Winesburg, Ohio Summary and Analysis
The Thinker, Tandy, The Strength of God
"The Thinker" Summary
Seth Richmond lived in a beautiful house which was now overshadowed by the large house built by Banker White. Seth would hear wagons of berry pickers drive by and wish that he too could giggle mindlessly. Seth's grandfather had built the house and passed it on to his son, Seth's father, Clarence Richmond. Clarence had been killed during a fight with a newspaper man over the printing of Clarence's name in conjunction with a school mistress. Clarence had been a passionate man, much admired by his neighbors. His wife, Virginia, was left with their son. She did not believe the rumors about her husband and insisted to Seth that Clarence had been a good man. Once she realized that her income was no longer sufficient, she learned to be a stenographer and found work. Virginia respected her son and would coddle him. She was rarely able to raise her voice to him and was perplexed why he did not act as most boys did. If she did manage to speak harshly, Seth's look would usually quiet her. Seth was typically a silent boy whom the town believed was very deep and overly passionate, like his father. Seth could think with great clarity but he was not as profound a thinker as most imagined him to be. Many times he would not involve himself with others or participate in the activities of children his age because he was simply not interested. He wished he could feel as passionately about things as his friend, George Willard. When he was sixteen, Seth had run off with two other boys to a distant town fair. They slept on straw and stole food. Seth was ashamed of his actions but explained to his mother upon returning that he would have been more ashamed of himself if he had not stayed until the end of the adventure. Although furious with him, Virginia again could not reprimand him.
At eighteen, Seth was lonely and began to think it was an unavoidable part of his character. One evening, Seth went to visit George Willard, who was the older of the two boys. Inside the New Willard House, Seth overheard the voices of Tom Willard and his guests arguing over politics. He wished he could become as excited about things as Tom Willard or talk as much as Tom's son, George Willard. With his job at the newspaper, George ran around the town finding stories on as many Winesburg citizens as possible. He was proud of his distinction as a writer and would constantly tell Seth about his promising future. As Seth entered his room this one evening, George related to him that he wanted to write a love story. He would have to fall in love and he wanted to love Helen White. Since Seth knew her best, George pleaded with Seth to tell her for him. Seth was enraged and abruptly said goodbye. When George questioned him, Seth told George to ask Helen himself and stormed out of the room. However, Seth was determined to speak with her, only not about George. Seth had thought of Helen often and held her to be something personal of his. They had known each other for years and for a time, Helen had continually written Seth letters. He had never responded but was flattered and appreciated that he was preferred by the prettiest, wealthiest girl in town. Seth walked along the streets thinking of how George always had something to say to anyone in Winesburg.
When Seth arrived at Banker White's house, Helen opened the door and blushed. They walked out together and Seth revealed to her a plan to leave town upon which he had decided. He had realized how separated from the town he felt and decided the best answer was to go to a city, like Columbus, and find work where he would be more useful. The two stopped by a fence nearby a man and woman speaking softly. After the older couple kissed, Helen placed her hand in Seth's. Feeling dizzy, Seth regrettably divulged George's request. He also began to think about how he would like to remain in town and become close to Helen. Seth pictured a spot where he would love to lie with her. Awkwardly, Seth released Helen's hand and again tried to impress her with his plans to move away. Helen's thoughts suddenly shifted from romance to practicality, as she recognized that Seth was already a man. Seth told her how he hated that everyone in town talked so much but did very little. Not knowing what else to say, he told her how they would never see each other again. Saddened, Helen urged Seth to tell his mother immediately of his plans instead of walking her home. Seth nearly ran to catch Helen as she left but could only stand and watch her in confusion. To make himself feel better, Seth decided that Helen would turn out like everyone else in town. Walking home, he told himself that he would never find love. Love would only come to those who talk a lot, like George Willard.
