Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 475

The penultimate story of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), “Sophistication” is one of the collection’s few stories that was not published separately before the book appeared. The central figure in the book is George Willard, who encounters, one by one, the various incomplete and lonely people of the town whom...

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The penultimate story of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), “Sophistication” is one of the collection’s few stories that was not published separately before the book appeared. The central figure in the book is George Willard, who encounters, one by one, the various incomplete and lonely people of the town whom Anderson calls “grotesques.” Throughout these stories, George Willard is something of a constant; he seems young, healthy, and whole, and this is why the others are drawn to him to tell their stories.

As “Sophistication” opens, George is walking alone through crowds of laughing, excited people. In this initial image, Anderson presents his central theme, the lesson that George must learn: that the essential human condition is to be alone, and lonely. Throughout the rest of Winesburg, Ohio, George encounters one lonely figure after another, listening to them tell of their aloneness. George himself is often alone; he is not close to his parents, he seems to have no intimate friends his own age, and he feels different from everyone else. However, until this evening of the fair, he has never minded, never felt lonely.

At first he does not know what he is feeling. He is angry about Helen’s being with the instructor instead of him, but he is unwilling to go to her house himself. He is eager to get out into the wide world, but he is beginning to realize that he will be just a speck in it. As he charges through town with his new, grown-up thoughts, he only wants someone to understand him.

He turns to Helen, who has a similar need. She, too, is feeling mature and alone and uncertain, and she wants to be with George so that he will see and understand the change in her. The yearning, Anderson shows, is a common enough one. Throughout George’s life, lonely people have presented themselves to him, hoping that he would understand, but he does not.

This is what George and Helen learn on their walk. Significantly, they must walk out of town, away from the influences of their youth, to learn it. Although both feel the same loneliness, and although they are reaching for each other out of that loneliness, in the end they cannot fill that void for each other. Words are clearly insufficient, for they do not speak to each other at all. Passion is not what they seek, and their kissing is brief and unfulfilling. Instead, they sit together silently, holding each other and thinking private thoughts.

People are alone and lonely all their lives. The best one can hope for—and the thing that George and Helen share for this evening—is someone with whom to share one’s loneliness. Once they come to understand this, they are ready to return to town, to get on with their adult lives.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 616

American Dream
George and Helen, both seeking to escape from the restrictions of small-town life, find in each other a moment of sophistication, or wisdom, as they sit in the empty grandstand together. Part of their wisdom is gained from their disillusionment with the American Dream. The idea that anyone can succeed through hard work and determination is a lie—as George realizes from listening to the townsfolk, and Helen learns from suffering the pomposity of the college professor. None of the many people who come and go around the fair ground is a success; they work hard and hope hard, but they are doomed to being lost in the crowd. The melancholy mood arising from this realization, and their separateness from society because of it, draws them together in a moment of mutual understanding. Their sophistication results from rejecting the deceit of the American Dream in favor of the realization that a true connection with another human being is a greater reward than the American Dream.

Art and Experience
George hopes to be a writer. On the day of the fair, he is planning to leave Winesburg and go away to a city where he hopes to work for a newspaper. This decision makes him feel grown up. He wants to put into words the depth and sadness of human beings, most of whom live lives ‘‘of quiet desperation,’’ as Henry David Thoreau had put it. And so George ‘‘began to think of the people in the town where he had always lived with something like reverence.’’ Indeed, George’s plan to be a writer reflects Anderson’s own struggle to become a writer. In ‘‘Sophistication,’’ Anderson transforms a simple moment of mutual recognition in the lives of two young people into a work of literature, thus bridging the chasm between art and experience.

Sex
George has changed from an adolescent boy with sexual impulses into a thoughtful young man. As he confronts Helen, ‘‘He wanted to love and to be loved by her, but he did not want at the moment to be confused by her womanhood.’’ As they embrace and kiss, their moment of sophistication deepens, and they become ‘‘Not man and woman, not boy and girl, but excited little animals.’’ This is followed by a moment of respect, when ‘‘she took his arm and walked beside him in dignified silence.’’ Though George and Helen have not been physically intimate, what passes between them is a moment of sexual awareness that transcends the body. Sexuality, far from being ignored, becomes only one component of their relationship, which has been cemented by a bond of unspoken understanding about their place in the world.

Growth and Development
At eighteen, George has reached a point in his life at which he feels ready to leave Winesburg, Ohio, to pursue ‘‘the dreams of his manhood.’’ In the stories that precede ‘‘Sophistication,’’ namely, ‘‘Hands,’’ ‘‘The Thinker,’’ and ‘‘An Awakening,’’ the process of George’s maturation is outlined. George, through conversations with town drunks, barbers, religious fanatics, failed farmers, and older and wiser women, grows to this moment of sophistication, where he sees and reflects upon his place within the confines of small-town life. In ‘‘Sophistication,’’ both George and Helen see the difference between the townspeople and themselves, and their resulting loneliness causes them to seek each other out. They are not shallow; they know that they, too, will be bruised by life. George ‘‘already . . . hears death calling’’; which makes all the more precious his moment of wisdom with Helen. The moment when each of them seeks out another to help fill the emptiness inside of them is the moment in which their development into mature adults is complete.

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