Categories: Literary Authors

ANDERSON, SHERWOOD Winesburg, Ohio (1919)

ANDERSON, SHERWOOD Winesburg, Ohio (1919)

Winesburg, Ohio, is a cycle comprising 21 short stories plus one prefatory story, “The Book of the Grotesque.” That initial story introduces the concept that runs through the rest of the stories: People dominated by one idea become grotesque, even if that one idea is true. The stories, each focusing on a particular resident, comprise a mini-population or representation of the town itself. Because Winesburg, Ohio, is of the genre of a short-story cycle, the stories within it are bound to each other by many similarities, repetitions, and links. One link is the presence of writers among the characters. “The Book of the Grotesque” relates the dream an old writer had about the transformation of truths and people into grotesques. George Willard, a young man who figures in many of the stories, wants to be a writer. Other realizations by the characters include repeated instances of women being disappointed by men, by sex and sexuality, by romantic relationships, and by marriage. These women include George’s mother as well as Louise Bentley. However, two female characters without a male partner, Louise Trunnion and Kate Swift, are also disappointed. Finally, many male characters also express disappointment about their relationships with women. In a few instances, male and female characters achieve temporary communication: George’s mother with her male doctor; George with Helen Foster, the girl he loves. However, George’s mother fails to communicate her dying wish to George—that he make use of money she has hidden in the plaster wall at the foot of her bed—and Helen White fails to say goodbye to George at the railway station.

Natalie Tarenko Coming of Age in Winesburg, Ohio In the next-to-last story in Winesburg, Ohio, coming of age is defined as “Sophistication,” in the story of that title. Within “Sophistication,” coming of age is further defined and refined as a young person’s epiphany or realization about the nature of time and self. Time, which brought the young person to this realization, will continue to pass, like leaves blown by the wind or like corn that will be cut down. So, also, will the life of the young person someday end; and so, too, have the lives ended of all the people who have ever lived. Specifically, the young person is George Willard. Winesburg, Ohio, largely tells the circumstances that brought George to this state of “sophistication.” In many of Winesburg’s stories, other characters think back to their own epiphanies or realizations; usually, they feel compelled to tell George about it. Some characters try to wake him up: his father; Tom Foster; and his former teacher, Kate Swift. Each intends to wake George up to a different reality: his father to the sharpness required of a successful businessman, Kate Swift to a writer’s use of words. In addition, George’s mother seeks to save him from her own fate: not to be a failure by killing or allowing one’s youthful dreams to be killed. George dreams of being a writer and often boasts about how easy a life it will be. George’s naïveté is dangerous in that the narrative shows that words can be empty. One character who never has a coming of age, who never grows up, is Enoch Robinson (“Loneliness”).

Even though old, he is childlike in preferring his made-up people to real ones, such as his wife and children, whom he had earlier abandoned. The danger of becoming mesmerized by one’s own words and ideas is underlined by the parallels between Enoch, who talks to himself, and George, who also often talks to himself and imagines himself in grandiose situations. George Willard is not the only character who gropes toward adulthood. Tom Foster also tries to learn things from and about life, which is another description of coming of age. Tom has fewer material resources than George, who has a satisfying job on the town newspaper and his father’s sometimes meddlesome conniving to help him. Tom sets out to get drunk, just once, so as to feel pain and grow from it; his language expands, and he is quite poetic in the metaphors he creates about Helen White, whom many of the young male characters love. In the last story of the book, “Departure,” George succeeds in leaving Winesburg; getting away from his hometown is another aspect of coming of age. Other young characters, such as Seth Richmond, also express interest in leaving town, possibly symbolizing leaving their childhood. Natalie Tarenko Family in Winesburg, Ohio In many of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio, an unhappy family can be the unfortunate result of the misunderstandings of coming of age. Women, in dominated by one idea become grotesque, even if that one idea is true. The stories, each focusing on a particular resident, comprise a mini-population or representation of the town itself. Because Winesburg, Ohio, is of the genre of a short-story cycle, the stories within it are bound to each other by many similarities, repetitions, and links. One link is the presence of writers among the characters. “The Book of the Grotesque” relates the dream an old writer had about the transformation of truths and people into grotesques. George Willard, a young man who figures in many of the stories, wants to be a writer. Other realizations by the characters include repeated instances of women being disappointed by men, by sex and sexuality, by romantic relationships, and by marriage.

