Style and Technique

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A masterful story on several levels, “Hands” is particularly remarkable for its structure. Little actually happens in the present: Wing waits for George, who does not appear; he eats his supper and cleans up. Through a series of flashbacks, or stories within stories, like a series of Chinese boxes, Anderson reveals Wing/Adolph in all his human frailty. The very structure of the story is a worthwhile object of study in and of itself.

The figurative language of the story is also exceptional. Wing’s story demands a poet, so Anderson employs images here that transcend language. The central image of the story, Wing’s hands, conveys much of the meaning of the story: “Their restless activity, like unto the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird, had given him his name.” Wing’s hands thus represent his estrangement, appendages almost unconnected to his body, as Wing himself is physically cut off from Winesburg. Wing’s hands also represent the split in human life. They can express or represent his spirit, but they can also become something uglier: Walking earlier with George Willard, Wing stopped near a fence and, “beating like a woodpecker upon the top board had shouted at George Willard.” Of course, Wing is beaten by hands as well, by Henry Bradford, who beat him with his fists. Hands can thus be used in diametrically opposite ways, to express the inexpressible (dreams) or to convey the purely physical (violence). In the concluding image of the story, hands are still central, and resemble objects in religious acts. In this final scene, the spiritual and the physical are once again combined in a mystical and positive way.

Historical Context

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The Chicago Renaissance
For much of the twentieth century, New York City has been the literary center of the United States, but around the time of the First World War that distinction was held by Chicago. Sherwood Anderson was part of a group of writers and editors, called the Chicago Renaissance or Chicago Group, who flourished from about 1910 to about 1925. Other writers in the group included the poets Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters, and the novelist Theodore Dreiser. At first, these writers focused on Midwestern themes and reached mainly a Midwest audience, but their influence quickly spread.

Chicago was the home of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, edited by Harriet Monroe. Founded in 1912, it was one of the first so-called little magazines, or noncommercial literary magazines dedicated to innovative writing. It was in the pages of Poetry that Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg had his first publication, and the magazine also published early work of Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and T. S. Eliot. Down the street from Monroe’s office were the offices of Margaret Anderson (who was not related to Sherwood Anderson), editor of The Little Review. In its fifteen-year run, it became one of the most important of the little magazines and after a few years was published out of New York and then Paris. In 1918 the Little Review began the first American publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was so controversial that issues of the magazine were seized and burned by the United States Post Office. Sherwood Anderson had contributed to the first two issues of the Little Review in 1914. The short story ‘‘Paper Pills,’’ which follows ‘‘Hands’’ in Winesburg, Ohio, was first published in the Little Review in 1915.

Anderson was living and writing in the midst of this exciting time in Chicago. He and the other Chicago Group writers and editors knew each other socially, worked together, read...

(This entire section contains 747 words.)

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aloud to each other, contributed to each other’s projects, and discussed theories of politics and art. They rejected what they saw as the stuffy forms that writing had taken in the nineteenth century and worked on poetry in free verse and fiction that was not constricted by the formal demands of plot. They disagreed with ‘‘genteel’’ nineteenth-century writers who said that optimistic themes and healthy characters should take center stage, and instead they experimented with unhappy and damaged characters engaged in impolite behaviors.

Among the fiction writers of the Chicago Group, Anderson took the greatest risks with subject matter and with form, according to Welford Dunaway Taylor’s Sherwood Anderson. Not only did he write about sex with a frankness that shocked his contemporaries, but he insisted on episodic structures for his fiction. Taylor writes that even the editor of Masses, the progressive magazine in which ‘‘Hands’’ first appeared, ‘‘is said to have felt that some of the Winesburg stories were formless. After publishing two, the magazine stopped accepting them.’’

Arriving in Chicago at the right time, Anderson was able to find a supportive and talented group of friends to help him shape his own art and career. Along with his colleagues, he was able to straddle two worlds, writing about issues and ideas with bigcity sophistication, but planting his work firmly in the small-town Midwest.

Just before Anderson and his companions were attempting to revolutionize literature during the early part of the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud was revolutionizing the understanding of human psychology. His many books, including The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) and Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex (1910), were widely read and discussed in Europe by both professionals and general readers, and by 1914 or so Freud’s ideas had even reached the Midwest. Anderson and the others in the Chicago Renaissance discussed the latest psychological theories, just as they discussed socialism and literary criticism.

