The Thematic and Formal Significance of Storytelling in Winesburg, Ohio

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From the time of its original publication as a complete book in 1919, Winesburg, Ohio has posed readers, reviewers, and critics with a puzzle: is it a short story collection or a novel? Already in 1916, Anderson had published sections of it as stories in the "little magazines" of the Chicago Renaissance and modernist literary movements: in Floyd Dell's The Masses, Margaret Anderson's Little Review, and Waldo Frank's Seven Arts. By their author's own admission, then, the individual chapters appeared to stand on their own, and early readers generally followed this lead, seeing in Winesburg a short story collection. Only later, after greater critical scrutiny and further experimentation in prose by innovators such as James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and William Faulkner, did Anderson's readers seriously consider the possible unity of Winesburg as a novel.

Much of the later critical discussion of Winesburg, Ohio, however, has been constrained by this problem of identifying its proper genre. Much ink, argument, and intelligence has been dedicated to discovering the hidden thread, narrative or thematic, binding its apparently disconnected stories Equal effort has been spent in denying that this missing link really exists.

Winesburg's admirers praise the book's disjoined structure as poetical, lyrical, even mystical, and have valued its flashes of psychological and spiritual insight over any mere realism to be found in more conventional novels. Its detractors, cool and skeptical about "lyrical form," have, found Winesburg too slack and intellectually murky to be a good novel, yet also lacking the compactness of incident, the quick narrative punch of a well-wrought short story.

These debates have gone round and round, largely on the same terrain, for three-quarters of a century. And the very grounds of the argument— novel or not, good one or bad one—have led to this stalemate. Without a shift of the question no satisfactory resolution is likely to be forthcoming.

Winesburg, it must be said, is a mixed work and can only be approached with finer instruments than the crude tool kit of genre categories. The question of its nature and, eventually, its quality cannot be answered without more careful attention to its subtler design. Its patterns are not set down by a generic stamp, but rather come faintly into view in the knots of a complex weave: the multiple dimensions of storytelling employed by Anderson, ranging from narratives told or withheld by characters within individual stories, the narrational modes of the individual chapters, the explicit and implicit joins and intersections between stories, and the narrative implied by the work as a whole.

Anderson sets Winesburg in a transitional period in American history, the years between the Civil War and the turn of the century, when small town communities were just starting to be affected by the consolidation of wealth and the sharpening of class divisions; the shift from small farming towards banking and manufacturing; the spread of newspaper reading and the rise of a consumer culture; the flight of the young to the large cities and the stagnation of towns by-passed by new developments.

Storytelling, for Anderson, is the key index of these large-scale social tendencies, for in the changing nature and value of stories one can grasp the effects of these trends in the lives of individuals and particular communities. In an earlier epoch, stories had served as the social glue for small communities such as Winesburg, articulating a shared experience and rendering it transmissible to new candidates for membership, whether they came from outside or from the younger generations of the town. The correspondence of the story to factual truth...

(This entire section contains 2279 words.)

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was less important than the recognition of itself accorded by the community to a given story: a story became truth by being transmitted among its members and down to its children.

But Anderson presents a new phase in this history, a turning point at which this glue of shared experience has ceased to hold. His storytellers, by and large, fail at their craft, unable to furnish myths to the community that might become its truth. The stock of transmissible experience has been tapped down to dregs, and the community can only perceive individual eccentricities in the stories its members tell rather than recognizing its collective identity in each of them.

Stories themselves have become poorer in form and sense, less able to offer guidance to the lives of the listeners. Thus dramatizing this impoverishment of the communal economy of stones, Anderson does not simply "use" the story as a literary form. He makes it a central theme, an object of scrutiny to be held up to the reader's gaze, revolved, and interrogated. In his handling of stories as thematic matter, Anderson registers the rising skepticism about the cognitive worth of narrative itself; he depicts the loss of faith in stories, their diminished capacity to connect modern Americans.

In many cases, Anderson's concern with narrative and its ability to inform the lives of people remains implicit, though crucial. His four-part story, "Godliness," for example, seems to be primarily a set of character-sketches of the farmer-patriarch Jesse Bentley and his family. Yet two of the parts, Part II and Part IV (subtitled "Terror"), hinge on a pathological translation into real life of stories from the bible: Jesse destroys his relation to his beloved grandson David by trying to reenact the Old Testament stories through which he interprets his experience.

The other two parts, dealing with Jesse's troubled daughter Louise, are more subtly connected to the same sort of twisted reading. Her life has been tainted at its source, it is suggested, by Jesse's desire to live out the biblical succession of patriarchs and their sons. In his pursuit of this terrible dream, Jesse drives his delicate wife to exhaustion, and at the birth of Louise, she dies. As a girl-child, Louise can never fit into Jesse's story. Substituting for any more intimate human bond, his inner narrative has no place for a girl despite her bothersome presence in his outer life. Nor can she look to her mother for the tenderness she can never receive from her father. At her very birth, the child was sacrificed to her father's destructive story.

Winesburg, Ohio is full of storytellers of different sorts. Its opening and closing stories present the most formal sort: professional writers, artists of the word. The prefacing chapter, "The Book of the Grotesque," thus depicts an old writer composing a book out of the many "grotesque" characters who populate his memory. The concluding story "Departure," a mirror-image of the opening tale seen across time, tracks the young reporter George Willard as he leaves Winesburg to become a writer.

