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....
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In Winesburg, Ohio the idea of death does not signify only the grave, but more tragically it denotes the loneliness and frustration of the unlived life. As in Poor White we are aware in Winesburg, Ohio of movement as characteristic of American life, but here it is the restlessness of the individual who grows increasingly oppressed by his loneliness and his inability to express himself to others. In each story when the character reaches an ultimate point of insupportable frustration or recognizes that he can never escape his isolation, he reacts by waving his hands and arms about, talking excitedly, and finally running away. In a very stylized pattern almost every story brings its character to such a moment of frenzy where he breaks into something like a dance.
The introductory sketch, ‘‘The Book of the Grotesque,’’ is either ignored by critics or dismissed as a murky and confusing allegory. That Anderson intended it to carry significant weight in relation to the rest of the book is clear when we remember that ‘‘The Book of the Grotesque’’ was the publication title Anderson first gave to the whole collection of stories. In its oblique and terse fashion the sketch defines the relationship of the artist to his characters. The subject is an old man who is writing a book about all the people he has known. The first thing we notice is that the writer is preoccupied with fantasies about his failing health. When he goes to bed each night he thinks about his possible death, yet paradoxically that makes him feel more alive than at other times; thoughts of death heighten his awareness to things. In this state the old writer has a waking dream in which all the people he has known are being driven in a long...
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A recurrent theme of the literature of recent times has been the difficulty and even impossibility of communication . . .
Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio is vitally concerned with the difficulty of understanding. The characters in that work are all desperately trying, in a strange variety of ways, to make meaningful contact with someone or something outside themselves. The opening chapter, ‘‘The Book of the Grotesque,’’ explains how each tried to live by one or perhaps several truths and closed his eyes to the immense world of reality beyond the margins of that province.
These distortions of reality labelled truths immure each character within the isolation of his selfhood but they do not preclude an attempt to escape from this inner loneliness. Any passion, any ideal, however genuine or commendable, is liable to the distortion that can destroy its living malleability. Even the man who understands this may fall victim to the rigidity of his conception.
Winesburg, Ohio opens with ‘‘Hands,’’ the story of ultimate frustration. Wing Biddlebaum sees himself reaching out to others, his marvelous hands complementing the truth of his words. As a school teacher he had ‘‘walked in the evening or had sat talking until dusk upon the schoolhouse steps lost in a kind of dream. Here and there went his hands, caressing the shoulders of the boys, playing about the tousled heads.’’ . . . But a half-witted...
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Dialogue, a common vehicle for characterization and theme in fiction, is conspicuously limited in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. The characters rarely indulge in conversation with one another and rarely debate a problem within themselves. Thus, the novel, which attempts to study the isolation of mankind, achieves a success of the highest order by isolating the reader from the characters at least on the verbal level. Anderson’s message, however, is not that man can never learn to know his fellow man, but rather that conversation is, at best, an elementary and often a false indication of a man’s personality. Kate Swift, the school teacher in Winesburg, tells reporter George Willard that he must learn ‘‘to know what people are thinking about, not what they say.’’ To learn what a man is ‘‘thinking about,’’ then, the more perceptive person will study a man’s exterior being, his actions and his appearance.
Anderson uses both eyes and hands to reveal meaning in Winesburg, but in particular he makes the reader aware of the hands of his characters. Where ‘‘they fought’’ would convey meaning adequately, he deliberately writes they ‘‘fought with their fists on Main Street. . . .’’ (underscoring added).
The first function of the hand images appears to be a substitution for lengthy character description. ‘‘Hands,’’ the first story in the collection, explicitly reveals Anderson’s conscious intention: ‘‘Wing Biddlebaum talked much with his hands. 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.’’
In and of themselves, the hands of Anderson’s characters may indicate the character’s state in life. The knuckles of Doctor Reefy’s hand remind the storyteller not only of the twisted, yet delicious apples in the Winesburg orchard, but also of the doctor’s own life, his courtship, and his short marriage. Tom Foster’s industrious and aged grandmother has hands which are ‘‘all twisted out of shape’’ and Elizabeth Willard’s white hands, ‘‘dropping over the ends of the arms of the chair,’’ betray the secret of her unsuccessful life.
Hands assume wider significance as symbols, however, when they are used to express a character’s emotions or passions. When a character in Winesburg expresses anger, he does so with his hands and, in particular, with his fists. George Willard’s mother, for example, ‘‘clenched her fists’’ when she thought of her own failure in life and vowed to return from death, if necessary, to keep defeat from her son, though God might ‘‘beat her with his fists.’’ When Belle Carpenter, a young milliner in Winesburg, felt anger and frustration, she wished she could ‘‘fight someone with her fists’’ and Ray Pearson longed to ‘‘shout or scream or hit his wife with his fists’’ when he realized that he was caught in life’s web of responsibility. The large fists of Belle Carpenter’s boy friend, Ed Handby, were the bartender’s most characteristic feature (his surname enforces this association) and once ‘‘with his fist he broke a large mirror in the wash room of a hotel.’’ And when the Reverend Curtis Hartman succeeded in overcoming his temptation to sin, he joyfully shouted to George Willard, ‘‘The strength of God was in me and I broke the window with my fist.’’
Flying arms indicate high excitement in Anderson’s characters. The town baker, chasing a meddlesome grey cat, ‘‘swore and waved his arms about.’’ Similarly, Elmer Cowley, who thought himself ‘‘queer,’’ was eager to explain himself to a farm hand, whom he greeted by ‘‘making motions with his long arms,’’ and to George Willard. As Elmer talked, ‘‘his arms began to pump up and down’’ and later started to ‘‘flay the air.’’
Experiencing the sense of confusion which occurs before maturity, three young boys in Winesburg thrust their hands into their pockets. With this gesture, which is more...
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In 1914, the famous exhibition of post-Impressionist paintings was held in the Chicago Armory, where Anderson went . . . on afternoons to see the works of Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and others among the ‘‘French moderns.’’ Like such ‘‘Impressionists’’ as Monet, Renoir, and Degas before them, these painters portrayed the impressions of experience upon the consciousness of the artist, or of an observer with whom the artist identified himself, rather than the external appearances of events and objects. But they went even beyond the Impressionists in attempting to convey not only the subjective experience of the artist or observer but the abstract structure beneath natural forms. . . .
Van Gogh deliberately...
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