"A Man of Ideas" Summary
Joe Welling was a small man who lived with his grey, silent mother beyond Main Street. He had a reputation for being odd because of his frequent and uncontrollable seizures of speech. The seizures were not physical but mental. Joe normally remained quiet until a seizure came forth. He would then pounce on the nearest bystander and spew on them a rush of thoughts and theories. He would pound on his chest and demand attention. Joe worked for the Standard Oil Company as an agent in Winesburg and the surrounding towns. Silently and professionally he went about his business until one of the outbursts would take hold of him. The townspeople watched him wearily, not afraid of him but aware that his eruptions were overwhelming.
One day, men stood in West's Drug Store discussing a horse race. Joe Welling burst into the store and turned on Ed Thomas. Ideas flew from his mouth concerning the water being high in Wine Creek although it had not rained. Joe had been confused before realizing that it had rained in Medina County where the Creek began. The Creek had brought them the news, he ranted. Joe then left the store, silent again. George Willard had come into contact with Joe after George became reporter of the Winesburg Eagle. Joe felt that he should have George's job since he was so talented at finding stories. He wanted George to write about fire as decay and how everything in the world was on fire. After George had been on the paper for a year, Joe's mother died and Joe moved into the New Willard House. He formed the Winesburg Baseball Club so he could be the manager and gained the respect of the town because of the Club's winning ways. Under his influence, the boys followed his every move. The opposing teams became distracted and made errors.
At this time, Joe also began a love affair with Sarah King. Sarah's father, Edward, and brother, Tom, were overly proud and violent but Joe did not seem frightened. The town laughed at the odd pair and the loud protestations of love they heard coming from Joe as he and Sarah walked together. The town worried that Joe would get hurt when a meeting was planned between him and the King men. George Willard anxiously overheard the men waiting for Joe in his room at the Willard House. When Joe arrived holding weeds in his arms, George wanted to laugh. As soon as Joe began talking, George knew he would overwhelm the Kings as he did all others. Joe, absorbed in his ideas, lectured the men on the possibility of a new vegetable kingdom. Sarah had warned Joe not to tell them his ideas, but he thought that was foolish. He wondered what would happen if all the vegetables were swept away and they were left with none. Joe figured they would have to breed new vegetables from the grasses and weeds. As George listened, Joe persuaded the Kings to travel to their house so that he could share his ideas with Sarah. George watched from his window as the two Kings hurried to keep apace with Joe.
"A Man of Ideas" Analysis
As the text explains, Joe Welling was "like a tiny volcano that lies silent for days and then suddenly spouts fire." His fits are mental, the narrator tells us, even though we are also told that he experiences physical spasms. His fits represent a form of synecdoche, as they stand for the whole of the grotesque. His physical body is whole and healthy. Yet the inside of him he has a passion which he cannot always hold within. As with the other grotesques, he is normally a silent man but has a fire raging within, the lava of the volcano. However, unlike the other grotesques, Joe Welling does express his passion, in spurts. Expression is natural for him and Joe is happiest when is he able to give forth his feelings. As the narrator explains, "A peculiar smile came upon his lips." The simple simile given by the narrator comparing Joe to a volcano is very fitting. The words would become pent up inside Joe until they gushed forth, almost orgasmically. He would pounce on those around him, spilling his excitement over onto them.
Synecdochally, Joe illustrates the inner and outer persona of the grotesque characters by having a nearly split personality. He is polite and then overbearing, professional and then crazed. He allows the thoughts which gather in his head, however ludicrous, to be released. The first eruption he has concerns the Creek bringing Winesburg the news. The stream as news symbolizes the importance of communication. One of Anderson's theme is the grotesque as ineffectual communication, life in death. Joe stresses that even if the ordinary ways of communication were closed, the news would continue through natural means. The technological advances which have been made by modern society are inadequate compared to more human methods.