The old writer, lying in his bed, watches "a long procession of figures" pass through his mind, while on the train taking him to the big city, George consigns his life in Winesburg to "a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood." Though Anderson does not explicitly identify the youth and the old man, he does suggest that George may be destined to become like the old writer, while the old man seems to account for his "book of the grotesque" by including a story like "Departure," in which a younger version of himself gets free of the town that gave him his stock of memories.

Both the old writer and young George picture their life as a broad interior tableau, a novel-like prospect of the mind that differs greatly from the damaged braggarts, compulsive confessors, and tongue-tied sputterers of their old town. Their sort of storytelling is uniquely whole, able to encompass all the other forms, although it never reduces the other storytellers to mere puppets of their literary design.

Of the figures of the town, Doctor Reefy in "Paper Pills" and Doctor Parcival in "The Philosopher" together offer a distorted mirror-image of these two successful writers. Reefy is a writer, but only of scraps and fragments. His words congeal into unreadable wads, rather than coalescing into an artistic whole. Parcival is also a writer, but a debilitated one. The doctor claims to have come Winesburg to write a book, and George visits him to listen to the doctor read from his manuscript. Anderson, however, clearly suggests that the doctor's book will never be completed. He is too much the traditional storyteller to limit his book to a rounded, novel-like design:

The tales that Doctor Parcival told George Willard began nowhere and ended nowhere. Sometimes the boy thought they must all be inventions, a pack of lies. And then again he was convinced that they contained the very essence of truth.

Moreover, even the doctor's exchange of stories with George is marked by an ambiguity. When he reads to George from his manuscript, their relation is that of author to reader; at die same time, however, the author and reader sit face-to-face, an overlay from the older relation of storyteller to listener. In this ambiguity, Anderson subtly suggests the grounds of the doctor's failure as a writer. He has not made the break from die already obsolete world of Winesburg into the modern urban life of the city, the precondition of being a "real" writer. The writer must accept the tragic distance between the author and his anonymous readers, a distance spanned only by a silent book. One does not come to Winesburg to become a writer, one escapes from it. The doctor headed the wrong way on the train, and his book will never be written. He is doomed to be, at best, a storyteller in a town that no longer believes in stories.

Opposed to the synthetic vision of the old man and George and distinct from the failed doctor-writers are such town figures Joe Welling in "A Man of Ideas," Reverend Curtis Hartman in "The Strength of God," and Tom Foster in "Drink." These characters, unlike all the writers, are bound to speech. Yet each of the three founders as storyteller when he tries to capture his inner, personal experience in communicable form. Though Joe Welling tries to use narratives to illustrate his ideas, the churning motor of his overactive brain makes futile his attempt to give them narrative order. The result is stories that skirt the edge of sense, leaving his listeners baffled and dazed:

Suppose this—suppose all of the wheat, the corn, the oats, the peas, the potatoes, were all by some miracle swept away.... There is a high fence built all around us We'll suppose that No one can get over the fence and all the fruits of the earth are destroyed, nothing left but these wild things, these grasses. Would we be done for'

The Reverend, similarly, bursts in one night on George to announce that he has seen God in the naked body of the schoolteacher. The reader, filled in by Anderson's narrator about the background to this strange declaration, understands it as meaningful; George, however, lacking all context, takes it as nonsense if not insanity. Tom Foster, finally, does manage to tell a story about his (imagined) love-making to Helen White, but he fails to convey to George that it is a fantasy, a metaphor seized upon to capture his inner experience of being drunk for the first time. George, who has seen Helen that same night, becomes angry, misunderstanding Tom's flight of fancy as a slur on Helen's good character.

One final type of storytelling demands special mention: the story not told. This "negative storytelling," implying the existence of a story while refusing to tell it, is characteristic of the loneliest and most disappointed figures of the town: Wing Biddlebaum in "Hands," Alice Hindman in "Adventure," Seth Richmond in "The Thinker," and Elmer Cowley in "'Queer'."

Seth Richmond reveals that his refusal of words is not simply a lack of something to say, but a rejection of contact with those who know how to use words superficially, with the community bound by stories. His shortcoming points beyond itself toward an unconventional and more genuine form of community—akin to die silent understanding achieved by George and Helen in the late story "Sophistication." Explaining to himself his failure to express his love to Helen White, Seth concludes, "She'll be embarrassed and feel strange when I'm around.... When it comes to loving someone, it won't never be me. It'll be someone else—some fool—someone who talks a lot—someone like that George Willard."

Wing Biddlebaum, whose all-encompassing tenderness earned him the fear and hatred of the Pennsylvania town from which he fled, a community that saw perversion in a love that went beyond its narrow bounds, likewise keeps his story to himself. In all these cases of withheld storytelling, however, Anderson's narrator, implicitly a professional writer like die old man or George, steps in to allow their silence to have its word, to take its place among die stories actually pronounced.

Storytelling in Winesburg is not simply a formal or generic issue, a choice Anderson made before a stack of paper about whether to tell little stories about many characters or one big story about a few characters. The generic uncertainty of the work—story collection or novel?—was not the result of indecision or literary incompetence, but rather the complex outcome of Anderson's concern with the crisis of storytelling itself.

