Characters Discussed

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George Willard

George Willard, the young reporter who learns about life from confessions and observations of townspeople. The son of an insensitive man and a sensitive mother, young Willard accepts the practical help of his father but follows the inclinations of his mother in accepting his job. Living as he does in the family hotel, which has seen better days, he runs alone and thinks long thoughts. Something about him draws the weak, the insecure, and the hopeless as well as the clever and strong. His loyalties to those who give him their confidences are unflinching. He takes advantage of a lonely farm girl, but only at her insistence, and then secretly. On the other hand, he has an exaggerated sense of chivalry concerning the girl whom he has long admired. He is searching for the truth. This search finally, after his mother’s death, takes him away from the town that formed him.

Elizabeth Willard

Elizabeth Willard, his mother, whose hotel and life savings never benefit anyone, but whose spirit serves as a bond and inspiration to two men. Promiscuous in her youth, though in search of spirituality, Mrs. Willard had married on the hearsay of village wives expressing contentment. Never in love with her husband, she cherishes a beautiful memory of a lover who murmured to her, “Oh, the dear, the dear, the lovely dear.” The two who loved her most, her son and Dr. Reefy, repeat these words to her dead but seemingly young and uncorrupted body. She lives and dies in quiet desperation and in search of loveliness.

Dr. Reefy

Dr. Reefy, a poet of obscurity who writes great truths on scraps of paper that he throws away in wads and with a laugh. True to a vision of greatness, the doctor loved twice in his life. One love was a pregnant girl who miscarried, then married the understanding doctor and died, leaving him a comfortable income. The other, Elizabeth Willard, he befriends in her last days of a ravaging disease; he was never her lover.

Helen White

Helen White, the banker’s daughter with a college complex but small-town disposition. Lovely and gracious, Helen is an inspiration to three Winesburg boys, though only George Willard arouses a like response in her. Like the other main characters, she is unconsciously in quest of beauty and truth.

Kate Swift

Kate Swift, a schoolteacher who burns inwardly with a deep desire to live and to pass along the passion of living. Attracted as she is to her former student George Willard, Kate cannot finally cast aside her small-town prudery. Always confusing the physical and the spiritual in her effort to awaken her protégé, spinsterish Kate is secretly worshiped in a like way by the Presbyterian minister, who considers her a messiah of sorts (having seen her naked and praying from his clerical window).

The Reverend Curtis Hartman

The Reverend Curtis Hartman, the Presbyterian minister, Kate’s admirer.

Wing Biddlebaum

Wing Biddlebaum, a fugitive teacher who ran from unfair accusations of homosexuality to become the restless-fingered berry picker and handyman of the town. Only once in the many years of his hiding out in Winesburg does Wing attempt to pass along his fervor for knowledge, which made him a great teacher. George is on the verge of discovering the man’s tragic secret and is moved by the aging man’s eloquence.

Jesse Bentley

Jesse Bentley,

Louise Hardy

Louise Hardy, his daughter, and

David Hardy

David Hardy, his grandson. These people reveal the deterioration of the pioneering spirit in northern Ohio. Jesse, the lone surviving brother of a farm family, turns from the ministry...

(This entire section contains 710 words.)

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to farm management with religious zeal. He neglects his frail wife, who dies in childbirth, and he resents the daughter who should have been his son David. When his neurotic but brilliant daughter turns to a village boy and has a son by him, the old man takes this birth as his omen and names the son David. In a moment of fright when the obsessed old man is about to offer up a lamb as a sacrifice to God, the boy strikes his grandfather, leaves him for dead, and runs away, never again to see the old man, his mother, or the town.


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The tales that comprise Winesburg, Ohio are complete in themselves and can be enjoyed individually, but the volume gains depth when regarded as a unified portrait of young George Willard. Anderson coined the word "grotesques" to describe what in another story might simply be termed the "village characters."

Each of the twenty-four stories concludes with " — concerning Wing Biddlebaum," or " — concerning Joe Welling." The characters are shadowy figures who are not clearly defined, although they apparently meet Anderson's needs in telling his story.