Joe is grotesque because he cannot control his outbursts nor is the content of his outbursts logical. However, he is able to find release and make contact with his fellow man without reliance on the manmade modern advances which further isolate humanity. Joe forces personal contact. The town gains respect for him when he runs a baseball team. The term team is very important as we see the communal bonds which Joe forms and helps manage. The team he coaches begins to move as one and they succeed. Through the awkward and spasmatic flailing of Joe Welling, his team can work together. Furthermore, when Joe begins a love affair with Sarah King, the town laughs because they can hear his loud love protestations. Yet it is one of the only love affairs which does not end unhappily or with feelings unfulfilled in the book. Joe conquers the Kings. The last name is chosen intentionally to symbolize, hyperbolically, that Joe's grotesque character is even more effective than a king because he is able to communicate. He befriends the violent, sullen King family and ties human bonds in a town devoid of many.
The colloquial language continually used by the narrator is purposely simplistic in order to highlight the contextual tones and themes. Details are included to give the reader a feel of the ordinary town life, such as the name of Wesley's Moyer's horse and how the Standard oil Company worked at that time. As we are lulled into the security of this daily language, Anderson heightens suspense by foreshadowing a negative scene to come. Before Anderson encounters the Kings, the narrator sets the dismal scene by describing the darkness and "empty and silent" hallways. This scene is contrasted by the figure of Joe carrying an armful of weeds and grasses. Into the dark scene, Joe brings pieces of nature. He is embracing the natural world, and with his strange story of a new vegetable kingdom he wins over the Kings. Joe takes advantage of his opportunities to communicate with others and grasp onto the natural order. Similarly, he uses his odd volcanic grotesquerie to endear himself to others.
Alice Hindman had lived in Winesburg all of her life. When she was sixteen and attractive, she dated Ned Currie, a man older than she who worked at the Winesburg Eagle before George Willard's time. He would come see her daily. When he planned to move to Cleveland and look for a job on a city newspaper, Alice, overcome by the excitement of their love, suggested that she go as well. She did not wish him to marry her yet as the expense would be too great, but she hoped they could live together and both work. Ned was touched and decided he would rather care for Alice properly as his wife when he was able than to make her his mistress. The night before Ned left,he and Alice went for a drive. The night was so overwhelming to the couple that Ned and Alice became lovers even though Ned had intended to protect her and wait. Upon leaving her, Ned told Alice that no matter what happened, they would have to stick together.
For awhile, Ned was lonely in Cleveland and unsuccessful in finding a job. He wrote to Alice constantly. He then moved to Chicago, made friends, met a woman whom he liked, and forgot about Alice. Alice, though, could not forget about Ned. At twenty-two, she took a job at Winney's Dry Goods Store soon after her father had died in order to save money and keep herself busy. Even when she was beginning to doubt Ned's return, Alice knew she could never give her body to anyone else after the night they had shared before Ned left. In her loneliness, she would imagine things to say to Ned and reasons to save her money for him. Ned's last words echoed in her mind, causing Alice to weep. At the age of twenty-five, Alice's mother remarried, further isolating Alice in her loneliness. Alice realized that she would become peculiar if she stayed so much from people so she joined the Winesburg Methodist Church and The Epworth League. When a middle-aged man, Will Hurley, offered to walk her home from a prayer meeting, she did not protest although her loyalty remained with Ned. She needed company and affection.
By the time Alice reached twenty-seven, when George Willard was only a boy, she was overcome by restlessness. She would arrange her bed so that it appeared as a person lay within it. One night, she arrived home to find the house empty. She undressed in her dark room. Standing by the window naked, she was possessed by a strange desire and ran outside. Alice had not felt so young in years and she wished to run through the streets naked. She wanted to make contact with another lonely human so she cried out to an old man walking past. He was partially deaf and did not hear her clearly. In her embarrassment, she fell to the ground, trembling. After he had gone, Alice crawled back to her house and into her room and wept. In anguish, Alice wondered what was wrong with her. She realized that even people in Winesburg must live and die alone.
Alice, paralleling the struggles of the other grotesque characters we have encountered, is very quiet on the exterior while a passion boils underneath. She is an illustration symbolizing Anderson's greater idea and the theories set forth by the old writer of the prologue. Alice Hindman is limited by life denying truths and guilty of allowing them to run her life. She believes in love and tradition absolutely. Though an honorable effort, the narrator himself condemns Alice for her narrowsightedness in dealing with her loneliness. He states, "for all of her willingness to support herself [Alice] could not understand the growing modern idea of a woman's owning herself and giving and taking for her own ends in life." Alice's blindness to the changing social mores limits her capacity to progress forward in life. She becomes consumed instead by the idea of herself and her memories. If she cannot have Ned, she will have no other.