Storytelling is an invisible actor throughout the book. A character's telling a story or holding it back can itself be the crucial "plot" event in a given chapter. More than outward incident or even psychological detail, the different forms and rhythms of storytelling are the reader's main clues to the book's inner design, the primary facts calling for further thought and explanation.

Source: Tyrus Miller, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.

The Relatinships Between the Men and the Women of Winesburg

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The meaning Sherwood Anderson gives to the characters of women and to the qualities of the feminine is an important source of unity in Winesburg, Ohio. Anderson identifies the feminine with a pervasive presence of a fragile, hidden "something" that corresponds both to the lost potential of each of the grotesques and to the secret knowledge that each story is structured to reveal. The themes most frequently identified as the unifying forces of Winesburg, Ohio, the failure of communication and the development of the artist, are closely related to Anderson's focus on the meaning of the feminine. In Winesburg, Ohio communication is blocked because of the devaluation of the feminine qualities of vulnerability, and tenderness even though the artist's creativity springs from deep feelings of vitality which Anderson associates with the feminine.

Through one of Enoch Robinson's paintings in "Loneliness," Anderson creates an image that reveals his vision of a woman's condition in Winesburg and of her potential power. The painting is of a man driving down a road to Winesburg. The look on the man's face indicates that he is vaguely aware of "something hidden" behind "a clump of elders" beside the road. Enoch longs for his critics to see this hidden subject, an essence so beautiful and precious that it could not be rendered directly:

"It's a woman and, oh, she is lovely! She is hurt and is suffering but she makes no sound. Don't you see how it is9 She lies quite still, white and still, and the beauty comes out from her and spreads over everything. It is in the sky back there and all around everywhere I didn't try to paint die woman, of course. She is too beautiful to be painted."

Enoch's painting portrays precisely the condition of the female characters who inhabit Winesburg. The women are "invisible" because their real identities are eclipsed by their social roles. The relationships between the men and women of Winesburg are corrupted and uncreative, for their acceptance of conventional sexual roles prevents them from experiencing the genuine communication that comes when relationships are equal and reciprocal. The neediness, frustration, and failure that encompass the lives of Louise Bentley, Alice Hindman, Elizabeth Willard, and Kate Swift are the result of the discrepancy between their own capacity for intimacy, affection, and creativity and the inability of others, especially the men in their lives, to "see" or to relate to who they really are In Enoch's painting, as in Anderson's stones, the beauty and suffering of woman become visible only through art that brings to a level of conscious awareness what is unrecognized by conventional society.

It is in his characterization of Louise Bentley that Anderson shows best the suffering of women that results from the devaluation of feminine needs and aspirations. Louise is completely rejected by her father because, as a female, she is an unacceptable heir. She is ignored and unloved as a child, and her vulnerability is heightened by her instinct to value relationships intensely. As a young girl, Louise has a remarkably intelligent and mature vision of what is necessary for human intimacy. She imagines that Winesburg is a place where relationships are natural, spontaneous, and reciprocal: "... Men and women must live happily and freely, giving and taking friendship and affection as one takes the feel of a wind on the cheek." Louise turns to John Hardy in search of a friend who will understand her dream. She seeks from her husband an intimate exchange of feelings and thoughts. Hardy seems kind and patient; however, his vision of Louise's humanity is limited to his own very inadequate concept of "wife"....

To Hardy, Louise is a sexual object whose human voice he suppresses by kisses which are not a mark of affection but an unconscious means of ignoring and belittling his wife's desperate effort to be her deepest self. Louise's complete defeat in the denial of her personhood by her father and her husband is expressed in her rejection of her child: " 'It is a man child and will get what it wants anyway.... Had it been a woman child there is nothing in the world I would not have done for it.'" Anderson's point is that in her surrender to marriage Louise surrenders all hope that her gift for friendship and affection will be realized.

Through the story of Alice Hindman, Anderson shows how the conventional sexual morality of Winesburg works against the fulfillment of women's needs. Alice is clearly morally superior to her lover, Ned Currie, and is capable of a much finer quality of relationship than he is. Just as Ned is contemplating inviting her to become his mistress, Alice proposes that she go to the city to live and work with him until they are sufficiently established to marry. Unable to comprehend the spirit of independence and equality Alice envisions, Ned demands that she wait for him in Winesburg, forcing her into a passive dependency which denies her the sustained relationship she needs. Their brief sexual intimacy is so sacred to Alice that she feels bound to Ned in a spiritual marriage even when years of waiting prove he has abandoned her. Despite her economic and legal independence, Alice Hindman is as much imprisoned by marriage as Louise Bentley is, for she has no understanding of Anderson's concept of "the growing modern idea of a woman's owning herself and giving and taking for her own ends in life."

