Themes

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Winesburg, Ohio was part of the revolt against the romanticized stories of virtuous and idyllic country village life. Although the book is a series of individual short stories, Anderson manages a consistency of moods from one story to another that provides unity. According to one critic, the folktale simplicity, the appearance of "light and air" between his sentences, his penchant for "seeming to wander away from his story," and his relaxed "artlessness" recreate a sense of the lives and characters in small-town America.

Themes

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Rite of Passage
The overall arc of this book is George Willard's maturation; the climax is when he finally leaves town. Unlike a novel that is driven along by external events and situations, this book has no specific occurrence that prompts him to leave. As a matter of fact, George appears to be the ideal citizen for Winesburg. as much as the various citizens seem to rely upon him as someone that they can tell then: stories to, he seems to need them equally, to feed his curiosity.

The way that he outgrows the town is developed indirectly, through the positive and negative responses that readers have toward each character. "Hands," for instance, might be about Wing's determination to outrun his past, but a sub-theme is the small-mindedness and anger that can boil up in a small town. When George has a sexual encounter in "Nobody Knows," his main concern is that no one finds out about it. The King bullies accept Joe Welling in "A Man of Ideas" exactly because he is oblivious to the dangers that surround him in Winesburg. "The Untold Lie," which does not mention George, still raises the reader's awareness that the miseries suffered by Ray Pearson are unavoidable in a town like Winesburg.

Even as the town seems more and more like a trap for someone like George, the decision to leave does not become comfortable to him until the moment in "Sophistication" when he turns the clock back on his maturation process and for once, instead of trying to act older, he breaks from a kiss with Helen White and they both laugh, becoming "not man and woman, not boy and girl, but excited little animals." The drive toward experience and understanding leaves them, and as they run down the hill they have climbed "they played like two splendid young things in a young world." The struggle with "the young thing within" that has pulled at George in every story, through his association with disappointed older Winesburg citizens who had or had not won the struggle, is settled for him, and then it becomes time for him to leave.

Loneliness and Alienation
The main source of dramatic tension in this book is that Winesburg is a small town. This means that the citizens are familiar with one another and hold each other to certain standards of behavior, but, within this frame of familiarity, all of the people who make up the group feel that they do not belong to it. Of all of these, the most blatantly alienated might be Elizabeth Willard, the mother of the novel's central character. "Mother," the first story concerning her, establishes the fact that she had, at one time in her youth, felt a bond to the traveling men who had stayed at the Willard house and had romanced her. The story says that "They seemed to understand and sympathize with her." In maturity, though, she has no such bond with anyone, not even her husband or her son, and she hides upstairs, hoping to not be seen.

In the last years of her life,...

(This entire section contains 907 words.)

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related in "Death," her alienation is pierced by the relationship she forms with Dr. Reefy, meeting him in his secluded office that is adjacent to a dusty storage room. The climax and destruction of their relationship occurs when they embrace for the first time and are interrupted by a clerk throwing an old box onto a pile of rubbish in the hall: "Doctor Reefy did not see the woman he had held in his arms again until after her death." Elizabeth Willard is so alienated that she does not get the chance to pass on the secret that she had been saving for her son—eight hundred dollars in cash, hidden within a wall.

The other glaring example of the loneliness that permeates the characters in this book is, of course, Enoch Robinson, in the story titled "Loneliness." Interestingly, the story explains that it was in New York City that Robinson withdrew from life with fellow human beings to live with the people of his imagination, and in New York that he lost his imaginary people to the girl he was involved with. Robinson is lonely in Winesburg, but the town itself has not made him that way, indicating that the alienation felt by each of Wines-burg's citizens is more a condition of human experience than a result of small-town life.

Doubt and Ambiguity
Most of the characters in this book suffer from their efforts to keep their true natures hidden from other people and themselves. In cases like those of Wing Biddlebaum, Wash Williams or Dr. Parcival, the effort is to obscure shameful deeds in their past. Others, such as Reverend Hartman, Jesse Bentley, Kate Swift and Seth Richmond, feel that they have a reputation in the community that must be upheld at all costs, and so they do not allow themselves to become introspective enough to wonder what it is they really want.

In most cases, the citizens of Winesburg want desperately to be someone they are not, but their personalities are too strong to be changed, which leaves them in an ambiguous state where truth and lie mingle together freely. The problem is that they have doubts about what is real, and this often turns out to be devastating in the end, leaving the characters torn apart when they are forced to face the bare, unvarnished truth.

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