Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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.