Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The most obvious stylistic device in this story is Sherwood Anderson’s use of the first-person narrative voice. The naïve speaker finds it difficult to tell his story; he fumbles for the right word, the accurate description. He hesitates to get to the central event. In fact, he circles the event for several pages, nearing it only to withdraw until he can better face it. When he does describe the scene, he can do so only in vague, almost childish language. The house is “rummy-looking”; the women are “ugly” and “mean-looking”; and the place “smelled rotten.” How much does the boy actually see? “I saw everything plain,” he says. The loose dresses reveal the women’s bodies. The men, some of whom “sat on the women’s laps,” apparently participate in sexual activities before the boy’s eyes. He is obviously fascinated and appalled by what occurs and by the reactions he feels within his own body.

“I Want to Know Why” can be compared to “Death in the Woods” (and numerous other Anderson stories) in its rendering of sexual awakening and confusion. In “Death in the Woods,” the narrator is a grown man looking back on his childhood. The boy in “I Want to Know Why” does not have that sort of perspective; less than a year has passed since his experience. Still, he does understand that his childhood is over and he no longer has the luxury of innocence. “That’s what I’m writing this story about,” he says. “I’m puzzled. I’m getting to be a man and want to think straight and be O.K.” At the end of the story he still cannot understand—or cannot make himself admit that he understands—but his desire to “be a man” and “think straight and be O.K.” indicates that he is beginning to face the obligations and realities of growing up.