The Man Who Became a Woman

by Sherwood Anderson
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594

Herman Dudley reflects on his early life, beginning with his childhood in a small Nebraska town and leading up to the event that caused him to leave the racehorse and tramp life forever. He begins his reminiscence in his own home, recalling his home town, a nondescript place. He fills in his family history, which leads him to the western Pennsylvania racehorse circuit, traveling from county fair to county fair, working as a groomer for a horse named Pick-it-boy, during fall until winter sets in.

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In late fall, after the departure of Herman’s friend Tom Means, Herman is joined by Burt, an African American groomer. Through his relationship with Burt, Herman explores racial issues. He decides that they cannot be friends because too much talk about such issues has put an unnatural strain on relationships between black people and white people. Still, Burt and Herman obviously are friends. Burt covers for Herman’s lethargy, and Herman walks both horses to help Burt out.

During the final week of the circuit, circumstances lead to Herman’s being left alone, tending to all the horses. Loneliness causes him to leave his post, and he ends up in a miners’ bar. As he drinks whiskey at the bar and the miners play cards in the background, he looks into an old, cracked looking glass behind the bar and sees the frightened face of a young girl in his own reflection.

Furthering his transition from male to female, a huge man with red hair forces him to care for his child during a bar fight. As the child begins to howl, the redheaded man stops fighting, reclaims his child, and leaves the bar. The narrator then slinks out and returns, soaked with rain and drink, to Pick-it-boy’s stall. He strips himself of his wet clothing and falls asleep under a saddle blanket in the loft above the horse’s stall.

When two of the black groomers return drunk from town, they mistakenly stagger into Herman’s loft. In the dim light of their lantern, they pull off his saddle blanket and mistake him for a woman. In their surprise, they drop the lantern, which goes out. They lunge for Herman, who is too terrified to scream, and both of them miss him. He runs into the night, trying futilely to scream, unable to see the dark-skinned men and aware that his white skin must be visible even in the darkness. He continues to run long after they have stopped chasing him.

Herman’s flight takes him past the racetrack and to the abandoned slaughterhouse, where he stumbles over the bleached white bones of a horse and lands inside the horse’s ribs. The terror of being in the horse’s skeleton burns all his thoughts about being a girl out of him. He can finally scream. He emerges from the bones a man, but because he is blubbering and crying, he is ashamed to return to the stables. He sleeps that night with several sheep that have gnawed a cave into a straw stack.

In the morning, he must return naked back to the stalls to retrieve his clothing. He knows that he will be taunted and that he will probably blubber in shame, and in fact he does. He is surprised that Burt comes to his defense, brandishing a pitchfork at Herman’s tormenters and swearing. Herman is deeply touched by Burt’s swearing and blubbers as he puts on his wet clothes, kisses Pick-it-boy good-bye, and leaves. Burt does not notice Herman’s departure.

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