The tragic loss which characterizes the lives of Louise Bentley and Alice Hindman and the accompanying shriveling of their sexuality and their capacity for affection suggest that Anderson regarded the failure to find fulfillment in love as a crucial issue of female identity. The natural, reciprocal relationships which Louise Bentley and Alice Hindman envision are a reasonable expectation; however, Anderson shows that the patriarchal marriages of Winesburg preclude the possibility of achieving the intimacy of equal relationships. When they are not related to as persons, and no emotional or spiritual dimension emerges in the marriage relationship, all possibility for sexual satisfaction is completely lost to the women. The marriages of Louise Bentley and Elizabeth Willard are in no sense real to them except as a legal duty. Furthermore, the social pressure to limit feelings of intimacy to monogamous marriage denies the women of Winesburg any legitimate way of establishing the kind of relationships they need. When women are subordinates, the institution of marriage becomes a social means of controlling their natural instincts for love and self-actualization....

Once the theme of the suffering of women is identified, it becomes obvious that an emphasis on the crippled feminine dimension of life permeates Winesburg, Ohio. The image of Elizabeth Willard, "tall and gaunt" with her face "marked with smallpox scars," is repeated in the wounded bodies of other overworked and suffering women who hover in the background: Dr. Parcival's mother with her "red, sad-looking eyes," Joe Welling's mother, "a grey, silent woman with a peculiar ashy complexion," Tom Foster's grandmother whose worn hands look like "the dried stems of an old creeping vine." The general abuse of women is captured most vividly in "Paper Pills" when a young girl is so frightened of the lust of her suitor that she dreams "he had bitten into her body and that his jaws were dripping."...

Through the character of Elizabeth Willard, Anderson shows that the urge for creative self-expression is an extension of the basic feminine instinct for intimacy. Restless and energetic, Elizabeth dreams of becoming an actress in a big city. Her fantasy is a symbolic expression of her need to develop the full range of her personality and to achieve the artistic expression that would bring her into intimate communion with the world. Like Louise Bentley and Alice Hindman, Elizabeth's openness to life makes her open to sexual relationships. Her lovers, the traveling men who stay in her father's hotel, are her only means of touching the larger and more vital life of the cities. When she turns to marriage as the conventional solution to her restlessness, Elizabeth quickly discovers that the "secret something" growing within her is killed by her insensitive husband. Unable to extend the boundaries of her life, Elizabeth creates dramatic roles for herself in an effort to be the person she can only vaguely imagine. In "Mother," when she is determined to protect the creativity of her son from her husband's materialistic ambitions, Elizabeth uses theatrical make-up to transform herself into the powerful woman who can kill the "evil voice" of Tom Willard.

Just as Elizabeth Willard imagines, women can transform themselves through their own creative powers. In fact, Anderson suggests that the creativity of the feminine is such an energized force in these sensitive women that a moment of crisis can release deep feelings that have been suppressed for years. In these "adventures," the bodies of the women are transformed to reveal their hidden power. When Louise Bentley fears her son is lost, all of her capacities for motherly care flow out to embrace him. To David Hardy, the voice of his mother is "like rain falling on trees," and her face becomes "the most peaceful and lovely thing he had ever seen." In Alice Hindman's "adventure," the rain releases her suppressed spontaneity; the imagery of falling rain and of leaping and running reveals the potential of Alice's sexual passion and creative vitality. Kate Swift's scarred face is transformed when she walks the winter streets of Winesburg: "... Her features were as the features of a tiny goddess on a pedestal in a garden in the dim light of a summer evening." Elizabeth Willard's wild drive into the country, which she describes to Dr. Reefy in "Death," expresses the mounting tension of her desire to transcend the limitations of her life. The black clouds, the green trees, and the falling rain (symbols of the natural, reproductive processes of the earth) represent the vital, spontaneous, and creative life Elizabeth is seeking but cannot quite comprehend.

The language that describes these "adventures" links the moments of feminine self-actualization to the rich beauty of nature and to the spiritual transformation associated with creative inspiration and mystical religion. The "something" which Elizabeth Willard is seeking is a more humane life in which her sexuality, her need for intimacy, her creativity, and her spirituality, can be fully realized, harmonized, and expressed: a life in which the wholeness of her selfhood might be recognized and appreciated by some other human being. Years later, in her encounter with Dr. Reefy, Elizabeth glimpses momentarily the magnitude and significance of the emotions she has experienced. In the excitement of describing her "adventure" to her friend, she transforms herself into the gifted actress who can miraculously "project herself out of the husk" of an old, tired body into the image of "a lovely and innocent girl." Dr. Reefy is entranced by the beauty and rhythm of Elizabeth's body, the symbolic expression of her hidden capacity to move with life and to express her creative vitality. This moment of communion in "Death" is the experience of liberating, intimate understanding which all of the Winesburg characters are seeking. The intimacy is achieved because Dr. Reefy possesses the sensitivity and wisdom that enable him to see and appreciate the hidden identity of a woman: "'You dear! You lovely dear! Oh you lovely dear!' " When the moment is broken by their fear of an intruder, Elizabeth turns to death as the only lover who can receive her full identity.

