Analysis

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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

"I Want To Know Why" is a kind of coming of age story. On one level, the story is about the boy narrator's love of horses as "pure" and "natural" as contrasted to the men who own or train them ("There isn't anything so lovely and clean and full of...

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"I Want To Know Why" is a kind of coming of age story. On one level, the story is about the boy narrator's love of horses as "pure" and "natural" as contrasted to the men who own or train them ("There isn't anything so lovely and clean and full of spunk and honest and everything as some race horses," the narrator explains early on). On the one hand, there is there is the pleasure of being with the horses, and being with boys and the black people who work in the stables, which is somehow clean and pure. On the other is Jerry Tilford, the trainer who seems to share the narrator's understanding but who ultimately disappoints him. There is more at stake here, however, than a simple misunderstanding.

There are two pivotal moments in the story. The first is when the narrator has made a kind of nonverbal connection with Tillford over his favorite horse, Sunstreak:

[Sunstreak] was going to do some awful running and I knew it. He wasn't bragging or letting on much or prancing or making a fuss, but just waiting. I knew it and Jerry Tillford his trainer knew. I looked up and then that man and I looked into each other's eyes. Something happened to me. 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. I cried and Jerry Tillford had a shine in his eyes.

The trouble is that Jerry Tillford doesn't know what the boy knows. This moment of connection, which seems to confirm the narrator's belief, not just in horses, but in the way of the world that horses have come to represent, is betrayed in the climax of the story, when the narrator follows Tillford to a brothel after Sunstreak wins at Saratoga:

Jerry bragged in that bad woman house as I know Sunstreak wouldn't never have bragged. He said that he made that horse, that it was him that won the race and made the record. He lied and bragged like a fool....And then, what do you suppose he did! He looked at the woman in there, the one that was lean and hard-mouthed and looked a little like the gelding Middlestride, but not clean like him, and his eyes began to shine just as they did when he looked at me and at Sunstreak in the paddocks at the track in the afternoon. I stood there by the window—gee!—but I wished I hadn't gone away from the tracks, but had stayed with the boys and the niggers and the horse.

This is clearly more than a "looks can be deceiving" moment. What the boy recognizes is that Tillford, who had been his hero and possible father replacement, in fact does not share his understanding of horses. In a way, it is as if the boy has discovered the existence of evil or sin; the final question, "I want to know why?" takes on a existential quality. The narrator wants to know, not only why Tillford said the things he said, but why such things are even possible, why sin exists.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 318

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.

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