This extremity of emotion brings her downfall. Her tendency to limit her own abilities by her nature of fixed habits or unmovable convictions isolates Alice from her community and distorts her features. She had once been a beautiful girl but grows into a woman with a head too large for her body. This is symbolic of her self-consumption. She grows to support the theme of life in death, living within her own imagination and memory to the point that her head is nearly expanding under the stress. She denies herself the reality of life by narrowing the experience to a dream world. By making absolute convictions, Alice refuses to meld her worlds of dream and reality together. Will Hurley, the man who walks her home from Church meetings, is an impostor into her narrowly constructed universe and thus she does not want to allow him to get close. Alice holds on to Ned and his promised love as an absolute truth.The reader understands Alice as a universal figure even though her extremity of conviction is rare. As Anderson felt was worthy of expressing, all humans wish to love and be loved. Once Alice finds what she believes to be love, she cannot let it go. Ned is simply the vessel for this desire. The two love and lust for each other, interchangeably, because it makes them feel good not because of any deeper feelings. The narrator relates, "[Ned] became excited and said things he did not intend to say and Alice, betrayed by her desire to have something beautiful come into her rather narrow life, also grew excited." Once Ned no longer symbolizes the love as a person Alice desires, he becomes the metaphor for it, a form of metonymy. The narrator tells us that Alice did not want Ned or any man, but to be loved. We realize that the void Alice has created by adhering to an absolute truth is a love for herself.
Alice makes two attempts at rebirth, aligning with Anderson's use of archetypal patterns to show man's break from ritual. Alice first tries to start anew when her mother is remarried because she feels further isolated. Thus she joins new groups and attempts to recreate ties to her community. However she is unable to pass beyond her limiting life-denying truth. The second time is the climax of the short story. Rebirth is described more physically as Alice strips herself of her clothes and notes how much she would like to run naked like a newborn baby and feel another lonely human's body against her own. She calls out to any man, but the man walks on. The denial of Alice's cry for help symbolizes the cry of disillusioned modern man in a time of anesthetized materialism and industrialism. The episode ends, as is typical, cyclically and statically. Alice reaches the point of loneliness by the end which had been described in the beginning because, regardless of her attempts to move on, her search for communal bonds and humanity have been fruitless.
The narrator compares Wash Williams to a huge, ugly monkey one would see caged in a city park during summer. Anyone in Winesburg would have immediately identified such a monkey with Wash as he too was large and gruesome. Everything about Wash was dirty except for his hands. Wash was the telegraph operator of Winesburg. He had once been the best operator in Ohio, but in his current state he had been demoted to Winesburg. He rarely associated with the townsfolk except when he attended the saloon where he would drink huge quantities of beer before stumbling to his room at the New Willard House. He hated the people of the town. Women he viewed as bitches and men he pitied for being led around by bitches. Little attention was paid to Wash though once Mrs. White complained to the main operator's office about the uncleanliness of Wash's office but it came to nothing. The superintendent was determined to keep Wash employed out of a certain respect for him. The reason for Wash's hatred was told by Wash only to George Willard.
George had felt a profound curiosity whenever he looked into Wash's sunken face at the New Willard House. George sensed that although Wash was usually silent, he had something to say to George. One evening, George took a walk with Belle Carpenter and passed by the yard near the train station where they saw Wash apparently asleep. The next night, Wash and George took a walk down to the railroad tracks. They sat in silence until George asked Wash about his past. Wash angrily explained that his wife was dead as all women were dead to him. As the darkness fell, Wash's voice became lower and more monstrous. Yet, George sensed a poet in Wash and he was mesmerized. Wash revealed that he would tell George the story of his wife because he saw George kissing Belle Carpenter and did not want George to make the same mistake he had.