Elizabeth Willard hopes that her creative drives will be expressed through her son, however, not until her death does George acquire the quality of feeling necessary for the artist. The progress of his development toward that goal is revealed by the nature of his relationships with women. Early in Winesburg, Ohio in "Nobody Knows," George takes advantage of the subordinate position of Louise Trunnion, impersonally using her for sexual adventure. Proud, satisfied, and egotistical, George divorces himself completely from any possible affiliation with Louise, for he sees women only as objects to be used to expand his own sense of personal power. In "The Thinker," a story at the midpoint of the collection, George brags that he plans to fall in love with Helen White to get material for a story. Yet, beneath his nonchalance there is the hint of a deeper self in George which gradually emerges through a series of encounters with Kate Swift, Belle Carpenter, his mother, and Helen White.

Kate Swift is eager to share with George her love of art and her understanding of life. However, George understands Kate's earnest seriousness as evidence that she is in love with him, and his mind becomes filled with "lustful thoughts" about her. Thus, in "Teacher," when Kate comes to him ablaze with the intensity of her desire "to open the door of life," his sexual desire kindles her own, and she loses touch with the intellectual, spiritual, and creative potentials of her emotion. At last, however, George begins to perceive that there is something more to be communicated between men and women than physical encounter; he knows that he is missing something important that Kate Swift is trying to tell him.

Gradually his boyish superficiality fades, and in "An Awakening" George consciously begins his search for those truths that will give order and meaning to his life. However, the moment the thrill of a new insight comes to him, he is eager to share it with a woman, not in order to enrich a relationship but to have the pleasure of releasing physically his new surge of energy. George's spiritual experience merely heightens his grandiose egocentricity, and he plans to use his new self-confidence to wm sexual mastery over a potent and challenging woman. As George walks with Belle Carpenter, unaware that they are pursued by her lover, he becomes "half drunk with the sense of masculine power." However, when he is duped by the older couple, George's sudden loss of power becomes precisely the reversal of fortunes his character needs.

Although the Winesburg stories are loosely connected and do not generally follow any logical sequence, the stories that show George Willard's growing understanding of the meaning of the feminine do progress sequentially. In the last third of the collection, George's increasing sensitivity to women is extended through his initiation into suffering. In "An Awakening" George is tricked and humiliated; in the following story, "Queer," he is knocked "half unconscious" by the force of Elmer Cowley's undirected efforts to express himself. In "Drink" George tries to defend Helen White's good name from Tom Foster's drunken fantasies but, instead, becomes deeply moved by the young man's sincere effort to understand and experience suffering. The story is a humorous, indirect, and understated preparation for "Death...."

The sensitivity that comes to George as a result of his mother's death and his vision of her spiritual beauty prepare him for his experience with Helen White in "Sophistication." "Sophistication" is a very slight story, actually a denouement of the two climactic moments in "Death " when Elizabeth Willard's true identity is recognized. However, the story is profoundly meaningful when it is read with an awareness of the thematic significance of Anderson's portrayal of the devaluation of the feminine throughout Winesburg, Ohio. At the end of the story Anderson describes the satisfaction Helen White and George Willard have achieved through their relationship:

For some reason they could not have explained they had both got from their silent evening together the thing needed. Man or boy, woman or girl, they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women, in the modern world possible.

The tone and placement of this passage make it clearly a key thematic statement; yet, there is very little clarity in the passage itself or even in the story about exactly what the "thing" is that Helen and George have experienced. The various interpretations of the passage which focus on the theme of communication are accurate enough, but the episode itself as well as Anderson's emphasis on "the mature life of men and women" certainly indicate that the focus of his concern is not just human relationships generally but the special problems of communication between men and women. It is against the background of Anderson's presentation throughout Winesburg, Ohio of the suffering of women and their unfulfilled relationships with men that the encounter of these two young people can best be appreciated.

The positive nature of the experience which George and Helen share is a product of their mutual treasuring of those tender, vital feelings that Anderson associates with the feminine. Both are aware of a fragile, new self that is alive in each of them; their silent communion gives these sensitive feelings the nurturing that is needed. Despite their youth and inexperience, they momentarily share a relationship that is trusting and reciprocal, for in George and Helen, Anderson creates characters who are free of sexual role expectations. It is appropriate that Helen and George should recapture the joyful, natural spirit of childhood when males and females meet in relationships that are equal. Their release of emotions in spontaneous playfulness is integrated with their mature, brooding reflection on the transience of life. George's awareness of the reality of death and of his own finitude is his "sophistication," but he has also learned that he needs to share this new knowledge with a woman, for "he believes that a woman will be gentle, that she will understand." His acceptance of Helen as a spiritual mediator indicates that George's masculinity is balanced by the feminine qualities of tenderness and gentleness, an integration that Anderson suggests is necessary for the artist.

The conclusion of "Sophistication" suggests that Winesburg, Ohio is intended to be a prophetic statement about the quality of the relationships of men and women in the modern world. That prophetic tone is even more direct in "Tandy," a story that seems to have been created primarily as an invocation of the woman of the future. The drunken man who defines the meaning of Tandy expresses the view of the feminine that pervades Winesburg, Ohio:

"There is a woman coming ... Perhaps of all men I alone understand.... I know about her struggles and her defeats. It is because of her defeats that she is to me the lovely one. Out of her defeats has been born a new quality in woman.... It is the quality of being strong to be loved . Be brave enough to dare to be loved. Be something more than man or woman. Be Tandy."

The suffering of women, Anderson argues, will lead to the evolution of a new kind of woman who will insist that sexual roles be transcended and that she be loved as a human being, an event that Anderson suggests is as much needed by men as it is by women....