"The Thinker" Analysis
Seth Richmond is another grotesque who is best described as fitting within the theme of life in death. It is a symbolic description as he is not a walking dead figure but a vibrant young man, but his silent exterior functions as symbolic death. Seth is unable to express himself, causing his passion to live inside and his silence to live outside. Ironically Seth does not even know that he holds life inside. He wishes he were more excitable like Tom Willard or Abner Groff, men who are held up metaphorically by the narrator and recognized by Seth as models of outwardly passionate men. They are metaphors for what Seth wishes he could be. And yet the narrator notes that the town sees a fire in Seth's eyes and thus looks at him differently. His own mother is scared enough of him after the age of fifteen that she does not enter his room at night. Thus Seth represses the passion inside of him, anesthetizing his senses, and feels empty. The narrator tells the reader that Seth had begun to think that being lonely was simply a part of his character. Seth is numb. He is a symbol of the modern world where men are mere husks of humanity, isolated from one another and their own sensibilities. Seth believes the answer for him is away from a small town where people know him. He wants to move to a city where, as he tells Helen White, "I just want to work and keep quiet. That's all I've got in my mind."
The artifice of the materialistic age which Anderson's generation was entering is symbolized by Seth's need to put up a front for Helen in hopes of impressing her with his ambition instead of telling her how he really feels about her. Thanks to the mind invading narrator, we know that Seth is thinking about how much he wants to stay in Winesburg and imagining how he could spend his time with Helen. Yet, he is not able to express his desires and instead tries to impress. A climactic moment in the story comes between Seth's daydream of the pastoral image where he and Helen are involved in love-making beneath an idyllic tree surrounded by high flowers and bunches of bees and Seth's speech to Helen about how he must work because he has become a man. The contrast between Seth's vision for happiness and the picture he paints for Helen is great. The moment which lies between these two pictures is synecdochal as the motion Seth makes represents the whole of the change in his demeanor and the break in his tie to Helen. The text reads, "Releasing the hand of the girl, he thrust his hands into his trouser pockets." This is the point where Seth fails to communicate his true wishes and loses his opportunity to reach his dreams.
The hands are very significant as we have seen in many of the grotesques such as Wing Biddlebaum and Dr. Reefy. Seth tells Helen that he does not want to spend his life talking and not doing. He wants to become a mechanic. Thus we gather that he wants to use his hands to express himself. Reading the climactic moment of Seth's release of Helen's hand with this in mind, we understand how he has let go of a human tie to Helen and the passion he holds inside, and has given himself over to the artifice of talk he does not believe in. Once Helen hears his ambitious plans, "[c]ertain vague desires that had been invading her body were swept away and she sat up very straight on the bench." After she leaves, Seth wonders why she has gone but thematically the reader understands that he has shorn his ties to community and replaced love with artifice and ambition.
A young girl lived alone with her father, Tom Hard. Her mother was dead. Tom Hard was absorbed by religion and often ignored the girl. Tom declared himself to be agnostic and spent much of his time trying destroy the belief in God which invaded the minds of his neighbors. A stranger came to Winesburg with whom he became good friends and spent much time. The stranger had come hoping to kick his drinking addiction by escaping to a small town. In actuality, the monotony of the small town led him to drink heavier. One night, he wandered toward the New Willard House suffering from a day or more of drunkenness. Noticing Tom Hard with his young daughter of five on his lap and George Willard sitting in front of the House, the stranger sat down with them. A prophecy babbled from the stranger's lips.
Looking off into the distance and crying, the stranger explained how he had come to quit drinking but had failed. He told them how he was also addicted to love. Never finding the object of his love, his destruction was inevitable. The stranger proclaimed that he had not lost his faith, but that his faith was unattainable. Staring now at the young girl, the stranger expressed to her how he had missed his love but a woman was coming. Maybe this young girl was she. He knew about this woman's struggles although he had never met her. From her defeats, a new quality in women was born which he named Tandy. Tandy was a quality "of being strong to be loved" which men need from women. The stranger dropped to his knees in front of Tom Hard and kissed the young girl's hands. He pleaded with her to be strong, to be better than man or woman, to be Tandy. The stranger then stumbled away.
A few days later, Tom Hard took his daughter to a relative's home to which she was invited. He began again to think of destroying man's faith in God. When he said his daughter's name, she wept. Bitterly crying out and shaking, the girl demanded to be called Tandy Hard. No matter how much her father tried to sooth her, the young girl could not be quieted.
From beginning to end, the reader is not once told the young girl's name. We know that she will take on the name the stranger has given her by the end of the story and become Tandy Hard but what her first name is before the renaming we do not know. Her father's name is Tom Hard but the stranger is also never given a name by the narrator. One has to doubt that the narrator who knows, or at least is willing to guess, what most characters are thinking does not know the name of Tom Hard's daughter or the stranger he befriends. Thus the reader must wonder why these two main characters are kept anonymous, nameless, and without identity. Do they represent the empty shells of anesthetized humanity we have experienced with other grotesques? What is the narrator trying to tell us about naming and renaming?
