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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 201

I Want to Know Why by Sherwood Anderson tells the story of a teenage boy who is almost turning sixteen. The protagonist ponders over a series of events that occurred in the past year. He is curious and desperate to know why these events happened so that he can focus...

(The entire section contains 1240 words.)

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I Want to Know Why by Sherwood Anderson tells the story of a teenage boy who is almost turning sixteen. The protagonist ponders over a series of events that occurred in the past year. He is curious and desperate to know why these events happened so that he can focus on other important things. The story is set in Beckersville, Kentucky, where horse racing is a popular sport.

The teenage boy has a passion for horse racing. He is anxious about being a jockey and remembers how he once ate a cigar so that he could not grow any taller. He was afraid that his growth would ruin his chances of participating in the sport. Despite his ambitions, the boy realizes and accepts that he might never be a jockey. Nonetheless, he loves horses. Therefore, he spends a lot of time on the racing track and stables trying to learn as much as he can about the animals. One of his mentors is Bildad Johnson, who teaches him on the ways of bonding with horses. The story’s climax takes place when the boy goes with his peers goes to New York without their parents’ knowledge to see a horse race.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1039

The protagonist of “I Want to Know Why” is an unnamed boy nearing his sixteenth birthday. The events that he relates have occurred almost a year previously, just as he turned fifteen. The boy recalls these events in a mixture of confusion and desperation: He needs to understand exactly what happened and how it has affected him so that he can get on with his life.

The boy lives in Beckersville, a small Kentucky town, and he is fascinated with horses and horse racing. His father is the town lawyer, but the boy wants more than anything else to be a part of the racetrack environment. He remembers that when he was ten, he tried to stunt his growth by eating a cigar stolen from his father so that he might remain small enough to be a rider. “It made me awful sick and the doctor had to be sent for, and then it did no good,” he recalls. “It was a joke. When I told what I had done and why, most fathers would have whipped me, but mine didn’t.” Thus, even in this early action, the boy expresses the sense of disappointment that marks the whole story.

With the realization that he can never be a jockey, the boy turns to other aspects of the racing scene. He hangs around the stables, listening to the touts and stable hands and trainers talk. He learns the lore of horses, absorbs the knowledge and hones the instinct that goes with a true appreciation of the animals. His foremost teacher at this time is Bildad Johnson, a black man who works as cook around the track each spring. The boy appreciates Bildad’s honesty and trust. He also gathers from the old man an awareness of the beauty of horses that goes beyond simple admiration—that, in fact, approaches the spiritual: “It brings a lump up into my throat when a horse runs. . . . It’s in my blood like in the blood of . . . trainers,” he says.

The central event in the story occurs when the boy and three of his friends sneak away and hitch a freight train to Saratoga, New York, to watch a first-class horse race. When they arrive, they look up Bildad and some of the other Beckersville racetrack men who have arrived earlier. The race is the Mullford Handicap, in which Sunstreak, a stallion, will run against the gelding Middlestride. Both horses are from near Beckersville, but the boy pulls for Sunstreak because the horse is special:Sunstreak is like a girl you think about sometimes but never see. He is hard all over and lovely too. When you look at his head you want to kiss him. . . . He stands at the post quiet and not letting on, but he is just burning up inside. Then when the barrier goes up he is off like his name, Sunstreak. It makes you ache to see him. It hurts you.

Before the race, the boy visits Sunstreak’s stall, where the horse is being groomed. Jerry Tillford, Sunstreak’s trainer, notices the boy, and when they share a glance, the boy knows that Jerry is as moved by the horse—by its courage, strength, grace, and vitality—as he is. “Something happened to me,” the boy remembers. “I guess I loved the man as much as I did the horse because he knew what I knew. Seemed to me there wasn’t anything in the world but that man and the horse and me.”

The race between the two horses is barely described by the boy: Sunstreak’s victory is a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, the boy is moved by what he has seen, and that night he parts company with the other boys so that he can be alone to consider the events that he has witnessed. He also wants to be near Jerry Tillford, the one person who most shares his feelings. He has watched Jerry leave in a car with a group of men after the race. With little hope of finding them, he strikes out on the road they took and soon sees the car turning into the driveway of an old farmhouse. The boy creeps up to a window to find out what is going on inside:It’s what give me the fantods. I can’t make it out. The women in the house were all ugly mean-looking women, not nice to look at or be near. . . . I saw everything plain. . . . The women had on loose dresses and sat around in chairs. The men came in and some sat on the women’s laps. The place smelled rotten and there was rotten talk, the kind a kid hears around a livery stable in a town like Beckersville in the winter but don’t ever expect to hear talked when there are women around. It was rotten.

As the boy watches and listens, Jerry Tillford begins to brag about the race. He takes credit for Sunstreak’s win, which the boy knows is foolish. Then the trainer begins to look at one of the women, and the shine in his eyes is the same as the shine that the boy noticed when Jerry looked at Sunstreak before the race. It is this realization that so angers and confuses the boy. When Jerry then kisses the prostitute, the boy is racked by disgust: “I wanted to scream and rush in the room and kill him. I never had such a feeling before,” he says. Instead, he retreats into the darkness and, after a sleepless night, heads for home the next day.

In the time that has passed between this event and the present time of the story, the boy has continued to mull over the adventure. His life has changed: “At the tracks the air don’t taste as good or smell as good,” he says. “It’s because a man like Jerry Tillford, who knows what he does, could see a horse like Sunstreak run, and kiss a woman like that the same day. I can’t make it out.” Thus the story ends, with the narrator still puzzled, trying to understand the adult world into which he has been so abruptly initiated.

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