Throughout Winesburg, Ohio Anderson associates the feminine with a quality of feeling that is delicate and intangible; it is a tender nuance, a transient moment of intimacy, a creative, secret something growing within the serf, a slight quiver of insight that seems to hold great promise. Anderson's mode of presentation of the feminine is as appropriate as the invisibility of the woman in Enoch Robinson's painting, for Winesburg, Ohio presents a microcosm of the modern world in which the potential of the feminine has not yet been realized.

Source: Sally Adair Rigsby, "The Feminine m Winesburg, Ohio," in Studies in American Fiction Vol. 9, No 2, autumn, 1981, pp 233-44.

The Theme of Sublimation in Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio

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One of the bits of learning which students of modern literature treasure up against their examinations is the notion that Sherwood Anderson was an American equivalent of D. H. Lawrence.... Indeed, Irving Howe, the critic who has been most insistent upon Anderson's debt to Lawrence, has pointed out that even Anderson's most "sex-centered" work reveals that "for the man who wrote those novels sex was a source of deep anxiety "

Nowhere is the weight and tenor of the evidence for this anxiety quite so impressive as in Winesburg, Ohio, the early work on which Anderson's greatly depleted reputation now almost entirely depends. In that work he displays an extremely hesitant, almost puritanical attitude toward physical sexuality which seems to have been considerably more Platonic than Lawrencian or Freudian in its complexion. In fact, most of the major characters in Winesburg "may be seen as illustrating this markedly cautious attitude toward sex on the part of their creator, and ... [that] attitude exerts a controlling influence upon the form and theme of the book...."

The majority of Winesburg grotesques can be classified into four distinct types on the basis of their responses to sexual emotion: the first type consists of those who are repelled by their sexual feelings and desperately seek to avoid the fact of sex altogether. The second is devoted to those who complacently accept sex and cannot see beyond it, while the third group embraces those who, though they wistfully apprehend a state of feeling which transcends the merely sexual, are compelled by circumstance to settle for sex. Finally, there is that very important group of initiates who perceive the role of sexuality in Anderson's own terms and experience it as a prelude—a material reflection of a kind of Platonic perfection of the soul.

Familiar examples of the first type—the characters whose grotesqueness derives from their inability to accept the gross fact of sex—are Wash Williams ("Respectability"), the telegrapher who went berserk when brusquely confronted with his naked wife, and Enoch Robinson ("Loneliness"), the childlike, schizoid artist who, to his pain, kept "bumping against things, against actualities like money and sex and opinion" and whose precious fantasy life was destroyed by contact with an actual woman. Another of this company is Wings Biddlebaum ("Hands"), the inspired teacher whose hands were vital to his communication and who had been accused of homosexuality on the basis of the fantasies of a half-witted student. Wings is very often cited as a victim of the low-brow's intolerance of the life of the spirit, but Ms real tragedy seems to me to lie in his own demoralizing recognition of the essential truth of the embattled farmers' charges. For Wings is of the homosexual persuasion, or, as Anderson puts it, "In their feelings for the boys under their charge such men are not unlike the finer sort of women in their love of men."...

Very few of the grotesques in Winesburg fall into [the] second classification—that is, the frankly and uncomplicatedly sexual. One of them, however, is Will Henderson, the newspaper owner and George Willard's employer, who is, as Anderson styles him, "a sensualist," and who, at the beginning of 'The Philosopher," figures in as explicit a bit of moral allegory as ever Hawthorne created: one of Will's cronies is the bartender Tom Willy, whose hands are blotched by crimson birthmarks, and, as he and the newspaper owner talked of womanizing, "he grew more and more excited" and the red of his fingers deepened. "It was as though the hands had been dipped in blood that had dried and faded." This scene, which is so evocative of bloody, violent sexuality, is juxtaposed with George Willard's philosophical conversations with Parcival. Art Wilson, the butcher's son of "Awakening," is another of the sensualists whose chief use is to be employed in one of these contrapuntal tableaux, for as he sits in the pool room, spitting and talking of whores, George Willard is portrayed as wandering through the moonlit night entertaining a vision of cosmic love and order. Belle Carpenter and Ed Handby are a pair of full sublunary lovers who figure in the same story. Their love is depicted as restricted to the sensual order, condemned to sexuality for its expression, and, when George Willard unwittingly intrudes into their relationship, to violence.

Throughout Winesburg Anderson seems to have been establishing a connection between sexual ardor and violence Certainly Dr. Reefy's young wife ("Paper Pills") made that connection subconsciously when, before her marriage, she was haunted by a nightmare in which one of her suitors "had bitten into her body and ... his jaws were dripping." She married Dr. Reefy—who figures as a kind of wise mystical guru to his young wife and to Elizabeth Willard—after she watched him pull a tooth from a patient, thereby exorcising, or, if you will, symbolically castrating, the ravenous sexual monster of her dreams.

George Willard's mother, Elizabeth, is the most pathetic representative of the third category of grotesques to be discovered in Winesburg. These are the sexually injured and insulted, those who, though they are tantalizingly aware of the possibility of a more satisfying mode of communication, confuse it at a critical time in their lives with sexuality and are condemned to an existence of dreary frustration as a consequence. In her youth George's mother had been visited by a great restlessness and a yearning for "some big definite movement to her life," and had sought relief in the specious glamour of sex with the traveling men who frequented her father's hotel and with her husband-to-be, Tom Willard. In sexuality "she felt for a time released and happy," but the satisfaction was ephemeral and, when we first encounter her hi "Mother," she is broken and despondent, hoping only that her son will somehow manage to achieve the freedom of expression that she had once glimpsed....

[These] three categories of grotesques may be regarded as constituting a paradigm of the clue to the thematic unity of Winesburg which Anderson himself supplied in the gnomic "Book of the Grotesque" with which he prefaced the volume.

There he put it forward that spiritual deformity must result from the kind of obsessive rigidity which selects only one "truth" from the multitude which make up reality. The Wash Williamses of the world can only comprehend the "truth" mat sex can be gross, violent and repulsive. The Will Hendersons can only see the "truth" that sex is a powerful, absorbing and attractive force, while the Elizabeth Willards ... dimly descry another "truth" about life but, to their cost, confuse it with sex. Although the Elizabeth Willards come close, none of these characters appreciates the point that Anderson seemed to be trying to establish, and that is that there can be many "truths" about sex, just as there can be many "truths" about life, and that the most comprehensive of these truths is that while sex can be gross, violent, and degrading, it can, when sublimated, be tremendously inspiring, lifting the personality into a higher stage of consciousness.

The Winesburg characters who attain to this last view of sexuality fall into the fourth and most thematically significant category... and, on the internal evidence, Anderson appears to have regarded them as constituting a sort of spiritual elite. They are Love's Elect, those who have approached the final stages of that mystical mode of communication Anderson so highly prized. Their company numbers Dr. Reefy, the Reverend Curtis Hartman ("The Strength of God"), Kate Swift ("The Teacher"), Tom Foster ("Drink"), and George Willard. In every case they are presented as being in the grip of a strong physical passion which, for one reason or another, they do not consummate. Rather, they sublimate their desire and, by avoiding the trap of a merely sensual mode of communication, are admitted to a plane of consciousness where communication operates in terms of an imaginative, mystical sympathy. These folk, at least, manage to grasp two of the paradoxical truths which Anderson sets forth hi "The Book of the Grotesque"—"the truth of virginity and the truth of passion."

"You must not try to make love definite," says Dr. Reefy to Elizabeth Willard. He had loved her chastely for years, and he goes on to say, "If you try to be definite and sure about it... the long hot day of disappointment comes swiftly...." Gentle Tom Foster of "Drink" had had an early experience of the more definite and violent aspects of love as a youngster hi Cincinnati and had determined "that he would put sex altogether out of his own life." But he was human and young, and one spring he fell in love with Helen White, the banker's daughter with whom all the youth of Winesburg dallied in their fantasies. He resolved his emotional dilemma in a most peculiar and deliberate way: he neither repressed nor physically indulged his emotion, but allowed himself to "think of Helen White whenever her figure came into his mind and only concerned himself with the manner of his thoughts." The manner of his thoughts took a mystical turn, and one night, with the aid of a little alcohol, he conceived of her in terms of images of flame and wind. It was all over in one night, and, as Anderson pointedly remarks, "no one in Winesburg was any the worse for Tom's outbreak." And Tom himself was all the better for his expansion of consciousness, for, as he said to George Willard later, "I want to learn things, you see. That's why I did it."

The Reverend Curtis Hartman ("The Strength of God") had felt his life become stale and empty, he had come to dread delivering his weekly sermon and "dreamed of the day when a strong sweet new current of power would come like a great wind into his voice and his soul and the people would tremble before the spirit of God made manifest m him." Instead he is visited by an awesome lust for the teacher Kate Swift. In a bit of strenuous allegory, Anderson depicts him as seeing her in her bedroom through a chink in the stained-glass window of his church. Night after night he watched her, racked by his conscience, yet unable to repress his passion. He had almost determined to throw over his cure of souls and become a "creature of carnal lusts," declaring that man "has no right to forget he is an animal," when he noticed that Kate, who is now naked, has begun to weep and to pray. Instantly his lust is quite sublimated away, and his desire for her as a woman is replaced by a sympathy and concern for her as a person. As he tells the baffled George Willard later that night, "After ten years in this town, God has manifested himself to me in the body of a woman...."

Earlier on the same night that the Reverend Hartman was to undergo his revelation, Kate, who was "the most eagerly passionate soul" among the inhabitants of Winesburg, sets out in search of George Willard, an ex-pupil in whom "she had recognized the spark of genius." On another occasion she had been filled with a "passionate desire to have him understand the import of life," and their interview had closed with a kiss from which she broke away, declaring angrily that "it will be ten years before you begin to understand what I mean when I talk to you." But on this fateful evening she became again possessed by the impulse to communicate with George, to try again "to open the door of life" for the boy whose potential for communication she had divined, and once again the attempted moment of epiphany was obscured by sexual excitement. "So strong was her passion that it became something physical," and she allowed George to take her into his arms, only to break away, leaving him alone, confused and "swearing furiously." It is Kate's frustration at being unable to communicate with George which precipitates the moment of despair in her bedroom. And, ironically, it is the sight of that despair that brings about the dramatic enlargement of the Reverend Hartman's understanding of humanity. George Willard, however, had managed to confuse the Reverend's exaltation with madness and Kate's compassionate concern with garden-variety lubricity, and he goes to bed that night mattering, "I have missed something." He has indeed something, but he will not have to wait ten years until he begins to understand what it is.

