On a warm autumn evening in Winesburg, Ohio, throngs of county fair-goers laugh and shout, but a young man in his late teens or early twenties walks through the streets silent and withdrawn. He is George Willard, who has made up his mind to leave this small town and find a newspaper job in a big city, where life will not pass him by.
As he walks down Main Street, he is sad and angry, but does not know why. The omniscient narrator, who speaks from the attitude of an older, wiser man (who at times can only guess at what women are feeling), describes the moment when a young man becomes aware for the first time of his small place in the universe and of his approaching death. He calls this moment and this awareness “sophistication” and makes it clear that this kind of sophistication brings underlying sadness. George Willard is experiencing his first adult feelings.
As George the new adult walks along in his sorrow and loneliness, he thinks of his sweetheart, Helen White. A banker’s daughter, she is the same age as George but attends college in Cleveland. She dresses well, goes to the theater, and is expected to marry a man from her own social class. On this day, however, she is tired of her social class and its expectations. She has spent the day with a young instructor from her college—this is the reason for George’s anger—taking in the county fair and sitting with him on the porch, listening to him talk about himself. Helen is bored with his talk. She too feels newly grown-up and fears that no one has noticed. In her sorrow and loneliness, she longs for George Willard.
For a time it appears that the conflicts within George and Helen, as well as their immaturity in handling them, will keep the two from what they most want. George wants to be with Helen, but he is jealous of the instructor from Cleveland and too proud and angry to make the first move. Helen would prefer George to the instructor, but she enjoys the looks that she receives from friends at the fair as she sits beside the well-dressed stranger. Her mother has confided to the instructor that “there is no one here to associate with a girl of Helen’s breeding.”
Finally, George summons his courage and strides up to Helen’s gate just as she slips out hoping desperately to see him. They walk along the streets, then sit together in the empty grandstand at the fairgrounds, but they find they do not know what to say to each other. They hold hands and kiss a little but mostly they hold each other silently and struggle to understand their own thoughts and feelings. For each of them, the company of the other is comforting, for reasons that neither can explain.
Without discussing it, they both find at the same time that they are ready to head back. Still without speaking, they stand and walk into the dark fields. For a moment as they near town they become children again, laughing and chasing each other down a hill. However, it ends abruptly, and they walk the rest of the way home in dignified silence. Somehow, the narrator explains, “they had both got from their silent evening together the thing needed.”
It is important to note that although the plot of ‘‘Sophistication’’ is self-contained, it also relies heavily on the events that precede it in Winesburg, Ohio . Furthermore, the story is more a moment in George Willard’s and Helen White’s shared life than it is a story with a typical plot. It is late fall. George is pushing his way through the crowded streets of his hometown, and he hides in the doorway of Dr. Reefy’s office so that he can observe the ebb and flow of the children and farmers, the buggies and wagons, the wives and grandmothers, the dogs and horses. The Winesburg County Fair has brought almost everyone to town, and George, a young man with high hopes but vague plans, seeks to separate himself from these townspeople, who seem vulgar to him. He feels lonely and old; he is still mourning the death of his mother and he longs to find Helen...
(The entire section is 1,155 words.)