Up a dark stairwell stood Dr. Reefy's large, cluttered office. At middle age, the doctor was not as grey as he would become but his limbs were just as awkward. When George Willard was fourteen years old, his mother Elizabeth and Dr. Reefy were good friends. She would visit him because of her illness but they would spend most of the time talking about their thoughts, dreams, and griefs. Although their appearances and lives were quite different, the two were very similar. Older and more poetic, Reefy would describe their time together as a sharing of prayers to the gods they had independently created. Elizabeth became freer with her thoughts and desires the more often she visited. She would return home feeling more alive, remembering her youth as an adventurous though lust-filled time. Thinking of one lover, she wept recounting the words he repeated to her in passion: "You dear! You dear! You lovely dear!" She had always searched for a true love but never found it. Elizabeth thought of what Reefy had told her concerning love, that she must not make it an absolute truth. She thought too of her parents -- the early death of her mother and the emotional absence of her father until his tumultuous death. Her father could not communicate with Elizabeth except on his deathbed when he warned her to take the eight hundred dollars he had saved and escape marrying Tom Willard. He asked her to keep the money secret from Tom at the very least. His words infuriated Elizabeth and she married Tom. Many women her age had recently married and she felt that it was an appropriate time.
Telling Dr. Reefy this story, she recounted how she knew things were not right early on in her marriage. Once while riding out in her buggy and reflecting on whether to tell her husband about the money, she was struck by the need to escape. As it started to rain, she drove the horses at a terrible speed, finally jumping off and running until she fell and hurt her side. Elizabeth was both running from and toward something. During her storytelling, Elizabeth became young and beautiful to Dr. Reefy. Her strides around his office filled him with drunkenness and when she knelt next to him, he grabbed her and kissed her passionately. She tried to finish the story but he cried out to her, using the same words her past lover had. Just then, a man from the dry goods store below stomped up the stairs and into the room adjacent to the doctor's office. The lovers stood in panic until the man left and then Elizabeth ran out of the office. She was too overcome by emotion to stay. Dr. Reefy did not see her again until her death.
Four years later, Elizabeth was months from death but hungered for the release she had felt with Dr. Reefy. She would reach for death, wanting it to be her lover. The only reason she held death at bay was the money she had saved for her son. Near death, Elizabeth struggled for six days trying to tell her son about the means of his escape. The look in her eyes appealed to all who saw her, even her husband. The day she died, George was told by Dr. Reefy. He then left the house for a walk. He was annoyed more than sad because he had received a letter from Helen White and had wanted to visit her that evening. George finally returned to his house and found the doctor waiting in his mother's room. Dr. Reefy awkwardly left George alone in the room. George decided he would leave Winesburg for the city where he would work for a newspaper. His thoughts then revisited his annoyance and he pictured Helen White. Suddenly, he was overwhelmed by shame and looked at his mother. Lying beneath the sheet, she became younger, more beautiful, and more alive to him than he remembered her in life. George wanted to lift the sheet but his courage failed. He could not believe it was his mother. Leaving the room, George encountered Aunt Elizabeth Swift and, taking her hand, wept. Affected by some outside influence, he muttered the same old words of his mother's past lover and Dr. Reefy. The money Elizabeth had saved lay behind the plaster at the foot of her bed where she had hid it soon after marriage. She could not then let go of her dream for release, a release she would find only with Dr. Reefy and death.
With a title like "Death", one is not surprised that the imagery at the beginning of the story is dark and foreshadows tragedy. The tragedy however is made more acute because of the irony surrounding the dark foreboding imagery. The adjectives and descriptive verb phrases, such as "dimly lighted", "dirty", and "filled with rubbish," detail the tragic environment of Dr. Reefy's office. Even the simple language employed to describe the inside of Dr. Reefy's office gives the feeling to the reader of clutter and crowding as his tables were covered with objects and instruments. Thus, from these descriptions, the reader should expect a dark outcome.
The scene we find first though is one of release. The narrator is very vague because at this point it is especially important for the reader to draw their own conclusions and to focus on the human bond between Elizabeth Willard and Dr. Reefy. Take this sentence for instance: "On summer afternoons, when she had been married many years and when her son was a boy of twelve or fourteen, Elizabeth Willard sometimes went up the worn steps to Doctor Reefy's office." No specified day is given, the narrator is not accurate with how old George Willard is though he is a central figure to the book, and Elizabeth is described as "sometimes" visiting Dr. Reefy. Since we are told later how old Elizabeth is, it is possible to figure out George's age. So why be so intentionally vague? Is Anderson simply trying to reemphasize that the narrator is not omniscient? This kind of detail would be a pointless omission for the sake of characterizing the narrator. The narrator is so vague while telling this story because the specific details are not important.
