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Disabled by Truth: How One Becomes a Grotesque - A Literary Analysis of Winesburg, Ohio

Published: 2021-08-10 - Updated: 2021-08-15
Author: Kelley A Pasmanick | Contact: Disabled World (Disabled-World.com)

Synopsis: Kelley A Pasmanick presents her Literary Analysis of Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.

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A Literary Analysis of Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

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"It was the truths that made the people grotesques...the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood," says the narrator in "The Book of the Grotesque" in Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (9). The protagonists Wing Biddlebaum of "Hands" and Elizabeth Willard in "Mother" transform into grotesques when their positive intent, which they whole-heartedly embrace, becomes misconstrued by others. The hope of Wing Biddlebaum to positively affect those around him and the desperate want of love by Elizabeth Willard are both ostensibly acceptable desires to have and deemed to be good, but they become twisted by Wing and Elizabeth as a result of the influence of the community around them. Thus, their desires become sources of pain, strife, and confusion for them. The protagonists cannot reconcile them with the positive things that they originally perceived; that which they seek now has negative connotations. As a result, each protagonist's true intent becomes unfocused, ultimately turning into his or her tragic flaw. In effect, they are made disabled by embracing that which they consider acceptable.

In "Hands," Wing Biddlebaum, formerly known as Adolph Meyers, a master of a boys' school in Pennsylvania, relays information to the minds of his young pupils through touch. Thus, his hands are the mechanisms that he employs to ensure the boys' comprehension of the lessons that he attempts to convey: "In a way the voice and the hands, the stroking of the shoulders and the touching of the hair were a part of the schoolmaster's effort to carry a dream into the young minds...Under the caress of his hands doubt and disbelief went out of the minds of the boys and they also began to dream" (15). Caressing with his hands is the means by which Wing validates the boys' dreams and hopes. The physical displays of affection meant for the boys concretize their vague hopes into something definite. Wing's acts of affection allow the boys to pinpoint what they expect from life. Symbolically, he teaches them to use their own hands, by pointing out to them that which catches their eyes and telling them to grab it. Wing's touches anchor the boys' dreams into their heads, showing them that it is not only acceptable to dream, but that they are encouraged to always do so.

However, Wing's intentions to inspire his students and the methods by which he does are misconstrued: "A half-witted boy of the school became enamored of the young master. In his bed at night he imagined unspeakable things and in the morning he went forth to tell his dreams as facts" (15). The student develops an infatuation with his school master because he believes that those caresses offered by Wing are romantic in nature, and in some way sexually suggestive, instead of viewing them as ways in which his teacher solidifies the bond between himself and his students. He does not perceive the affection by Wing to be displays of support and encouragement, of a platonic nature. It can be deduced that Wing's intentions are misinterpreted by the boy because he lacks the experience to recognize that such attention is suitable to receive from a male. Wing's warm, unassuming, and personable nature, challenges the notion that gender roles are fixed, an idea often representative of early 20th century small-town life. Wing is an anomaly; he is not outwardly masculine, nor does he exert the power attached to masculinity. As a result, it can be inferred that if the boys he teaches had a female teacher, they would more willingly and readily accept her affection. Furthermore, the boys would show affection toward her independent of her showing gentility toward them; they may instigate the affection, their schoolmistress being the recipient of it. It is highly unlikely that they would feel uncomfortable receiving affection from a female influence because they have learned of the stereotype that females are gentler and more emotional than males, that they are the ones who caress. The boys have digested and applied the stereotype and the misconceptions associated with it as facts.

Consequently, when the first student tells the townspeople that Wing has inappropriately touched him and done improper things to him, what today would be called molestation, the other boys follow suit. If their teacher were female, the townspeople would investigate the initial student's accusations more thoroughly, as well as his classmates, in order to verify any similarities and discrepancies found in their testimonies. They might question the boys more than once, and separately, to break any sense of community they feel, or any pressure they feel to uphold each other's honor and to not tell on one another. They undoubtedly would question the teacher concerning her behavior toward her students and events in the classroom, and depending on whether her account of the events that have transpired differs from her pupils, the town might discard the boys' testimonies, deeming them to be preposterous and false. Finally, "[t]hey had intended to hang the schoolmaster, but something in his figure, so small, white, and pitiful, touched their hearts and they let him escape" (16). Due to Wing's effeminate nature, they do not hang him. Hence, they assuredly would not hang a female, who merely by her sex is the embodiment of femininity. It is doubtful that Wing's life would have taken a turn for the worse if he were female.

Wing's hands are womanized, insofar as they engage in gentler mannerisms than those hands of the men around him. His hands do not conform to the particular idea of what a man's hands should do and be in connection with the expectation of small-town America. In effect, Wing realizes that his hands have a role to play in his expulsion from the town, only after townsmen state: "I'll teach you to put your hands on my boy, you beast...Keep your hands to yourself" (15-16). Wing recognizes that the admonishments from the townsmen relate to his hands, thereby implying that they denote something negative, although he does not know what or why because he does not place his hands in the context of acting as tools that have caused his students' discomfort. It is as if his hands are a separate entity from him: "Wing Biddlebaum, forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts...The slender expressive fingers, forever active, forever striving to conceal themselves in his pocket or behind his back" (11, 12). Wing has never been told exactly what his hands have done to his students; that their inappropriate touches have caused him to be driven from town, so the feeling he receives concerning his hands from the townspeople is vague for him, at best.

