What problems does Wing Biddlebaum face in Hands, and do they reflect societal issues? Does the theme of Hands still resonate today?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Wing Biddlebaum, in reality the schoolteacher Adolph Myers, confronts the problem that his tendency to touch his students with his hands is misinterpreted as pedophilia. Because of false accusations made against him by a "half-witted" student, Myers is run out of his Pennsylvania town. He takes on a new name, Biddlebaum, and travels to Winesburg, Ohio, to live with an aunt. He gives up teaching.

However, Biddlebaum cannot help but continue talking with his very expressive hands. They remind people of birds, which is how he gets the nickname Wing. He becomes reclusive because he simply can't control his hands and fears the same accusations arising in Winesburg that he once faced. He is only able, therefore, to get close to one person in the town: the reporter George Willard. Even with George, however, he fears his uncontrollable tendency to touch others as he makes his points will lead to his intentions being misinterpreted as sexual. Wing's problem and tragedy is that, though born a teacher, and a gifted one at that, he does not dare use his talent for fear of being labeled a pedophile or homosexual.

His problem does have a social cause. Some people are not able to differentiate between an innocent touch, meant to convey spiritual connection, and a sexual touch. They cannot understand that the spiritual and the physical might be one in a person or that physical does not necessarily mean sexual. As the text states,

In a way the voice and the hands, the stroking of the shoulders and the touching of the hair were a part of the schoolmaster's effort to carry a dream into the young minds

Wing cannot communicate what is passionately important to him without using his hands.

This fear of physical touch remains a problem in our society. It is difficult to imagine a teacher today who "caressed" his boys' hair and shoulders holding his job very long. Now, just as it was when Anderson wrote the story just over a century ago, this form of touch would be considered inappropriate and probably evoke the same response.

The insight we might take away is that not every physical touch is sexual—but that would be very hard to communicate in our society, and most people would not take the time to parse the distinction.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial