Student Question

How does Anderson manipulate the point of view in "Hands"?

Quick answer:

"Anderson plays with point of view in the story "Hands," but does not stray far from traditional narrative. The narrator uses third-person omniscient perspective, incorporating changes in the narrator's involvement and tense switches between past and present as the story progresses."

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"Playing" with a narrative suggests that the author is utilizing unusual methods to achieve an effect, and frequently this involves rejecting some of the typical guidelines for writing that we might learn in school. For example, Cormac McCarthy famously chooses not to use quotation marks in his dialogue. Sherwood Anderson's Hands plays with point of view to some degree, but doesn't really stray from the third-person; however, it does incorporate changes in the narrator's involvement, and tense changes as the story moves through time.

Hands begins with a third-person omniscient narrator, with a freedom of perspective that we might almost think of as cinematic. The action begins by describing the scene and a group of children, then uses dialogue to shift attention to Wing Biddlebaum, and then again, rapidly, shifts to an expository background on Biddlebaum and his friendship with George Willard. A good comparison might be the introductions to Rod Sterling's Twilight Zone series; a brief "snapshot" of life for the characters, followed by a narrative introduction and commentary on them and the story that their lives were about to tell.

The next most abrupt shift in perspective takes place as a sort of flashback, describing an occasion when Biddlebaum lectured Willard to the point of forgetting his usual apprehensiveness; here, Anderson introduces the use of dialogue, allowing the characters to speak for themselves, as well as shifting to a more distinctly past tense. The perspective then shifts again, even further into the past, narrating the events which caused Adolph Meyer to become Wing Biddlebaum, also with some dialogue. The story then returns to the present, and concludes with another narrative amid Biddlebaum's silence.

The literal point of view does not change as obviously as it might; for example, the tense never shifts to "I" with Biddlebaum narrating. However it does lend itself to the perspective of Biddlebaum's memories in the flashbacks. In essence, the story is bookended by the silent and mysterious life that Biddlebaum leads; we then delve deeper and closer to his own perspective, before returning to the present, once again "ourselves" but having an explanation for Biddlebaum's mystery.

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