Map of the town Winesburg, Ohio from the first edition of Sherwood Anderson's book of the same name.
Map of the town Winesburg, Ohio from the first edition of Sherwood Anderson's book of the same name.

This vague feeling is brought into his relationship with George Willard, the central character around whom all of the stories are based. The two form an unlikely friendship that is hindered and eventually ends prematurely because of Wing's hands, both literally and figuratively. Around George, Wing is able to expose himself without fear because he is able to expose his hands. Hence, he is more able to positively affect George, treating him as he would one of his former students: "For once he forgot the hands. Slowly they stole forth and lay upon George Willard's shoulders...You must try to forget all that you have learned. You must begin to dream" (14). As with his former students, Wing, via touch, tries to affirm George's dreams of one day becoming a writer. Again, the idea of cementing George's dreams by touching his shoulders is Wing's goal, suggesting that it is good that George has this dream and that he should never lose sight of it. He stops short because the discomfort that he associates with his hands returns, and he is unable to convey to George that he is a capable young man. Wing's verbal and physical exchange with George is thwarted because Wing is impeded by his uncertainty concerning what Winesburg considers to be customary and acceptable behavior among males of different ages. Since the incident in Pennsylvania, he is unsure of what is proper, the degree to which he is allowed to touch others, namely young boys, the manner in which he is allowed to touch them, and most importantly, where on their bodies he is allowed to touch them, as depicted during his talk with George: "Again he raised the (emphasis mine) hands to caress the boy and then a look of horror swept over his face...Wing Biddlebaum sprang to his feet and thrust his (emphasis mine) hands deep into his trousers pockets. Tears came to his eyes. I must be getting along home. I can talk no more with you" (14). He wants to be a support for George; he also knows that George can be his confidant, but he is uncertain of how to show his appreciation for George's presence in his life. Simply, he is hesitant of what to do with his feelings for George, and is even more unclear about how to show George proper affection, how a man would direct attention toward another man, mirroring his sentiments in regard to his hands. In the above quotation, Wing's hands are referred to as "the hands" and then "his hands." At first, the relationship between hands is undisclosed, although specific, due to the use of a definite article; the ownership of the hands is ambiguous. The second usage of "his hands" illustrates that Wing's relationship with them is ambivalent and disjointed because the diction does not have him immediately claim the hands as his. As a result, he cannot claim his emotions. Thus, the love, affection, and friendship Wing hopes to foster with George will always be stunted and will never truly burgeon to become the links to human connection and understanding that Wing so desperately seeks.

In "Mother," Elizabeth Willard, the mother of George Willard, is unable to love her son because she misunderstands those situations of which her life is composed; she views her life as something other than what it actually is. Her perception is skewed and jaded, making her an ineffectual mother: "Between Elizabeth and her one son George there was a deep unexpressed bond of sympathy" (23). Elizabeth believes that she and George have a bond fortified by the knowledge that each grasps the perspective and mindset of the other. In reality though, "[t]he communication between George Willard and his mother was outwardly a formal thing without meaning" (23). In effect, George goes through the motions when he visits his mother, who is often ill. He visits out of a sense of duty as her son, whereas she holds the title of "Mother," but she does not embody the role. It is evident that Elizabeth's attempts to love her son fall short due to her inability to articulate her feelings for him as portrayed when she says, "I think you had better be out among the boys" (24). Elizabeth does not know how to relate to her son, how to speak about what is important to him, so instead, she makes an irrelevant comment assuming that her son will perceive the meaning behind it. She wishes him to be content. The meaning behind her comment, however, is not implied, and the exchange between them is forced and uncomfortable.