Tandy Hard does not find herself and her strength of expression until her meeting with the stranger and her adoption of his name, Tandy. The stranger, an allegorical type of character, transforms the life of the girl who had earlier been ignored. The narrator establishes her previous existence negatively. Though still living with her father after her mother's death, the girl is given little attention. Her father's time is spent trying to destroy his neighbors' devotion to God. Her father is a destroyer not a creator which fits into the theme of void and absence in the forgotten life of the little girl. The story begins with a sentence which emphasizes the negative quality of her life. The text reads, "Until she was seven years old she lived in an old unpainted house on an unused road that led off Trunion Pike." The word choice employed by Anderson's mock oral narration tells us what was not done to the house and the road. The house was NOT painted and the road was NOT used. This first sentence is symbolic of the girl's existence before her meeting with the stranger. Her name, like her presence, is NOT important.
The stranger's character is a failed man. He has come to Winesburg on a mission to stop drinking and has instead increased his alcoholism. He cannot stop absorbing drink, filling himself with liquor. This addiction to consume implies that the stranger has an emptiness inside which he tries to fill with drink. This is why he is given no name, but is able to give the girl a name. The void he feels is a result of not finding love. In a scene heavy with religious overtones, the stranger becomes a prophet of sorts. The narrator tells us that he stared forward as if seeing a vision and then looked into the girl's eyes and renamed her. In this manner, Anderson is alluding to the prophet John the Baptist who leads the way for the Christ to come. His passing is not as important as the savior to follow but he prophesies the event. Similarly, the stranger states, "'There is a woman coming." He cries that he knows about the woman's struggles and understands the deep inner need of man and woman to be loved. As Christ could be said to be the son of man, the stranger is predicting that Tandy will be the new form of woman, a universal character representing a new love and understanding.
The religious symbolism continues with the kissing of the savior's hands and the use of the word "ecstatic". The text describes, "[The stranger's] body rocked back and forth and he seemed about to fall, but instead he dropped to his knees on the sidewalk and raised the hands of the little girl to his drunken lips. He kissed them ecstatically." After the all important kiss, the ceremony is completed and the stranger leaves, branding the young girl as Tandy. She refuses to be called another name, symbolizing her acceptance of this role to "be something more than man or woman." This name defines the girl and gives her meaning, more than the negative descriptions given by the narrator. The broken communal bonds are given a rebirth in the renaming of Tandy as this allusion to Christianity provides more a stable view of religious faith than the stories concerning religious people.
"The Strength of God" Summary
Reverend Curtis Hartman, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Winesburg, was a quiet man and often dreaded speaking from the pulpit on Sunday. Before the sermons on Sunday morning, he would retire to the study in the bell tower to pray for God's help. The Reverend's wife, Sarah, was a stout woman whose father had given her five thousand dollars on her wedding day. He manufactured underwear in Cleveland and promised her an inheritance of twice that. His position as the pastor of the Presbyterian Church gave him a higher status and salary than the other pastors, and his own carriage. The Reverend was well liked in town because he was solemn and earnest, though he often wished he could arouse more enthusiasm among his parishioners.
One Sunday morning during the summer, Curtis was in the study with its one window open. On the window was a design of Christ, his hand upon the head of a child. Through the window, the minister was shocked to see a woman in the next house lying in bed and smoking while she read a book. He quickly shut the window, horrified that he had viewed such sin and had seen the bare shoulders and neck of a woman. His sermon that Sunday gained fervor as he spoke to reach the ears of the sinful woman he had seen. The house next to the Church belonged to Aunt Elizabeth Swift and her daughter Kate Swift, the school teacher. As Curtis remembered hearing that Kate had been to Europe and New York City, he wondered if her smoking was not a big deal. The minister did not want to think of other women, but he thought of Kate Swift. His sermons became wholly directed at her and he wanted to see her bare body again.