The combination of the arrival of a new set of controversial theories and the publication of a collection of unconventional short stories was beyond the power of critics to resist. Critics who could see no other explanation for his interest in mentally unstable characters quickly labeled Anderson a ‘‘Freudian.’’ For his own part, Anderson insisted all his life that he had never actually read Freud. Rex Burbank concludes in his book Sherwood Anderson that ‘‘Anderson repeatedly rejected Freudian formulas, for he resisted what he regarded as the oversimplification of the human mind and heart.’’ Nevertheless, because Freud and Anderson both wrote about neurotic people, readers of Anderson’s works have often associated him with Freudianism.

Literary Style

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Point of View and Narration
‘‘Hands’’ is told in the third person, by an unseen narrator who does not participate in the story and who has only a limited ability to see into the characters’ thoughts and feelings. For example, the narrator observes closely as Wing Biddlebaum paces up and down on his veranda and knows that Wing is hoping for a visit from George Willard. But when the young woman on the wagon mocks Wing’s baldness, the narrator does not report any emotional reaction from Wing. Does the remark hurt his feelings? Does he share in the joke? The narrator reports only the physical manifestation of Wing’s response, saying that Wing’s ‘‘nervous little hands fiddled about the bare white forehead as though arranging a mass of tangled locks.’’ Similarly, when Henry Bradford beats Myers, there is no description of Myers’s pain or shock. The narrator describes only what can be seen: ‘‘the frightened face of the schoolmaster.’’

For most of the story, the narrator focuses on Wing as though from above, but for the scene in which George almost asks about Wing’s hands, the narrative stance shifts slightly. The focus is still on Wing, but now the narrator reports what George saw and heard in the fields that day. There is no indication of George’s responses through most of the scene. Presumably, he is listening with rapt attention as Wing launches into a ‘‘long, rambling talk.’’ There is no hint that he finds anything objectionable in Wing’s advice to him, or in Wing’s hands on his shoulders. Wing’s reactions are again depicted through what can be seen: his ‘‘look of horror,’’ his ‘‘convulsive movement,’’ and the tears in his eyes. When Wing is gone, however, the narrator directly quotes George’s internal monologue, and states that George is ‘‘touched by the memory of the terror he had seen in the man’s eyes.’’ It is the only time in the story that thoughts are reported so precisely.

After this scene, the narrator moves back to the further distance for the rest of the story. Wing’s thoughts and feelings are given only in the vaguest phrases. As he moves through his lonely evening, he seems to be an automaton, going through the motions of eating and cleaning and undressing while feeling nothing.

When one image is repeated throughout a story and comes to represent an abstract idea, that image may be called a symbol. In his discussion of ‘‘Hands’’ in Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction, Robert Allen Papinchak examines the imagery of hands in the story. Of course, the title indicates the importance of the image, and Papinchak reports that the words ‘‘hand’’ and ‘‘hands’’ occur thirty times in the brief story. The hands stand for everything that is unusual about Wing Biddlebaum; they are his ‘‘distinguishing feature’’ and the things that make him grotesque.

They are the source of his fame when he uses them to pick strawberries, and the cause of his downfall when he uses them to caress his students. Most of all, they are the symbol of what Wing does not understand about himself and about the world. His hands seem to operate under a power of their own, alarming him, and he looks ‘‘with amazement at the quiet inexpressive hands of other men.’’ Of course the hands of other men have not always been inexpressive: one man’s hands became fists to beat Wing with, and another came at Wing with ‘‘a rope in his hands.’’

Images of hands being used against Wing, and Wing’s determination not to use his own hands to touch his friend, highlight Wing’s isolation and loneliness. As the narrator explains, ‘‘The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands.’’ The use of a repeated image to make it take on a symbolic meaning has become a common element of short fiction, but according to Papinchak, Anderson was one of the first American writers to experiment with it.

Episodic Plot
Beyond the issues of sex and obscenity, the feature of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio that gave critics the most difficulty was the plot structure. Generally, the plot of a story is thought of as the pattern into which characters and their actions are arranged. A story that is plot-driven is a story in which what happens is the most important element, and inner or psychological development of the characters is less important. Individual scenes or episodes occur in a particular order to provide or withhold information about events. A mystery story, for example, might please its readers by providing an exciting story line, though its characters may be only standard, ‘‘cardboard’’ figures.

Many readers of ‘‘Hands’’ have come to the conclusion that there is no plot at all, that nothing really happens during the story. At the beginning and at the end, Wing is alone at home, wishing George would come. In between, the narrator re- flects on the friendship between Wing and George, recounts from George’s point of view a walk the two took together, and tells the story of Adolph Myers in Pennsylvania. Myers never learns how George felt about their walk, and George never learns Wing’s history. In terms of action and consequence, the episodes are not related. The sections fit together in creating a dominant impression, a psychological whole, but not a plot in the usual sense of the word. This type of structure is called an episodic plot, or an episodic structure. Anderson believed that this kind of structure, in which the connections between events is not always apparent, best echoed the structure of human life.