These women include George’s mother as well as Louise Bentley. However, two female characters without a male partner, Louise Trunnion and Kate Swift, are also disappointed. Finally, many male characters also express disappointment about their relationships with women. In a few instances, male and female characters achieve temporary communication: George’s mother with her male doctor; George with Helen Foster, the girl he loves. However, George’s mother fails to communicate her dying wish to George—that he make use of money she has hidden in the plaster wall at the foot of her bed—and Helen White fails to say goodbye to George at the railway station. Natalie Tarenko Coming of Age in Winesburg, Ohio In the next-to-last story in Winesburg, Ohio, coming of age is defined as “Sophistication,” in the story of that title. Within “Sophistication,” coming of age is further defined and refined as a young person’s epiphany or realization about the nature of time and self. Time, which brought the young person to this realization, will continue to pass, like leaves blown by the wind or like corn that will be cut down. So, also, will the life of the young person someday end; and so, too, have the lives ended of all the people who have ever lived. Specifically, the young person is George Willard. Winesburg, Ohio, largely tells the circumstances that brought George to this state of “sophistication.” In many of Winesburg’s stories, other characters think back to their own epiphanies or realizations; usually, they feel compelled to tell George about it. Some characters try to wake him up: his father; Tom Foster; and his former teacher, Kate Swift. Each intends to wake George up to a different reality: his father to the sharpness required of a successful businessman, Kate Swift to a writer’s use of words. In addition, George’s mother seeks to save him from her own fate: not to be a failure by killing or allowing one’s youthful dreams to be killed. George dreams of being a writer and often boasts about how easy a life it will be.

George’s naïveté is dangerous in that the narrative shows that words can be empty. One character who never has a coming of age, who never grows up, is Enoch Robinson (“Loneliness”). Even though old, he is childlike in preferring his made-up people to real ones, such as his wife and children, whom he had earlier abandoned. The danger of becoming mesmerized by one’s own words and ideas is underlined by the parallels between Enoch, who talks to himself, and George, who also often talks to himself and imagines himself in grandiose situations. George Willard is not the only character who gropes toward adulthood. Tom Foster also tries to learn things from and about life, which is another description of coming of age. Tom has fewer material resources than George, who has a satisfying job on the town newspaper and his father’s sometimes meddlesome conniving to help him. Tom sets out to get drunk, just once, so as to feel pain and grow from it; his language expands, and he is quite poetic in the metaphors he creates about Helen White, whom many of the young male characters love. In the last story of the book, “Departure,” George succeeds in leaving Winesburg; getting away from his hometown is another aspect of coming of age.

Other young characters, such as Seth Richmond, also express interest in leaving town, possibly symbolizing leaving their childhood. Natalie Tarenko Family in Winesburg, Ohio In many of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio, an unhappy family can be the unfortunate result of the misunderstandings of coming of age. Women, in particular, are led by society to believe that they can find what they long for by becoming involved with a man. However, male characters also feel misled or “tricked” (204), as Ray Pearson terms it in “The Untold Lie.” “Mother” is an early story in the sequence. “Mother” concerns Elizabeth Willard, the mother of the male protagonist, George Willard, who is the novice reporter to whom many of the characters relate their grotesquely obsessive ideas. In her girlhood, Elizabeth had been restless and longed to go on the stage, but because these longings were thwarted, she channeled them into encounters with men. One of these men, Tom Willard, became her husband in an unhappy marriage; together, they are the parents of George. In some of the stories in Winesburg, Ohio, the frustrated parent figure transfers his or her thwarted hopes onto another generation. In “Mother,” Elizabeth Willard hopes that her son George will achieve some of the transcendent longings she has failed to achieve. George’s father, too, has transferred some of his unrealized political ambitions onto George. However, George rejects his father’s more commonplace ambitions for power and status. The frustrated parent can transfer his or her thwarted hopes onto his or her offspring with such vehemence that the child is terrified by the parent figure. In “Godliness II,” David Hardy is the grandson of Jesse Bentley, a successful farmer who had longed for a son instead of his daughter, who became David’s mother. One of the ideas that dominates Jesse’s personality is a desire to be a biblical-style patriarch.

