Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 384

“I Want to Know Why” is a story by Sherwood Anderson. The story is about a boy who escapes with his three friends in pursuit of horse-racing adventures. The story does not expand on the adventures of this vacation. Instead, it focuses on an event where the narrator sees Jerry...

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“I Want to Know Why” is a story by Sherwood Anderson. The story is about a boy who escapes with his three friends in pursuit of horse-racing adventures. The story does not expand on the adventures of this vacation. Instead, it focuses on an event where the narrator sees Jerry Tillman, a man he had great admiration for, drunk and in the company of a prostitute. Various themes are eminent in the story, and some of them are discussed below.

Passion is the first theme that is clearly evident in the story. The narrator’s passion for horses is on another level. It is for this reason that he and his three friends escape to go experience horse-racing adventures without permission from their parents. Additionally, the narrator indicates that whenever he sees horses running he gets a “lump up into his throat.” This shows that the narrator has an intense passion for horses. The narrator also depicts the inhabitants of Beckersville as passionate about horses. In his words, he states, “every breath of air you breathe in Beckersville is about horses." He also states that “everything talked about in Beckersville is about horses." These two statements indicate that people in Beckersville are very passionate about horses. It is due to his passion for horses that the narrator begins to idolize Jerry Tillford, a successful horse trainer.

Betrayal is another theme that is evident in the story. First, the narrator and his three friends betray their parent's trust by escaping without informing them. In an ideal situation, it is expected that children ask for permission from parents before they can travel anywhere. However, this is not the case for the narrator and his three friends. Another instance of betrayal is evident in the instance where the narrator finds Jerry Tillman drunk and in the company of a prostitute. This is an indicator that reality is far from what he had formerly perceived it to be. The narrator had so much trust in Tillford and had even started to idolize him. It is evident in the story that the narrator had begun to like Tillford more than he even liked his father. However, after the incident at the brothel, the narrator feels betrayed and lost, hence the title of the story: “I Want to Know Why."

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 391

The boy-narrator is a young man growing into the adult world, although he would rather, in a sense, remain a child. This idea is suggested by his wish to stunt his growth by eating a cigar. Although he is thinking in terms of staying small enough to be a jockey, in the larger context of the story it is clear that he is unwilling to face the realities of adulthood. The racetrack, with its magical allure, is a perfect fantasy world for the boy.

The boy’s father, the town lawyer, is something of a disappointment to his son. “He’s all right, but don’t make much money and can’t buy me things, and anyway I’m getting so old now I don’t expect it,” the boy says. In comparison to his friends’ fathers—one is a professional gambler—the narrator’s father seems rather bland, although the boy appreciates his understanding nature. The reader can recognize that the father is, indeed, a good and wise man, but the narrator, at this age, prefers Jerry Tillford. In fact, he substitutes Jerry for his father on the day of the race. Thus, his shock and his disappointment at Jerry’s transgressions are profound: They are a betrayal of the highest order.

The boy’s horror takes on an even greater significance when the reader reconsiders the boy’s attitude toward horses. As an adolescent, unable to sort out his powerfully confused feelings, the boy has sublimated his sexual urges into the beauty and excitement of racing. Sunstreak is described as a girl whom the boy wants to kiss. The ache, the pain he feels at the horse’s running is also vaguely sexual but made acceptable and understandable to the boy because it is pictured in the terms of his childhood world. When Jerry bridges the gap between the spiritual appreciation of the horse and the sexual lust for the woman, he is unknowingly forcing the boy to face the truth about his own feelings and needs. Because the boy has vested Jerry with the role of father, Jerry’s act precipitates a distinctly Oedipal crisis. The boy at first wants to kill his “father,” whose overt sexual needs reflect the boy’s hidden, confused ones. Thereafter, the world is no longer simple; there are no easy, clean answers.

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