Critical Evaluation

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Winesburg, Ohio has the stature of a modern classic. It is at once beautiful and tragic, realistic and poetic. Without constituting a novel in the usual sense of the word, the connected stories that make up the work have the full range and emotional impact of a novel. In simple though highly skillful and powerful language, Sherwood Anderson tells the story of a small town and the lonely, frustrated people who live there. Although regional in its setting and characters, the book is also intensely American. No one since Anderson has succeeded in interpreting the inner compulsions and loneliness of the national psyche with the same degree of accuracy and emotional impact.

Using young George Willard as protagonist and observer, Anderson creates his probing psychological portrait of small-town America. Although his characters outwardly seem dull and commonplace, Anderson is acutely tuned to the tensions between their psychological and emotional needs and the restrictions placed on their lives by the small-town atmosphere of Winesburg. Although not methodically psychoanalytical, Anderson’s work probes deeply into the psychological lives of the characters to discover the emotional wounds that have been inflicted by the puritanical attitudes of the midwestern village. Anderson may not have been directly influenced by Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung, but his interests clearly parallel the interest in psychology among American intellectuals during the first quarter of the twentieth century. In this respect, Anderson can legitimately be called America’s first psychological novelist.

Anderson believed that the traditional forms of the novel were too restrictive and formal to adapt well to his American subject matter, so Winesburg, Ohio represents in part an experiment in form. Rather than unifying his work through a plot in the usual sense, Anderson uses patterns of imagery, tone, character, and theme to achieve a sense of wholeness. It is, however, George Willard’s narrative voice—and his presence as either observer or protagonist—in the stories that ultimately unifies them. As a small-town reporter, Willard can credibly serve as a confidant for his townspeople. Also, he is a kind of professional observer recording the surface lives of his people for the newspaper. At the same time, readers see him as a budding artist who is interested in discovering the deeper and more meaningful truths of individuals’ lives than those seen at the surface. Eventually, George must make his choice as to which of these roles he will elect, and his function as the central consciousness of the book is vital to its aesthetic success.

Winesburg, Ohio also follows the classic pattern of the bildungsroman, or novel about reaching maturity, as it traces George Willard’s growth from adolescence to maturity. Central to this aspect of the novel is George’s relationship with his mother, whose death eventually frees him to escape from Winesburg. Mrs. Willard is the first person to see, in George’s ambition to write, a potential release for her own inarticulate suffering, so she encourages his ambition partly to fill her own needs. As George comes into contact with other characters in the novel, they too see in him a way to make their voices heard, and they tell him their stories so he might write them down.

Part of George’s growing maturity results from the understanding he finds as a result of his willingness to listen, but this passive development is paralleled by more overt experience. In particular, sexual initiation is an essential part of George’s learning and growth, as is his coming to understand something of the nature of love in its various aspects. Through this combination of active and passive experiences, George eventually comes to understand that isolation...

(This entire section contains 1112 words.)

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is an essential part of the human condition. He realizes, in the sketch titled “Sophistication,” that people must learn to live with the limited relationships possible in a world that isolates them, and they must develop the strength not to be destroyed by loneliness. This knowledge gives George the maturity he needs to break with Winesburg and face the future as an adult and an artist. In “Departure,” the final sketch, he goes toward that responsibility.

“The Book of the Grotesque,” Anderson’s introduction to Winesburg, Ohio, suggests yet another way in which this work is unified. Conceived as a whole within which the sketches and stories are pulled together by the idea of the grotesque, the work can be seen as a group of stories connected by a central thematic concern. Anderson defines grotesques as people who have seized upon some aspect of the truth that so dominates their lives as to distort their entire beings. This definition, however, only loosely fits the characters actually encountered in the novel. Rather, the failure in some way of emotional life seems to account for the twists of character that lead Winesburg’s citizens to their universal sense of failure and isolation. In spite of apparent differences, virtually all of Anderson’s figures suffer from a deep sense of failure—frequently material failure as well as emotional—and from a frustrating inability to express their pain and rage in meaningful ways. Essentially, they are emotional cripples who must turn to George Willard in search of a voice to articulate their suffering.

Paralleling the level of Winesburg, Ohio that is concerned with individual psychology is a general reaction against the American small town and its atmosphere of puritanical repression. Although Anderson is not without some nostalgia for the village life that was already passing from the American scene when Winesburg, Ohio was published in 1919, he does not allow his sentiment to stand in the way of a powerful condemnation of the cultural and spiritual sterility characteristic of American village life. While other writers were mourning the passing of the nation’s innocent youth by sentimentalizing the small agrarian community, Anderson revealed its dark underside of destroyed lives, thwarted ambitions, and crippled souls—all of which resulted in part from the repressive atmosphere of towns like Winesburg. Thus, while Winesburg, Ohio marks the end of an era of agrarian order in the United States, it raises the possibility that an innocent past was less of a paradise than the sentimentalist would have one believe.

Studies of the modern American novel tradition often begin with Winesburg, Ohio, which, with its pioneering of new techniques, introduction of new subject matter, and development of new attitudes and ideas as well as a new frankness, changed the course of American literary history. In addition, Anderson’s generous help to such younger writers as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, who would continue to shape the course of the American novel, justifies his position as the father of the modern American novel.

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Winesburg, Ohio