One discovers that in her younger years, Elizabeth developed a fancy toward the stage because "[a] great restlessness was in her...She dreamed of joining some company and wandering over the world, seeing always new faces and giving something out of herself to all people" (28). The stage would provide Elizabeth with something that Winesburg does not: variation. With each show produced, she hypothetically would be able to play a different role, but in Winesburg, she is trapped in the permanence and monotony of being a wife and mother. This lack of an outlet or lack of a temporary escape is perhaps why she is often ill; her body mirrors the decay of her self, her soul: "her face was marked with smallpox scars. Although she was but forty-five, some obscure disease had taken the fire out of her figure" (22). Elizabeth is a victim of smallpox, but the disease that steals her fire, her essence, is unnamed, so it is possible that the disease does not have somatic origins, although it manifests itself as visible, physical illness. One could further infer that the "disease" is the disappointment that Elizabeth feels because her dream of acting in theater is never actualized. Thus, even though she considers herself defeated, she is aware that George has the potential to venture out into the world and become something: "In the boyish figure she yearned to see something half forgotten that had once been a part of herself recreated" (23). Elizabeth recognizes her past youthfulness and fervor in George, her spirit before it was oppressed. He has not yet been beaten by "long years of quiet and rather ineffectual thinking" (27). Moreover, Elizabeth realizes that her son is able to achieve success in life that is true and meaningful and that is not obtained by being condescending to others or being ruthless in nature. Such methods are the means by which Tom Willard, her husband and George's father, maintains power as shown when he questions another's devotion to the Democratic Party: "Shut up you. What do you know of service? What are you but a boy?" (22-23). He equates importance with time and age instead of ability. One discovers an alternate view of Tom's supposed success: that success is in the eye of the beholder and that "[h]e had always thought of himself as a successful man, although nothing he had ever done turned out successfully" (23). Tom is as ineffectual as his wife, but is unable to admit it and dispenses unsolicited advice to George that is hypercritical and grounded in discouraging his son from following his dream of being a writer: "If being a newspaper man had put the notion of becoming a writer into your mind that's all right. Only I guess you'll have to wake up to do that too, eh?" (27). Tom does not understand that George's introspective nature is conducive to a writer's sensibility in order to evoke emotions from prospective readers. He does not, in any way, acknowledge his son's passion, whereas Elizabeth does, but only to herself. When she tries to express her pride after George tells her that he wishes to leave Winesburg, so that he may go write more seriously elsewhere, she employs the same language that her husband uses when talking to George about his plans. This recycling of language by his mother frustrates and exasperates George, thereby worsening their relationship with each other and widening the gap of communication that exists between them, where miscommunication seems to be the primary method of communication. Therefore, when Elizabeth uses this same diction, the same negative sentiments reemerge in George:

I suppose you had better wake up. You think that? You will go to the city and make money, eh? It will be better for you, you think, to be a business man, to be brisk and smart and alive?...She wanted to cry out with joy because of the words that had come from the lips of her son, but the expression of joy had become impossible to her. (29, 30)

Once again, George cannot decipher the intent behind his mother's words. She is pushing him, however weakly, to act and to take control of his life and to not be bossed around by his father. Hence, after the exchange between George and his mother, he is left perplexed; Elizabeth is handicapped by her undeveloped and inflexible perception of what clear communication is. Her view of communication is too specific and lacks substance, and she does not realize that is acceptable to have a broader, worldlier view, which ironically, is what she seeks in the first place in the theater.

Simply, Elizabeth does not comprehend the impact of her words and the manner and tone with which she relays them to her son. The moment is lost, since neither party, including Elizabeth, sadly, decodes her message correctly that she is proud of her son. She uses language that confuses George, and he responds to her afterward in a manner that is contrary to her expectations. Mother and son do not see that they are finally on the same page; they both concur that leaving Winesburg is in George's best interest. They come so close to resolving their cycle of ineffective communication and simultaneously finding a solution that satisfies both of their desires. Their inability, however, to see what they have stumbled upon, highlights and solidifies all the more Elizabeth's failure to interact and communicate effectively with her son. Due to her ineptitude, there is no way she can promulgate a deep, healthy, and loving connection with George, although that is her ultimate goal.

In summation, "Hands" and "Mother" illustrate through Wing Biddlebaum and Elizabeth Willard the fact that although one might be well-meaning and have good intentions, those motives may not come across to those around her, allowing for a schism to occur, and because her original intentions are dissimilar to the community's notions of propriety. For example, Wing's desire to impact his pupils, as well as George, obsesses him to such an extent that it incapacitates him. A similar all-consuming want to positively influence George, handicaps Elizabeth when she attempts to communicate with him. She is at fault because she is unable to find her own voice, a language intrinsic to her, to effectively communicate to her son her hopes for him. Both protagonists attempt to fortify bonds with the people in their lives but cannot achieve this fully because of a pervasive inarticulateness, which becomes the tragic impairment. In effect, Wing and Elizabeth transform into grotesques because they cannot ever find the right words to say what they mean. They are made stagnant because they never learn from their mistakes. Pathetically, they are left to wonder what went wrong in their lives and why, without ever discovering an answer to these questions. Finally, they are crippled by misunderstanding the consequences of their actions.

Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood. "Hands." Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. 11-17.

Anderson, Sherwood. "Mother." Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. 22-30.

Kelley A Pasmanick

Kelley A Pasmanick is a thirty-five-year-old woman from Atlanta, Georgia. Pasmanick’s work has appeared in Wordgathering, Squawk Back, Praxis Magazine, The Mighty, Loud Zoo, The Jewish Literary Journal, Umbrella Factory Magazine, Breath & Shadow, Kaleidoscope, and Tiny Tim Literary Review. Pasmanick is a repeat contributor to The Handy, Uncapped Pen and Disabled World. Her work has also been reprinted in Queen Mob’s Teahouse.

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Cite This Page (APA): Kelley A Pasmanick. (2021, August 10). Disabled by Truth: How One Becomes a Grotesque - A Literary Analysis of Winesburg, Ohio. Disabled World. Retrieved September 19, 2021 from www.disabled-world.com/disability/publications/winesburg.php