Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Because Anderson’s work focuses on internal conflict and internal resolution, one would expect his writing to give more attention to internal than external matters in general. Even so, many critics have found it surprising that Anderson’s sparse style offers so little in the way of descriptive details about location and setting.

The first sentence of “Sophistication” begins “It was early evening of a day in the late fall.” The day of the week and the date are unspecified, as are the names of the berries that once grew in the dry fields, or of the stores that the people pass as they walk down Main Street. The implication is that for these people, one day is much like another, a field is a field, a store is a store. They do not notice details about their surroundings, and Anderson wants the reader to ignore them as well. What matters is what George—Anderson’s Everyman—is thinking as he walks through Anytown, U.S.A.

George and the narrator do notice the most minute action and detail about the people in the town, however. The narrator describes the stickiness of sleeping children’s fingers and the shining faces of young boys with their first sweethearts, but aside from a few dry leaves and interchangeable trees, there are no descriptions of nature. There is much noise, supplied by crying or shouting children, or fiddlers tuning their instruments, or horns blaring, but there are no birds singing or dogs barking. It is almost as though all these players were actors on a stage with no set.

Anderson is almost stubborn in his refusal to describe locations, even when moving around is the central action. All readers know about George and Helen’s travels on that long-ago summer night is that they stopped “by a fence near a field of young corn.” However, this walk is an important memory for both of them. Their walk this fall evening seems to cover considerable ground—they leave town, cross fields, climb and descend Waterworks Hill, and sit at the fairgrounds. However, these places form only the vaguest pictures in the reader’s mind. By providing as few details about the terrain as possible, Anderson keeps the reader’s attention focused entirely on the internal struggles of George and Helen.