The most significant part of that sentence concerns the worn steps. Earlier the narrator had explained, "The soft boards of the stairs had yielded under the pressure of feet and deep hollows marked the way." The stairs symbolize the lives of the two worn out humans who met to find release from their heavily patterned and confined lives. The surroundings are cluttered and imprinted, metaphors for their lives, but their meeting allowed them to transcend the patterns which followed them up and down the stairs. The life in death figures, as we have experienced them both to be in the earlier stories "Paper Pills" and "Mother", find release through each other. Their passion brings a feeling of renewal and rebirth. The text illustrates the life which escapes: "Now and then after a period of silence, a word was said or a hint given that strangely illuminated the life of the speaker, a wish became a desire, or a dream, half dead, flared suddenly into life." Elizabeth was reborn each time she was able to express herself with Dr. Reefy and finds herself feeling younger.
One of Elizabeth's largest failings was her tendency to place absolute faith in love. She had married Tom Willard because she thought it was time for marriage but she was always searching to true love and thought marriage might contain "some hidden significance." Her absolute faith in one truth was devised against ironically by Dr. Reefy (who in "Paper Pills" devises absolute truths regularly) who tells her "You must not try to make love definite." Marriage however did not hold the answer for Elizabeth because she entered into it for the wrong reasons. The lack of hidden significance she finds is a metaphor for the empty institutions of modern society. The point in Elizabeth's story which draws Dr. Reefy closest to her is when she relates to him the day she was trying to escape her life and almost killed her horse. This episode passion fails and injures her. The moment is a synecdoche for the grotesques who are always present in static episodes which, though often symmetrical in form, usually fail. The symmetry of Elizabeth's story is given by the saying of old lover. It symbolizes the dreams she once held but lost. Dr. Reefy and then George repeat this saying to her in the two moments of release, the two moments where she has found true lovers, Dr. Reefy and death.
In this way, George, though absent for the majority of the story while Elizabeth is alive, does function as a final medium for Elizabeth. By seeing the beauty in her soul as she lay under the sheet once dead and then repeating her beloved saying, Elizabeth is able to make the human connections which she was so often devoid of during life. We see her in "Mother" estranged from her son. They barely speak. The communion of their souls occurs most significantly after she has died because her son is able to voice the words which epitomize her dreams and happiness. Lastly, the box of money hidden by Elizabeth is symbolic of Elizabeth's grotesque life on Earth. Her father urged her to use the money to escape Winesburg or at least keep from Tom, so that it would someday open a door for her. Yet the box symbolically remains in place when she dies. Though it may aid George, Elizabeth could find very few open doors on Earth and except for a brief moment with Dr. Reefy, remained a life in death figure until she could grasp death as her lover. The title takes on a new symbolic meaningfulness.
It was still crowded in the streets on the evening in late fall of the Winesburg County Fair. George Willard tried to hide himself from the crowds. He was becoming more and more angry that Helen White was spending her time with a stranger from college. George was growing up and thoughts of being a man filled his head. He felt lonely as he contemplated his upcoming departure from Winesburg to a city where he hoped to work for a newspaper. After his mother's death, the feeling of maturity and loneliness had visited him often as it does with every boy at some point. Instead of being so headstrong and certain, the boy realizes that as a man he will face the whole world and he begins to doubt. As "[t]he sadness of sophistication has come," he sees himself lost in the trudges of humanity. The boy yearns for another human to make his pain less tender. In George's moment, he thought of Helen White. When he was eighteen, he had walked with her one night and boasted of his manhood but now felt foolish for bragging of something which had not yet existed. He had not known really what to say to her except that he would be big and she should try to also. Before she left that evening, he had mentioned that he had previously thought she would marry Seth Richmond but had been wrong. Helen had also matured since that night and felt many of the same feelings as George. She had gone to college in Cleveland but was home for the fair with a young instructor her mother had invited from school. She was pleased to be seen in his company but otherwise had no use for him and wished to talk to George. She too wanted to share with George her changed nature.
