I Want to Know Why Summary
by Sherwood Anderson

Start Your Free Trial

Download I Want to Know Why Study Guide

Subscribe Now

I Want to Know Why Summary

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.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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,...

(The entire section is 1,240 words.)