In the story "Hands — concerning Wing Biddlebaum," George Willard, now a reporter for the Winesburg Eagle, is the only friend the character has in town. His hands were his undoing when, as a young school teacher in Pennsylvania, he stroked the heads and backs of his students, which was misinterpreted as sexual advances, and he was driven out of town. George is his only outlet to the world. Wing loses some of his timidity when he talks with George because he feels free to express himself through gesturing. With other people he tries to hide his hands in his pockets or behind his back so that he won't use them in conversation, but this impedes his ability to talk and to make friends.

There are stories of George's mother, Doctor Reefy, and nameless characters, referred to simply as "the tall dark girl," or "the son of a jeweler," or "a black-haired boy with large ears." Much of Anderson's storytelling skill is reflected in how much he can say about such shadowy characters.

George Willard has known Helen White, the banker's daughter, through the years that they have been growing up. As he walks with her on the eve of leaving Winesburg to seek his fortune as a newspaper writer in the city, an understanding of their future evolves. They embrace and kiss, and "she took his arm and walked beside him in dignified silence." This simple, understated, gesture expresses their loyalty in a poignant moment of departure.

The "quiet, unforced portrayal of a hero liberating himself from the confines of his limited environment" is how critic Rex Burbank describes George's passage to adulthood. He leaves not with any sense of rejecting the town and its people, but rather Winesburg, Ohio 4681 with an intense love for them borne of his association.


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Jesse Bentley
He is the main character of the four-part story in the middle of the book, "Godliness." A reluctant farmer, who studied to be a minister but took over the family farm when his brothers died in the Civil War, his farm grew huge over the course of several decades. Jesse believes that the growth of his farm was God's will, and in his old age, he wants to sacrifice a lamb to God, as Abraham did in the Bible. His grandson David Bentley, who he takes along to the sacrifice, fears that the old man intends to kill him with the knife instead, and he shoots Jesse in the head with a slingshot, just as David did to Goliath in the Bible.

Wing Biddlebaum
In "Hands," the story of Wing Biddlebaum is revealed: the citizens of Winesburg know nothing of his past before he came to town because he was run out of his former town, were he was a schoolteacher accused of touching one of his male students inappropriately.

Belle Carpenter
She spends time with George Willard, dating him casually. Her true love is Ed Handby, a bartender at the saloon, but he is too embarrassed to ask her out until he has enough money to date her in style. In "An Awakening," Ed does approach her while she is on a date with George, shoving George aside repeatedly while the lovers discuss their mutual affection.

Curtis Hartman
In "The Strength of God," Reverend Hartman, who has been finding his sermons uninspired lately, notices that he can see into the bedroom of the woman next door from his office in the bell tower, and he becomes obsessed with looking at her.

Dr. Parcival
Dr. Parcival is not really a doctor at all, but a drifter who came to town calling himself a doctor. He relishes the fact that he has had several identities in different towns and that nobody knows the true story of his past. In "The Philosopher," his delight in fooling the citizenry turns to paranoia: when he refuses to see a child who has been killed in a horse accident, he is certain that the people of Winesburg will come to lynch him, even though they have simply gone to another doctor and forgotten him.

Dr. Reefy
The doctor is one of the few citizens of Winesburg to figure prominently in two of the stories in the book, "Paper Pills" and "Death." In "Paper Pills," the second story, he is an old man, described in the first line as having "a white beard and huge nose," while the other story, which appears near the end of the book, he is a middle-aged man: "The gray beard he later wore had not yet appeared, but on his upper lip grew a brown moustache."

"Death" concerns his relationship with Elizabeth Willard, George's mother. She was a very sick woman and therefore a frequent patient, but as she talked during her office visits, he fell in love with her. Once, they embraced, but were interrupted by a clerk from the store downstairs emptying the garbage. He did not see her again after that. "Paper Pills" tells of his marriage to a much younger woman whose name is never given. She comes to him with an illness and a relationship develops, during which she appreciates the eccentric ideas that he writes on scratch paper sheets and stuffs in wads in his pockets. Within a year of their wedding, she dies, and he is alone again.

