he talks easily. The images of the hands like a bird and the beating hands come together the day Wing and George are in the field: ‘‘By a fence he had stopped and beating like a giant woodpecker upon the top board [he] had shouted at George.’’
It must be difficult for the first-time reader to imagine where this beating comes from. The narrator repeatedly points out that Wing’s hands are expressive, that he talks with his hands. He looks ‘‘with amazement at the quiet inexpressive hands of the other men,’’ but he cannot control his own. This begs the question, What are the hands expressing? What can Wing be saying to George when he beats the walls or pounds a stump? We know part of the answer. He is urging George to dream.
But why should this advice require such strong gesturing? The ideas of dreams and dreaming form another cluster of repeated phrases in the story. After his outburst to George, Wing settles down and for a short time he is able to talk softly, forgetting his hands, ‘‘speaking as one lost in a dream.’’ ‘‘You must try to forget all you have learned,’’ he tells George. ‘‘You must begin to dream.’’ As the reader soon learns (but George does not), Wing has spoken of dreams before....
(The entire section is 1446 words.)