Several years ago, Edwin Fussell [in "Winesburg, Ohio: Art and Isolation," Modern Fiction Studies, VI (summer, 1960), pp. 106-14] addressed himself to the popular critical exercise of attempting to isolate the unifying elements which make Winesburg something more than a series of loosely articulated short stories. Wondering whether the simple themes of "loneliness and isolation" were really enough to account for the work's cumulative effect, Fussell argued persuasively that the real unity of the work is not to be found among the grotesques themselves, but rather in their relation to George Willard. Winesburg, he felt, is in the tradition of the Bildungsroman, and in it we may observe at work the theme of George Willard's maturation as an artist. My reading of Winesburg has brought it home to me that Fussell is essentially correct in his appreciation of the fact that George Willard's development as an artist is central to the meaning of the work, but it has also suggested that the Bildungsroman view of Winesburg may be enlarged to include the complementary theme of George's development from a merely passionate, dull sublunary lover to the stage of becoming an initiate of the more Platonic aspects of human love. At the book's end George too seems to have grasped the simultaneous and arcane truths of virginity and passion.

In the early episode called "Nobody Knows," we observe George Willard's conduct of his first amorous affair in concert with the obliging Louise Trunnion. His approach to Louise is marked by adolescent awe and shy terror, but, once he has had her, he comports himself like any other coarse, rustic roaring-boy, desiring to boast of his conquest while at the same time meanly assuring himself that "she hasn't got anything on me." The incident is entirely physical and egotistical with none of the expansion of consciousness and the quality of communion which Anderson so valued.. A little later m the book—in the twin episodes of "The Strength of God" and 'The Teacher"—we see that George still takes a most mundane view of the nature of human passion as he utterly fails to appreciate the quality of the emotions animating the Reverend Hartman and Kate Swift. It is, in fact, not until we reach the adventure which is aptly called "An Awakening" that we see any notable tendency in George to view love on any but the most basic terms. Here we discover George in the toils of a frustrated physical passion for Belle Carpenter which becomes converted into a mystical yearning for self-expression of a more abstract nature than the merely sexual. Some little time after this, George's encounter with the gentle, mystical Tom Foster is described in "Drink," and the stage is set for George's initiation into the company of Love's Elect in "Death" and "Sophistication."

A remarkable experience overtakes George at the death-bed of his mother. He has come there unwillingly, for he has had to break an appointment with Helen White to do so and, even as he stands by his mother's corpse, he is preoccupied by persistent sexual fantasies: "He closed his eyes and imagined that the red young lips of Helen White touched his own lips." So absorbing were these imaginings that his "body trembled" and "his hands shook," and then, as Anderson simply puts it, "something happened." George became convinced that it was not the corpse of his mother before him, but rather the "unspeakably lovely" body of a young and graceful living girl. Running out of the room, and "urged by some impulse outside himself," George exclaimed, "The dear, the dear, oh the lovely dear," thereby unconsciously echoing the words uttered years before by Dr. Reefy when, for a moment, he held the living Elizabeth Willard in his arms.

Although the symbolism here cannot be subjected to any very precise analysis in terms of conventional discourse, I believe that the conversion of George's sexual impulses into a vision of his mother as a young and desirable girl is more than simply Oedipal, and emphasizes instead the subtle connection which Anderson discerned between eros and agape—between a specific, egocentric sexual desire and a generalized love and sympathy for humanity.

In any event, George's attitude toward Helen White has changed considerably in "Sophistication," Winesburg's penultimate episode. Here Anderson shows us George Willard as he and Helen walk out together one evening to the deserted fair ground. This is a tender interlude, and he and Helen hold hands and kiss, but Anderson takes especial care to indicate that the nature of their relationship is now more than simply sexual, and indeed, that the physical aspect of love would constitute a profanation of the feeling that had taken hold of them, the feeling that "makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible." There is a sense of communion between them, but there is also the sad knowledge of the essential and inviolate loneliness that must tinge all mature affection. In describing the state of George's mind as this bittersweet emotion replaces his earlier desire, Anderson employs an almost Manichaean imagery: "In youth there are always two forces fighting m people. The warm unthinking little animal struggles against... the more sophisticated thing [that] had possession of George Willard."

Standing in the deserted fairground, George felt a "reverence for Helen. He wanted to love and to be loved by her but he did not want at the moment to be confused by her womanhood." On this note, one which is reminiscent of the arcane code of Courtly Love, George Willard may be said to have completed, in Anderson's terms, his novitiate in art, in life, and in love. An ardent candidate for experience, he has sublimated his passion and achieved, for the moment at least, the delicate equipoise between "the truth of virginity and the truth of passion."

Source: George D Murphy, "The Theme of Sublimation in Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio" in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 13, No 2, summer, 1967, pp. 237-46.


Critical Overview