Seth Richmond
In the story that features him, "The Thinker," Seth Richmond is presented as George Willard's friend, and of all of the citizens of Winesburg, he seems like the one that George feels most comfortable with. In many ways, Seth is similar to George in disposition, but he is a little more reserved. His father died a scandalous death when Seth was young, killed during an argument with a newspaper editor when an article alleged that the older Richmond was having an affair. After his death his family discovered he had lost all of his money in investments, showing him to be a bad husband and worse businessman, like George's father (who is seen in "The Thinker" arguing politics with his hotel guests).

Like George, Seth is an intellectual, but, he is too emotionally insecure to pursue the girl he has a crush on, perhaps made timid by the family scandal. In "Respectability" George has a conversation with Helen White where he is as awkward as Seth is in "The Thinker," but George does not leave her until he has said what he wants to tell her.

Enoch Robinson
Enoch is a member of a family that moved to Winesburg from the country and opened a small, eclectic odds-and-ends store. He is very self-conscious of how he and his family appear to the other citizens, and in the story "Queer" he confronts George Willard, who he thinks is one of the main people in town laughing at him.

Kate Swift
Kate Swift appears in "The Strength of God," as the woman that Reverend Hartman looks at and fantasizes about in his tower room, and in the following story, "The Teacher," she is George Willard's former teacher. In her excitement over teaching and expressing herself to him, she kisses him on the lips.

Louise Trunion
In "Nobody Knows," George Willard has sex with Louise after receiving a letter from her that says, "I'm yours if you want me." Rather than feel triumphant, he immediately becomes afraid that she will hold this over him, even though she gives no indication of wishing to do so.

Joe Welling
Joe Welling is an agent for the Standard Oil Company. His mind is continuously running, almost tripping over itself as he thinks up new things. "A Man of Ideas" tells the story of his falling in love with Sarah King, which could be trouble because her father and brother are violent bullies. Rather than assault Joe, they fall under the spell of his jittery enthusiasm and walk off down the street with him, engrossed in what he has to say.

Helen White
Helen White is a girl, about George Willard's age, who has the distinction of being the banker's only child and therefore coming from one of Winesburg's wealthiest families. In "The Thinker," George Willard expresses a romantic interest in Helen to his friend Seth Richmond, but he does so casually, claiming that he is working on a story about love and would like to practice being in love with her. Helen is briefly attracted to Seth when he conveys the message, but her attraction is based in part on the fact that he has claimed to be saying his final goodbye at that moment.

The other story that concerns Helen prominently is "Sophistication." In this story, George Willard's thoughts turn to her as he reaches a moment of emotional maturity'. Despite the fact that she is only in town briefly, having come home from college on break with a young instructor, her thoughts are on him also: "What George felt, she in her young woman's way felt also." What they both feel is not lust, even though they temporarily confuse it for something sexual.

Anderson uses Helen's privileged background to highlight George's moment of feeling a sense of responsibility, as he sees beyond the temporary distractions of his day-to-day life in the same way that she can see the town objectively, because she is an outsider now. Although the story is about adolescent confusion and is therefore a jumble of confused emotions, the narrative sums up the feelings that both George and Helen feel: '"I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,' was the substance of the thing felt." They find out that what they want is not a physical encounter, but just a chance to act child-like again, and they chase each other down the hill, running and laughing. Helen White is not the love of George Willard's life, but she is more like him .than any other character in Winesburg.

Elizabeth Willard
George's mother is featured in two of the stories in this book, the third from the beginning and the third from the end. Her existence is marked by depression and bitterness, symbolized by the unspecified illness that keeps her shut up in the boarding house and under the doctor's care. She is disappointed that her life has not had more excitement and she has a vague hope that her son's life will turn out better than hers.

"Mother" explains that she grew up in the boarding house and dated, or "walked with," the traveling men who stopped there briefly, and that when she was young she enjoyed drawing attention to herself: "Once she startled the town by putting on men's clothes and riding a bicycle down Main Street." As an adult she slinks along in the shadows of the boarding house, dreading the idea that one of the boarders will see her because her former vibrancy is gone, leaving her now ghostly and worn out.

