Winesburg, Ohio: Essay Q&A

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1. What is the role of the storyteller in Winesburg, Ohio?

Within Winesburg, Ohio, there are three storytellers. There is George Willard, the town reporter. Then, there is "the writer" at the beginning of the text, who is supposedly telling the story of all the characters in the book. And, there is the most powerful storyteller, Sherwood Anderson. The two characters reflect Anderson himself, and unlike other writers, they are not meant to present a moral or a philosophy. Instead, their role, like the one Anderson envisioned for himself, is to collect stories about people that combine to tell something about the world.
By listening to those around him, George collects the tales of Winesburg and so helps to create the town. George's paper seeks to "mention by name in each issue, as many as possible of the inhabitants of the village," so George runs around collecting stories and "All day he wrote little facts upon the pad" (128). He does not himself invent stories, yet he helps to shape the town by serving as its voice and selecting which stories to tell. This is why George represents the town to several people, such as Elmer Cowley who queries: "Did he not represent public opinion?" (195) George, in his small way in a small town, is able to shape one version of the truth by selecting which stories to present, but he himself, like the other storytellers, is not empowered to grant supremacy to one idea or another.
The old writer consciously rejects the writerly urge to declare one truth as more valid than others. He wants to tell the stories of people he has known, and he believes truths are beautiful. Yet, to be too wedded to one truth is dangerous: "It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood" (6). Instead, the old writer chooses to present the parade of people with their various truths. However, he reflects the author in that he is choosing which stories to present.
When he draws attention to the fact that he is telling one story instead of another, Anderson underscores his own role as a selector of truths to present, rather than a teller of truths. Several times, he writes, "But this is not the story of." such as when he explains that he is not telling Windpeter Winters's story (204). Although he needs to include aspects of those stories to tell other stories, he is clearly indicating that there are other stories he could have selected. Hence, he is the chooser of stories, not the creator of them.
The man who selects the tales to tell has a great deal of control because he is presenting one set of ideas. By insisting that he is only a chooser of people's stories, Anderson is also claiming that the truths already existed for him to select among. This means that he is collecting things that really are truthful, and it enhances his power as a story selector rather than a creator of fiction.
2. What is the relationship between words and meaning in Winesburg, Ohio?
At the end of Winesburg, Ohio, George Willard and Helen White spend an evening together without speaking much to each other. This time together helps them both come to terms with their impending adulthood and "For some reason they could not have explained they had both got from their silent evening together the thing needed" (248). The reason cannot be explained because its meaning comes from the absence of words, and to try to pin it down with words would be destructive. Words are too weak for this situation, even though Anderson acknowledges the natural tendency to try to put things into words. There is a tension in this text between people's expectation that words should contain great meaning and the actual weakness of words.
Elizabeth Willard wants to have meaningful conversation with her son, but her attempts to speak to him are simply awkward. Their time together always ends with her suggesting he get outside and him agreeing that he should probably take a walk. She wants to believe that there is a strong bond of sympathy, but she also realizes that words are deceivers and she cannot find a way to speak to her son. She is glad that he is not "a dull clod, all words and smartness" (28) but is also left lonely because she cannot make herself understood to him. Even on her deathbed, when she has significant information to impart about the hidden money, she is unable to speak to him. Hence, there is a great gap between the significant thoughts she would like to express and the actual potential of words to voice those thoughts.
However, silence is no more meaningful than speech because meaning is independent of the absence or presence of words. The townspeople give Seth Richmond a great deal of respect because he is so silent, but he is simply not a great talker. "No great underlying purpose lay back of his habitual silence, and he had no definite plan for his life" (127). There is no more significance to his silence than to Joe Welling's constant speech because words are not indicators of meaning or the lack thereof.
It is interesting that Sherwood Anderson, who has chosen to write quite a few words, should represent language as holding less significance than most people expect it to. He undercuts his own authority to be able to present meaning because he names his language as insignificant. However, this allows him to point out that meaning can be great, as it is in George and Helen's silent evening, but that all attempts to contain it by language will fall short.
3. Are grotesques a product of small town life?
In "The Book of the Grotesque," the writer sees a parade of people passing before him, people he has known. "Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them" (6). By doing so, each person becomes a grotesque. The writer does not think of any people who are not affected; each person is destined to grab a truth and become a grotesque. However, in the stories that appear to come out of his vision, there is some indication that environment is linked to the tendency to latch onto truths. The small town contains people who are reluctant to see beyond their truths, while the city with its myriad ideas and possibilities grants people the potential to retain a wider vision.
Jesse Bentley was an educated man in the city, but when he returns home to Winesburg, the restrictions of rural life lead him to become monomaniacal. Because he is limited to life on the farm, "a fantastic impulse, half fear, half greediness, took possession of Jesse Bentley" (58) and he comes to believe he is in a land of Philistines. He is ill suited to farm life not because he is small, but because he allows the isolated life to warp his thinking. However, he is no different from those in the town who do not have big city options to help expand their minds.
Alice Hindman, unable to escape Winesburg like her lover, is stuck in a place that gives her no options other than to become a grotesque. She cannot imagine marrying someone other than the man who has deserted her. She knows that Ned has escaped small town fate: "If Ned comes home he will not want me," she thinks. "In the city where he is living men are perpetually young. There is so much going on they do not have time to grow old" (109). The city promises escape from the narrow-mindedness that traps so many people in Winesburg.
However, the city holds no guarantee against becoming a grotesque. Enoch Robinson, for example, goes to the city but is unable to escape from his small-town mentality. He creates company for himself because he is overwhelmed by big city possibility. While those in the city have a wider set of options, grotesques can exist there, as well.
The city is presented as a place of promise, and the citizens of Winesburg often speak with respect of those who are off to make their fortunes in the city. However, there are grotesques on the farms, in the town, and in the city, and there are drawbacks to urbanity, as well. People in the city are often portrayed as too sophisticated and without good sense. Perhaps that is why those who go to the city have a difficult time returning to Winesburg.
4. What is the relationship of sexual passion to truth and human connectedness?
Throughout Winesburg, Ohio, characters attempt to connect with one another and yet seem to keep missing each others' points. Wing Biddlebaum, for example, tried to connect with his students and was misunderstood as a pedophile. Unable to understand true human sympathy, the parents assumed he was acting on sexual desire, a much simpler and more basic urge. Throughout the novel, in fact, people regularly try to substitute sexual desire for a subtler need for human connectedness that they do not understand.
Louise Bentley gets caught by John Hardy's inability to comprehend her desire for love and acceptance. "I want someone to love me and I want to love someone" she tells him (82), but he misunderstands and they become lovers. During their marriage, she tries to convey her needs, but "Filled with his own notions of love between men and women, he did not listen but began to kiss her upon the lips. That confused her so that in the end she did not want to be kissed" (85). She becomes trapped in an unsatisfying marriage because her husband thinks she wants sexual contact when in fact she is seeking something subtler.
Men in the text often confuse the female desire for understanding with sexual need. This happens to Elizabeth Willard, who turns to Doctor Reefy as her only friend. She is trying to express her sadness and disappointment at her life and trying to reach out to someone. However, he supplants her need to talk with sexual advances: "she tried to continue the story of her wild ride, but he did not listen." Instead, he repeats what the other men who have not understood her have said: "You dear! You lovely dear!" and kisses her (231). This ends the friendship that she turned to for emotional comfort because he gives her something other than what she asks for.
However, it is not only women who are given sexual contact in place of something subtler. George Willard goes out walking with Belle Carpenter, who is using him to replace the man she truly desires. All the lovely words he utters are supposed to be about human connectedness, but for Belle and Ed Handby, it is all about sexual desire. Just like his mother and Louise Bentley, George finds that in Winesburg, sexual desire can be a paltry substitute for emotional need.
5. What is the difference between the role of women and that of men?
The characters in Winesburg, Ohio are united in their sense of loneliness and their need for human connectedness. No one seems immune from the human condition of going through life alone. However, the way that this loneliness strikes is different for men than it is for women. The only option women are offered by men is to alleviate their loneliness through sexuality, while there are other options available for the men.
Several of the women reach out to men for love and end up with sexual contact, which leaves them feeling frustrated and bitter. Elizabeth Willard wanted adventure, but the men she was with gave her only physical affection, and eventually she settled into a loveless marriage. Louise Hardy is married to the first man who paid her any attention, even though she really wanted spiritual, rather than sexual attention. And Alice Hindman learns that "many people must live and die alone" (112) because she fails to secure romantic love. The only type of satisfaction available to her is love with Ned, but when that fails, she cannot have other adventures. She runs out in the rain but ends up feeling quite absurd. Those types of adventure are simply closed to women, even though Ned had the option of career advancement in the city.
The men, on the other hand, have myriad options. Ned goes to the city, as does Elmer Cowley. These men can seek adventure and satisfaction through ways other than love. Wash Williams chooses love, but he can relocate when that option fails. He is still lonely, but instead of being pathetic like Alice or washed up like Elizabeth, he is angry. The women, because they are constrained to expressing themselves sexually, find themselves without many options for _expression once their love fails. Wash, on the other hand, has access to more active emotions, such as anger and hatred. And, as we learn in "The Untold Lie," women have the option only to say "yes" or "no" to sexuality, but men can choose what happens to their lives beyond sexuality. The big question for Nell is whether to have relations with Hal, but Hal can then choose if he wants to marry her or have a different type of life. Nell's choice is one of acceptance or rejection-restricted choices-while Hal has open-ended choices.
At the end of Winesburg, Ohio, George is on a train, leaving for uncertain adventures and fortune in the big city. Helen White, who is educated and has left for college, ultimately remains in the town, unable even to make it to the platform to say goodbye. Her future is simply a matter of who she will marry, as Seth Richmond and George both make it clear to her, saying they believe she will marry someone else. George, on the other hand, can make the future he wants for himself. Even though he is also limited by the human condition of loneliness, as a male, he has more varied options of what to do with his life.

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