The streets were still very crowded and George felt suffocated when he thought of Helen with that man. The happiness of the crowds highlighted his loneliness. George paused in front of Wesley Moyer's livery barn where Wesley was boasting about his horse. However, instead of being interested as he usually was, George was irritated. Abruptly deciding to go to Helen's, George began to run. At Banker White's home, the instructor sat between Helen and her mother trying to impress them with his cosmopolitan airs. His words wearied Helen. She escaped to the house where she overheard her mother say that no one in town was fit for her. Frustrated, Helen ran down the back stairs and outside where she shouted for George and then fell against a tree, laughing anxiously. George was marching toward Helen's house, determined to walk right in, when he saw Helen outside and took her hand. Now he had to figure out what to say.
The two walked up to the deserted Fair Ground where the ghosts of the carnival goers who had passed through that day still haunted. They sat on the grand-stand thinking parallel thoughts of isolation. Of the two forces in man, the animal and the sophisticated, the latter was controlling George and Helen respected it. Though George was beginning to realize his triviality in the grand scheme, he was refreshed by Helen's presence. He wanted to love and be loved. Both George and Helen felt very lonely. As the town put away its wares and the people disappeared, the two sat in silence. They would kiss but not for long and finally rose and walked out into the corn. The spell was broken between them and after kissing again, they felt mutual respect. Embarrassed, the two started playing like young children or animals, rollicking and laughing. After Helen ran down a hill behind George she became solemn again and silently took his arm. The silent night together had satiated a great need in both of their lives.
The style and language of this short story make the piece one of the best crafted American short stories ever written. The lyrical beauty of the episodic and universal moments he touches upon are both explicitly and implicitly illustrated with great mastery and understanding. The story begins immediately symbolic. Anderson writes, "It was early evening of a day in the late fall" The identification of the setting being "evening" and "late fall" symbolizes to the reader that this will be a story about symbolic death. George Willard represents the typical, universal boy grown into manhood. He is nearly an allegorical figure in this manner, meaning more to the reader because of his decisions and actions than as a fully developed character. The narrator names him thus, "George Willard, the Ohio village boy, was fast growing into manhood and new thoughts had been coming into his mind." As George matures he increasingly feels more isolated, symbolizing the responsibilities of adulthood as well as the modern society into which he is growing. As the narrator stresses, "There is a time in the life of every boy when he for the first time takes the backward view of life." George is a metaphor for the universal rite of passage into modern adulthood. His other attempts to mature, the mock rites of passage, have all prepared him for this point. Most importantly, the reader must remember that Anderson writes not specifically here of George Willard but all man.
In the long, dense paragraph which details this connection to the universal figure of man, several allusions are made to earlier stories in the book. The tales of the grotesque of Winesburg, Ohio are metaphors for the moments in every person's life when they doubt themselves or wish they could express what they cannot or feel lonely. The narrator describes, "Suddenly something happens; he stops under a tree and waits as for a voice calling his name." This statement alludes to the story, "Nobody Knows" where George stops to listen for Louise Trunnion calling his name but is relieved to find he is imagining it. He did not yet hear the ghosts of his past and future providing him with doubts or misgivings as all experience when they are on the cusp of a major life change. Another allusion refers to the story, "Adventure" when Alice realizes that even in Winesburg, some people live and die alone. It is a sad reflection on the isolation of man in modern society because of shorn communal bonds and the break down of ritual pattern. In Sophistication, the text echoes, "He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty" George travels through the range of emotions and experiences in the moment of revelation he, and every boy, undergoes the universal grotesquerie in all of man.Winesburg is a microcosm for the fears, self-limitations, personal flaws, doubts, etc which "every boy" will experience. The narrator continues, "The eighteen years he has lived seem but a moment, a breathing space in the long march of humanity." Each story in Winesburg, Ohio is a moment, a static episode where little progress is made but a personality is illuminated. George's moment of realization of his limitations, his isolation, and his humanity acts synecdochally for the entire book.
The summer evening which George and Helen White remember spending together before Helen left for college is symbolic for each as decline of their childhood. George looks back at this night as an embarrassment because he could not say the things he wanted to say and because his explanation of his feelings to Helen was disconnected and childish. On the evening of the fall, the two stand on the cusp of adulthood and are able to bond in a more fulfilling manner. As George thinks of Helen the scene is described as broken and crowded, symbolizing the disunity, isolation, and crowded facelessness of the modern society he is entering. The imagery is not pleasing. The text states, "In the street the people surged up and down like cattle confined in a pen." George wanders back to a group of men talking about the horse, Tony Tip, an allusion to the story "A Man of Ideas". Usually he would enjoy hearing gossip and joining in the talk of the group, but he is bothered on this night and leaves. This episode is symbolic of George's departure from the pack. Helen is experiencing similar frustration because she stands at a parallel moment in her life. The meaninglessness of artificial conversation drives her away from the visiting college instructor and into the hands of George, a parallel figure. They both run from the society they know and are supposed to enjoy because they are moving away from their childhood.