When young and handsome, Wash had married a girl whom he loved deeply. They moved to Columbus, Ohio because Wash was promoted to the job of dispatcher. Wash had managed to remain virginal until after marriage and he and his wife would spend their time together planting seeds in their new garden. Wash cherished his wife and would kiss her ankles as they planted. After two years, he discovered that his wife had acquired three lovers who would come to the house while Wash was working. Devastated, Wash silently sent his wife home with the money he had saved. When he sold the house, he sent that money as well. Soon Wash received an entreaty from his mother-in-law to visit. He waited in their parlor for two hours, wishing to forgive and forget his wife's betrayal. His wife finally entered the room. She was naked, stripped by her mother. The woman stood staring at the floor, ashamed, while her mother waited in the hallway. Wash paused in his storytelling before relating to George that he had not killed his wife's mother. Instead, Wash had only struck her with a chair before the neighbors ran in. Regretfully, he noted that his wife's mother died of a fever soon after. He would never have the chance to kill her. Sitting and listening, George felt as if he too had become "old and shapeless."
The narrator takes greater control of this story from the beginning than he does in the majority of stories. Casually, he speaks directly to the reader and attempts to personalize the story. The reader then feels he can relate to the narrator and will more easily see the characters through his point of view. The hope is to make the reader feel as if she knows a man like Wash Williams. By introducing Wash as a figure which symbolizes a creature whom we all have ogled at, Wash becomes one of our own -- a grotesque of our own imagination, our own consciousness, and our own being, As the old writer of the prologue took people he knew in his own life and distorted them to fit into his idea of existence, the narrator is now asking the reader explicitly to do the same with Wash. One could say the universality of most of Winesburg's characters have asked the reader to personalize their figures but here the narrator has made the request explicitly. Wash is a figure so grotesque outwardly that he is compared to a purple, bloated monkey. And yet we must empathize with him once we learn his story. The theme of self in relation to the universe is expanded in this case as we must expand our definitions of self to include a man who pushes the boundaries of humanity to the extent that he is compared to an ugly animal. Similar to how an ugly monkey is put on display in a park and caged for viewers to judge is an understated reminder for the reader to be on guard. These figures are on display, are caged, and we are continually judging them and yet they symbolize each and everyone one of us. Furthermore, the monkey is described as whole and as beautiful in a way. The text states, "In the completeness of his ugliness [the monkey] achieved a kind of perverted beauty." This understanding functions a couple of ways for the reader. The hatred that Wash feels when we meet him and the love he had felt for his wife previously are absolute and thus beautiful but perverted. The absoluteness of his love and hate are unreconcilable and distort his emotive capabilities. Moreover the beauty of the monkey's ugly wholeness foreshadows how Wash will function a a character. The story he relates to George of his past is filled by ugly curses and spits of hatred. Yet, the narrator tells how George was mesmerized by its loveliness and poetic quality. Distorted and ugly, Wash's features melt away as he tells his story. A beauty underlies it which surpasses the grotesque and establishes a paradox. The narrator describes, "There was something almost beautiful in the voice of Wash Williams, the hideous, telling his story of hate."
The physical exterior of Wash further highlights the beauty of his inner character which has been betrayed by a life-denying hold on an absolute understanding of the world. Wash is an incredibly dirty man except for his fingers. The flawed narrator almost forgets to tell the reader about Wash's hands but then realizes he has left them behind. His shapely fingers are a form of synecdoche, representing the whole gentle and beautiful quality of man which lay beneath Wash's surface of dirtiness and hate. Ironically, Wash's name implies one who cleans. The name implies that the reader should wash away the exterior grime and find the beauty which lays beneath. George, as always, is the only character deemed worthy to be shown the beautiful, poetic underbelly of Wash. Wash feels a symmetry with George because of a kiss Wash witnesses between George and Belle Carpenter. George's presence allows the old man to tell his story of betrayal. His wife, a symbol of fertility, had deceived him. She held the seeds as they planted in the garden. This heavily symbolic action results in no fertilization and Wash's wife looks to other sources. Yet Wash still wants the woman until her mother strips her naked in front of him. Wash's innocence, symbolized by their life in the garden, alluding to the Garden of Eden, is destroyed and Wash's reality is ruined. His hatred has grown from his modern sense of disillusion as he is stripped from love and community in one fell swoop.