Compare and Contrast

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1890s: The ‘‘public highway’’ running between town and the berry fields of Winesburg, Ohio, is a dirt road. Field workers travel by wagon, and goods are shipped by train.

1990s: Although there are still unpaved highways and freight trains in the rural parts of the Midwest, they have mostly been replaced by paved roads on which trucks pass.

1890s: Strawberries are grown throughout the country and picked by hand by day laborers who are mostly local. The fictional Wing Biddlebaum picks one hundred and forty quarts in a day.

1990s: Most large-scale strawberry farms are in California. The berries are still picked by hand, because they bruise easily, but the picking is done by migrant workers, many of them from Mexico.

1890s: Most schools, like Adolph Myers’ school in the story, have only one teacher for all the grades, and the teachers have little direct supervision.

1990s: Except in the most remote areas, American schools are larger, with more teachers in each building and with large bureaucracies to hire, supervise and, if appropriate, to discipline teachers.

1890s: The fictional Winesburg Eagle, like many small-town papers, is put out by two men: an owner/editor and a reporter.

1990s: Even most small-town papers have larger staffs, and most small papers have been put out of business or been purchased by large multimedia corporations. The Internet, however, allows small groups of people to produce online periodicals, and to achieve much wider circulations than the small, print newspapers of a century before.

Media Adaptations

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Two unabridged audio versions of the complete Winesburg, Ohio have been released recently. In 1995, Audio Bookshelf issued a version read by Terry Bregy. The set includes four cassettes running a total of six-and-one-half hours, including an introduction to Anderson and his work. Recorded Books issued another version in 1997, read by George Guidall. Its five cassettes run seven-and-one-half hours.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Anderson, David D., Critical Studies in American Literature, The University of Karachi, 1964, pp. 108–131; reprinted in Critical Essays on Sherwood Anderson, edited by David D. Anderson, G. K. Hall, 1981, p. 167.

Burbank, Rex, Sherwood Anderson, Twayne, 1964, pp. 65, 117.

Frank, Waldo, ‘‘Winesburg, Ohio, After Twenty Years,’’ in Story, Vol. 19, No. 91, September–October, 1941, pp. 29–33.

‘‘A Gutter Would Be Spoon River,’’ New York Sun, June 1, 1919, p. 3.

Mencken, H. L., ‘‘Novels, Chiefly Bad,’’ in Smart Set, Vol. 59, August, 1919, p. 142.

Papinchak, Robert Allen, Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, 1992, pp. 8–9.

Rideout, Walter B., ‘‘The Simplicity of Winesburg, Ohio,’’ in Shenandoah, Vol. 13, Spring ,1962, pp. 20–31; reprinted in Critical Essays on Sherwood Anderson, edited by David D. Anderson, G. K. Hall, 1981, pp. 146, 150–151.

Small, Judy Jo, A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Sherwood Anderson, G. K. Hall, 1994, p. 37.

Taylor, Welford Dunaway, Sherwood Anderson, Frederick Ungar, 1977, pp. 29, 37.

Further Reading
Howe, Irving, Sherwood Anderson, William Sloan Associates, 1951. A highly readable critical biography by a man who admired Anderson’s early works, and who was strongly disappointed by the later ones. Howe does not address ‘‘Hands’’ separately, but devotes a chapter to the influences and themes of Winesburg, Ohio. Still the most important book-length Anderson study.

Papinchak, Robert Allen, Sherwood Anderson: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, 1992. A thorough analysis of all of Anderson’s short fiction. Papinchak uses ‘‘Hands’’ as an example to illustrate Anderson’s ‘‘representative stylistic technique,’’ citing the use of hands as a repeated symbol, and the author’s clean and direct sentence style.

Small, Judy Jo, A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Sherwood Anderson, G. K. Hall, 1994. In a useful chapter on ‘‘Hands,’’ Small outlines circumstances of composition of the story, Anderson’s sources and influences, the publication history, some connections between the story and other Anderson works, and a review of important criticism.

White, Ray Lewis, ed., The Merrill Studies in ‘‘Winesburg, Ohio,’’ Charles E. Merrill, 1971. A small but important compilation of background information and critical pieces, including an analysis of Anderson’s writing process by William L. Phillips; several contemporary book reviews; and brief and accessible critical articles on themes, imagery and symbolism.

———, Sherwood Anderson: A Reference Guide, G. K. Hall, 1977. An annotated list of more than 2,500 pieces of criticism published between 1916 and 1975, including criticism written in non-English languages. Includes citations with brief summaries of twenty-three reviews of Winesburg, Ohio from 1919.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide