This is the first in a four-part story. Jesse Bentley was born sensitive in a family of rough farmers. He went off to study for the ministry and married an equally delicate woman. When all his four older brothers died in the Civil War, he came home to run the farm. Although he was sensitive, there was a strength that ran through him and made him survive a rougher life. He made a success of running the farm, even though no one expected him to be able to do so. Because he was intellectual in an age that did not lend itself to intellectual pursuits, he channeled that energy into a fervent belief in God. In doing so, he became something of a tyrant, feared by his employees. He believed that he had been specially chosen by God, and that all the people in the area were Philistines. He also believed that he needed a son to smite them. His wife died in childbirth.
Jesse did not have a son. His daughter, Louise, grew up to be a shrill and unhappy woman. She married a banker, John Hardy, and went to live in town. She has a son, David, who is timid and frightened much of the time because his mother is so erratic. Once, returning from his grandfather's farm, he runs away from home. When he returns, he is pleasantly surprised to find his mother is tender for the evening.
David goes to live with his grandfather. He is happy on the farm, and everyone dotes on him. Once, his grandfather becomes possessed of the spirit of God while out in the wilderness with David, but this just terrifies the young boy. Other than this frightening event, however, the farm feels comfortable to him. One of his great-aunts mothers him, and he gets love he never felt at home.
Godliness III: Surrender
Louise grew up in a loveless household, as her father had always wanted a boy and her mother had died. As a teenager, she went to live in town to attend school. She lived in the Hardy household. The two Hardy girls hated her because she was such a good student, which was awful for her because all she wanted was love. When she reached out to their brother, John, he misunderstood and thought she wanted to become his lover. She mistakenly thought she was pregnant, and they ended up married. Because John could never understand the emptiness and need for love that drove her to him, Louise turned into a bitter woman. She neglects her son, David.
Godliness IV: Terror
The last part of the story returns to the story of Jesse, who meets with great financial success on his farming ventures. He decides to take his fifteen-year-old grandson, David, out into the woods to help him sacrifice a lamb. But he does not tell David what his plan is, and David becomes terrified when his grandfather approaches him and the lamb with a large knife. David runs away. When Jesse pursues him, David hits him with a stone from a slingshot. Thinking he has killed his grandfather, he flees Winesburg for good. Jesse's ambition is chastened by the loss of his beloved grandson.
In the Bible, David slays Goliath the giant with a slingshot. That image is reproduced here. Jesse believes he is a man with a special connection to God, but he is actually a tyrant who needs to be slain. He believes so strongly in one truth, that he is a man chosen by God and surrounded by Philistines, that he has become warped into a grotesque. His single-minded pursuit of godliness through hard work killed his wife and turned his daughter into a miserable woman. Because he believes his grandson is part of his godliness, he makes David's life wonderful. Eventually, however, his belief goes too far and he destroys even that relationship. The truth he has embraced has destroyed every chance he had for human connectedness.
Winesburg, Ohio: Novel Summary: Godliness I - VI