Themes and Meanings

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“Hands” is the first of some two dozen stories that Sherwood Anderson brought together in Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and one of the most realistic and powerful in that collection. Like many of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio, “Hands” is about a character estranged from society, “grotesques,” as Anderson called them in the preface to the story cycle, misfits forced to live lives of quiet desperation outside the circle of the human community.

The stories in Winesburg, Ohio are in fact linked by theme, geography, and a central character (George Willard) who wanders through them connecting different characters. Part of the New Realism that sprang up in the United States after World War I and that included other essentially Midwestern writers such as Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway, Anderson’s short stories often focus on the estrangement and disillusionment of their protagonists.

Although a story of little action, “Hands” has multiple meanings. On one level, the story is a psychosexual portrait of a man driven out of society by his odd behavior, or by behavior that society can neither understand nor tolerate. Clearly there is a sexual element to the accusations against Adolph/Wing, for he was earlier driven out of town by people who misinterpreted his behavior. As a number of critics have pointed out, however, the real conflict is not sexual but the clash of the spiritual with the physical. The tragedy occurs when the Pennsylvania townspeople fail to recognize how Wing’s hands (his physical dimension) really express his spiritual side (the dreams he talks to George about, as he did earlier to his students). For one brief moment, the young teacher had brought the two together: “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.” Society, unfortunately, cannot tolerate that union, and now, when George Willard knows Wing, a forty-year-old man who looks much older, his hands have become his marks of shame, his human condition one of loneliness. “Although [Wing] did not understand what had happened he felt that the hands must be to blame.”

In the final image of the story—Wing kneeling “like a priest engaged in some service of his church”—Anderson brings the physical and the spiritual together again in his concluding sentence: “The nervous expressive fingers, flashing in and out of the light, might well have been mistaken for the fingers of the devotee going swiftly through decade after decade of his rosary.” The story is thus not only about the tragedy of someone estranged from the human community but also about the rarity of joining the physical and the spiritual in this life. Like James Joyce’s story “Araby,” the religious symbolism of the story’s conclusion leads to an epiphany or recognition, and the reader’s sympathy and identification with Wing Biddlebaum—as with the essential loneliness of the human condition—are completed.


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The Grotesque
‘‘Hands’’ is the first of twenty-three stories in Winesburg, Ohio, and they are all preceded by an introduction of sorts titled ‘‘The Book of the Grotesque.’’ In this section, an old man dreams of a series of men and women passing by, a ‘‘procession of grotesques.’’ He gets out of bed and writes down their stories. The narrator of ‘‘Hands’’ and the other stories has never seen the old man’s writing, but it has inspired him to tell his own stories of grotesques.

The word ‘‘grotesque’’ has been used in art and literature to describe fantastical distortions of...

(This entire section contains 837 words.)

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human and animal forms. Typically, something that is called ‘‘grotesque’’ is abnormal, ugly, strange. But Anderson is using the term in a special way, and the old man of ‘‘The Book of the Grotesque’’ sees that his grotesques are ‘‘not all horrible. Some were amusing, some almost beautiful.’’

Wing Biddlebaum is a grotesque, a man damaged and distorted by his treatment in Pennsylvania, but the term should not be understood as an indication that he is evil. His hands, which have caused him so much trouble, have made ‘‘more grotesque an already grotesque and elusive individuality,’’ but the fault lies in the world around Wing, not in what is inside him.

Alienation and Loneliness
The central theme of the story is Wing Biddlebaum’s loneliness. The first image of the story is of him pacing alone on his porch, hoping his only friend will come to call. From his porch, he can see a group of people laughing and playing, but his only contact with them is when they make fun of him. The last image of the story is of Wing, on his knees picking up bread crumbs, still alone. Between these two images are memories and scenes of loneliness and isolation. Wing has lived alone, outside of town,knows anything about him except that he is a quick berry picker.

With George Willard, Wing is a little less alone, although even with him he cannot truly be himself. He is always holding something back, afraid. He desperately wants to see George on the evening of the story’s opening, but he can do no more than hope for a visit. He is incapable of calling on George himself and must wait for his friend to take the initiative. Once he crosses a field and looks down the road, but even this frightens him, and he retreats to his porch. A man who is so afraid will not be able to climb out of his loneliness.

Yet Wing’s alienation has not made him bitter toward humanity. He does not enjoy his isolation, and dreams of sitting under a tree in a garden and having young men gather around to talk to him. He needs George because he needs and still desires human connection. George is ‘‘the medium through which he express[es] his love of man.’’

Appearances and Reality
Because Wing Biddlebaum has so little contact with the people of Winesburg, they know him only by his external appearances. In fact, he is not what he appears to be. His name is not really Wing Biddlebaum, but Adolph Myers. He looks sixty- five, but he is only forty years old. He is known in town as a skilled field laborer, but he is also educated and intelligent enough to have been a schoolteacher. By pointing out the differences between appearance and reality in Wing’s character, Anderson raises the question about whether the appearance of impropriety in Wing’s behavior toward his students was based in fact. The parents reject Myers because of the appearance of homosexuality, but as the story shows, appearance and reality can be quite different.

The cause of Wing’s trouble is sex, or the idea of sex. Specifically, the parents of his students come to believe that Wing is a pederast, and that his touching of the boys’ shoulders and hair had an inappropriate element of sexuality. Anderson is intentionally indirect in his depiction of Wing’s sexuality. At times, the narrator seems to be hinting that Wing is homosexual, as when he states that ‘‘in their feeling for the boys under their charge such men are not unlike the finer sort of women in their love of men.’’ Other times the narrator attributes the parents’ suspicions to a ‘‘rare, little-understood’’ power that gifted teachers have.

Whether or not he is actually homosexual, Wing himself does not understand what he has done wrong. He feels no guilt or shame in his relationship with the boys, yet he learns that others find something shameful in his hands. The narrator endorses Wing, saying that he was ‘‘meant by nature to be a teacher of youth.’’ Whether or not Wing is gay is not the issue that the story addresses. Instead, the story demonstrates what happens when people come to believe a man is homosexual, when they respond in anger and fear. for twenty years, and almost no one in town