On a Sunday he could not sleep, the minister rose early and found a stone along the street with which he broke a corner out of the window in the bell tower so he could see into Kate's room. As Aunt Elizabeth pulled Kate's shade open, the minister breathed a sigh of relief that she had saved him from his carnal desires. That Sunday, he did not deliver his sermon. Instead, Curtis informed his parishioners that ministers also struggle with temptation and that he had surrendered to his. In order to be saved, the people had only to raise their eyes to God as he had. The minister then tried to forget about Kate Swift and focus on his wife. However, Curtis soon discovered that Kate Swift would lie in bed at night reading with her shoulders and neck bare. He sat watching her for hours before finally running into the streets and praying. The minister refused to believe that he wanted Kate Swift. He blamed his wife for being ashamed of passion. His soul was troubled for weeks. As the weather grew colder, Curtis sat three times in the darkness and peered through his hole. The minister told himself that if he only could resist the temptation to lift his eyes toward the window, he would be cured.
One night in January the minister could not resist running to the bell tower. He had finally decided to allow himself to think of kissing Kate's shoulders. He thought about becoming a business man and giving himself completely to sin. The room in the bell tower was bitterly cold but the minister sat and waited for Kate Swift to appear. He passed in and out of consciousness before she came. The naked woman threw herself on the bed and punched the pillow, before dissolving in tears to her knees and praying. The minister stumbled from the Church and ran into the Winesburg Eagle where George Willard was working on a story. Curtis moved toward George feverishly. He anxiously explained how God had presented Kate Swift as a sign of a greater truth though the minister had mistakenly first understood her as an object of lust. The minister held up his bloody fist to George. With God's help, he had broken the window. It would have to be completely replaced. Curtis believed that he had been delivered.
"The Strength of God" Analysis
Reverend Curtis Hartman is another grotesque who cannot express the passion inside of him, representing the theme of life in death. The minister instead speaks only as much as he must. People like him because he does not offend and is unpretentious. In fact, he wonders if he really has the fire for God necessary to be a minister and wishes he could cry his devotion from the rooftops. Yet he is too timid and unsure of himself to do little more than deliver his carefully prepared sermons. Hartman's character parallels the character of Seth Richmond who wishes he could become more excited because he represses his emotions. He has become the anesthetized man of modern society, unable to connect to his fellow man. He is a religious man, illustrating Anderson's satiric view of modern religion. His theme of disillusioned modernity shows that religion is disconnected and detached. The minister is not a man who has been spoken to by God or feels that religion is his intended path in life. He represses his passions for life, marries a woman in a long courtship because that is the ritualistic pattern one is supposed to follow, and shares the money made by an underwear manufacturer.
When the minister's passion is revived it is not because of God but because of a woman's sexuality. Ironically, as the minister prayed for a greater power of God, he noticed Kate Swift's bare shoulders through his window. This window is a view into the hypocrisy of the minister's soul. Not only does he see Kate Swift through an open window which has an image of Christ patting a boy's head, but he later breaks that window to be able to continue to see Kate after it is too cold to keep the window open. Christ and his faith do not allow the minister to break free of his inhibitions, a woman's body does. By tarnishing the face of religion in this manner, we further understand the broken archetypal patterns of modern man Anderson was commenting on. The bell tower had but one window and the reverend manipulated its image, breaking it with a rock, to become a voyeur for his sexual appetite. A young boy who is true to his religious faith then is cut by the shard of glass left by the broken window. This boy is a metonym for the disunity of man and religion.
Through the crack in the window, Curtis can only see the shoulders and neck of Kate Swift. He experiences her naked beauty in fragments. He strips himself from his own home three time during the winter in order to see one fragment of Kate's body and yet he loves her body. Her fragmented body symbolizes to Curtis the lust he never was able to experience and the sin his ministry is keeping him from. Much like the more recently published novel by Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children, man sees woman through a partitioned space, a fragmented whole. Anderson, in his time, was using this broken window as a metaphor for the fragmented sense of self in the modern world and the hypocrisy of religion in the context of the detached sense of man from community.
As a voyeur into a world where he is not repressed or conditioned, Curtis finds freedom every time he sneaks away from reality. The weather grows colder and the nights darker to symbolize his descent toward lust and sin. He revives his relationship briefly with his wife but then becomes angry at her for cheating him of his animal instinct. The minister is never able to look within himself for revival. In very much a satire style, Anderson shows the minister make Kate Swift, the object of his lust, into an icon of the church so that he can be freed of his desire for her. The message of truth she bears is the broken, hypocritical disunity of the fabric of society.
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