When David was 12, his grandfather took him to the woods and begged God to show them a sign. David was so frightened by his grandfather’s demeanor that he ran off and fell, hitting his head. In “Godliness IV, Terror,” three years have passed. This time, it is the grandfather, Jesse Bentley, who falls. When Jesse tries to conduct a biblical-style sacrifice of a lamb, David becomes terrified; the situation has overtones of the intended sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. David hurls a stone at Jesse from his slingshot. David runs away and is never seen in Winesburg again; his grandfather is permanently disabled, physically and mentally, from the incident. In Winesburg, Ohio, parents fail to communicate with their offspring. In “Mother,” Elizabeth Willard has a bond with her son, George, in that she longs for the hopes that have died in her life with her unhappy marriage to live on in her son. In spite of the bond between her and George, however, she fails to communicate with him, even on her deathbed. In a story placed next to last in the sequence (“Death, Concerning Doctor Reefy”), the death described is that of Elizabeth herself. She is one of the female characters who have been disappointed in marriage and family life. During the last six days of her life, she is unable to speak or communicate with anyone, and she anguishes over her not being able to tell George about the money she has hidden away behind the plaster in the wall at the foot of her bed. This money was a legacy from Elizabeth’s father years earlier. Near death, he mulled over his own regrets and urged Elizabeth not to marry the young man she was seeing. However, Elizabeth did marry that young man, Tom Willard, with whom she had her son, George. Thus, failed communication, like the walled-up money, is a legacy from generation to generation.

Natalie Tarenko Individual and Society in Winesburg, Ohio The central character in Winesburg, Ohio, is young George Willard. George’s work in the newspaper office in town brings him into contact with many other people who long to achieve communication. Like them, George talks more to himself than with anyone else about his own dreams, ideas, and impressions. What is true of one of them is true of all of them: “He could master others but he could not master himself.” Individual characters feel walled off and long to make contact with others; this longing to communicate leads them to attempt to find something in romantic relationships, an attempt that largely fails. George’s parents are one of these failed couples; both women and men express bitterness that their loneliness was not only not assuaged by society in the institution of marriage but had actually increased. George’s mother, Elizabeth, hopes that she can save her son from her own unhappy fate: “Within him there is a secret something that is striving to grow. It is the thing I let be killed in myself.” On rare occasions, the individual can succeed in reaching out and having a dialogue with someone else. George’s mother succeeds in communicating not with her husband but with Dr. Reefy, and he with her, during conversations. However, not only is this release temporary, but even Elizabeth’s doctor friend “did not listen” to her. Another instance of achieved communication occurs between two male friends; the one who is married and having difficulty feeding his family tries to warn the other against married life. The married one momentarily feels a blaze of kinship with nature.

So, too, George sees the residents of Winesburg “must be brothers and sisters to him”—but only temporarily. When he succeeds in taking a walk with Helen White, the girl for whom he has the most feeling, atoms are a metaphor for the separateness of the individual characters; they cling together for a short time, but then go their separate ways. In addition to being main protagonist, George Willard is also associated with the different aspects of local society: the newspaper that seeks to mention as many residents in each edition as possible; the New Willard House, his parent’s shabby hotel, in which many characters stay; Winesburg; and the judgments passed by Winesburg’s residents. Individuals possessed by an idea are grotesque, as are all the residents in Winesburg. The book begins with a procession of grotesques in a section titled “The Book of the Grotesque.” This section is the frame story that gives rise to the rest of the stories. Winesburg, Ohio, is a short-story cycle. Each chapter can stand alone and has the features of a short story such as epiphany and one main character; on the other hand, the chapters are related by means of links and repeated characters and situations. Thus, the genre of Winesburg, Ohio, is itself a model of individual (story) and society (whole work). Both the most prominent individual (George Willard) and the most prominent descriptor of society (grotesques) function as links to tie the book together. Natalie Tarenko MAYA ANGELOU I Know Why the Caged Bird Singsâ (1970) In Maya Angelou’s autobiographical story I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, we follow the protagonist, Marguerite (whom her brother calls Maya), from the age of three until the birth of her son. The story starts when Maya and her brother Bailey are sent away to live with their paternal grandmother, Momma, and their crippled uncle, Willie. The siblings spend their early years helping out in their grandmother’s store, which is the heart of the poor black southern town in which she lives. Eventually they are sent back to their mother, who, they discover, is a striking beauty. The story provides detailed descriptions of what it was like for a black girl to grow up in a deeply racist society. The story conveys Maya’s sense of displacement and illustrates how she experiences her supposed ugliness—in comparison to her mother and brother—to be visible proof of her outsider status.

Maya’s father, Daddy Bailey, appears on the outskirts of the story, but the big influences on her life are, according to her, her two mothers; her beloved brother; Mrs. Flowers, a sophisticated black friend of her grandmother’s, who draws her out of her self-inflicted muteness through the recitation of poems; and Miss Kerwin, a teacher who is particularly impartial in matters of race. Although indignation over injustices and harsh descriptions of a bleak and painful reality are inevitable parts of Maya’s story, it is also a tale about the possibility of keeping one’s dignity in the face of insults and of overcoming injustices through perseverance.Eva Lupin

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