There is a great deal of empathy between Elizabeth Willard and her son, as she recalls what it was like to grow up being aware of the world's wide greatness but having that sense of wonder held in check by narrow-minded men like the boy's father, Tom Willard. In "Mother," she braces herself to confront her husband in the boy's defense, to insist that George must be free to leave Winesburg and discover the world for himself. When George comes to her and reports that a talk with his father has convinced him to do just that, she finds herself taking a position just opposite the one she had intended, mocking his ambitions when she had meant to be encouraging.

"Death" tells of a somewhat romantic relationship at the end of her life with her doctor. In his grim, dusty office, she talks freely about her life and is finally able to discuss her father's disgust with the man she chose to marry, and his warnings that the marriage would turn out miserably, which it did. Being open with Dr. Reefy leads to the closest thing she has to intimacy in her married life; for one moment, they find themselves in each other's arms, but they are interrupted and the moment never presents itself again. Elizabeth Willard has a stroke and lingers for a week before dying, never able to tell George that she has hidden eight hundred dollars for him to live his life in freedom.

George Willard
The central character in the book, it sometimes seems as if George Willard is the central character in the town: because he is the son of rooming-house owners, Anderson has put him in a position to meet travelers passing through town, while his job as a reporter for the Winesburg Eagle makes him known to all of the town's citizens.

Only a few of the stories in this book are explicitly concerned with events in George's life— "Mother," "Nobody Knows," "The Thinker," "The Teacher," "An Awakening," "Sophistication," and "Departure." In the other stories, the main characters generally find some reason to relate their stories to George, or he has some other connection to the action, such as when "The Untold Lie" explains to readers, "Boys like George Willard and Seth Richmond will remember the incident quite vividly ...." Other examples are when Dr. Reefy of "Paper Pills" later develops a secret relationship with George's mother, or the folktale tone of "Godliness," that makes it seem as if everyone in town is familiar with what has happened. It is through the use of this structure that Anderson reveals influences that mold the young man into who he will become by the time of his departure from the town.

From the start, George is the son of an unhappy marriage, whose parents have conflicting expectations for his future. As related in "Mother," his father is an unsuccessful businessman, transferring his own ambitions to hopes for his son's future success. His mother also copes with her disappointment by living vicariously through George, but her hopes are conflicted within themselves: "Even though I die I will in some way keep defeat from you," she promises George in a prayer. Soon after that she asks God to "not let him become smart and successful either."

With his father's encouragement to be practical and his mother's hopes that he transcend his meager upbringing, George could grow up in any direction, and it is his encounters with other people in town that define his growing personality. From Wing Biddelbaum he learns the danger of being too familiar with others Dr. Parcival's story is a warning against being too cerebral, but he also sees Joe Welling survive by staying true to his dreams. From Belle Carpenter he learns not to be too free with his sexuality, while Kate Swift's behavior shows him what happens if he suppresses it too thoroughly. There is a lesson for his life in each story, and, even if George does not seem to learn the lesson each time, the reader can absorb it as something he should learn.

In the book's climax, "Sophistication," George and his female counterpart, Helen, not only learn how to act maturely, but they also learn that behaving immaturely once in a while is necessary after running down a hill and rolling in the grass like children, "they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible."

Tom Willard
George Willard's father was a clerk at the boarding house in Winesburg, hoping to become a successful businessman some day. He married the daughter of the boarding-house owner, possibly because she was pregnant. In "Death," it is revealed that her father was so against her marrying Tom that he gave her eight hundred dollars cash to leave town, but she married to spite her father. Tom Willard is an unsuccessful businessman, and in his hands the boarding house is becoming shabby and decrepit. He is interested in local politics, and enjoys arguing with customers about political issues.

Wash Williams
A friend of George's, the name is considered ironic, bestowed on him because of his poor hygiene. In "Respectability," he explains to George Willard that he was once married, but that his wife was unfaithful.




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