Metaphorically, they walk to the end of their childhood, the decayed Fair Ground, where the ghosts of the town live still. The isolation of the world they are entering and the abrupt move from childhood into adulthood makes them happier to have each other. Looking at the deserted grounds, the figures touch upon the Waste Land theme which would later be recorded by T.S. Eliot. George felt "his own insignificance in the scheme of existence." George wishes to love and be loved as all humans do.The two find the changes of the symbolic "late fall" difficult to understand as all deaths are difficult. The passing of their childhood is reflected lyrically in the language as it describes the scene in broken imagery and detached impulses. In this manner, the text relates, "She embraced him eagerly and then again they drew quickly back from that impulse." They feel relieved to play together one last time as children but the story ends with their symbolic acceptance of their transcendence into an adulthood in a modern world.
One April morning, George Willard rose at four and prepared for his departure from Winesburg. He had lain awake since two reflecting on the journey he was to make. George's trunk was packed. He took a brown bag and walked out onto the streets under the sunrise. George headed down Trunion Pike where he had walked countless times and in all seasons during his youth. The land was now flat and green. He only walked two miles though and then returned to town. The store clerks asked him how it felt to be leaving. The train to Cleveland, where it connects to either Chicago or New York, departed at seven forty-five so George left the New Willard House at seven for the station. Tom Willard, now shorter than his son, carried George's bag. On the platform stood numerous townsfolk. Even his boss Will Henderson had awoke early enough. To George's embarrassment, they all shook his hand. Gertrude Wilmot, who had never paid attention to George, wished him good luck, echoing everyone's hope, and then left.
When the train arrived, George quickly jumped on, feeling relieved. Helen White ran up to the platform but George did not see her. The train conductor was friendly Tom Little. Tom did not say a word to George because he had seen many similar boys make similar journies. When George was sure no one was looking, he counted his money. He did not want to seem greedy. George remembered his father's last words, telling him to be sharp and watch his money. Looking up, George was surprised the train had not yet left. George's mind whirled, turning to trivial matters and avoiding any dramatic look at his departure. He pictured the daily life and people of Winesburg. Increasingly, he had a passion for dreams. He shut his eyes and when he looked up next, Winesburg had been left far behind.
In contrast to the seasonal symbolism of the last story, "Departure" begins in the spring when "young tree leaves were just coming out of their buds." The spring symbolizes rebirth and renewal. George's departure for the big city is a time of rebirth for him as he will start fresh, in his role as a man. He is leaving the nest, so to say, so the spring time is appropriate. The metaphor continues with the phrase, "The treesare maple and the seeds are winged." George is the seed who is flying off to a new soil. The scenery described is highly picturesque and symbolic of George's new birth. The language echoes archetypal patterns lyrically in elegiac form. One poetic sentence which is especially telling states, "The east was pink with the dawn and long streaks of light climbed into the sky where a few stars still shown." Looking around Winesburg before he leaves, George has not completely left his childhood behind, symbolized by the few stars of night remaining, but a new dawn has definitely risen. He walks down the streets of Winesburg remembering his past years but only so far before he turns around and returns to town. He does not continue down that road because he is moving on and separating himself from the days of his youth.
Tom Little, the conductor, is described mainly because of his job. He allows the reader to understand George's universal thematic position as a boy leaving his childhood to move into adulthood. When he takes George's ticket, he does not say anything to him because his departure is not extraordinary. For the rest of the town, George's departure signifies the leaving of their medium for communication. They shake his hand, but do not know what to say until Gertrude Wilmot voices it for them. The departure of the hero though will create a void in the lives of the grotesques. Symbolically, they must learn to speak for themselves.
The reader must contemplate what it means for the heroic main character to leave. The stories feel more conclusive because of this action. It is not a static episode for the first real time in the book. George escapes the symmetry of the stories which cyclically return the reader to the start in some manner at the end of the episode. This story is not cyclical, but linear. The train pulls away from the station - it progresses - and George's mind, though focusing some on the people of Winesburg, departs toward his dreams. Winesburg will be a tableau, a background for him, as Anderson hoped it would be for the reader. The intention was for the readers to draw ideas to think about, not absolute truths.