Winesburg, Ohio Summary and Analysis

Hands, Paper Pills, Mother

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"Hands" Summary

"Hands" is the story of a fat, old, little man named Wing Biddlebaum who lives mainly isolated from the town life of Winesburg, Ohio. He remained a mystery to the majority of the town after moving there twenty years before. Often frightened, he would hear ghostly voices personifying his doubts. He would sit on the outskirts of the town in his little house and watch the youth. He spoke closely only with George Willard, the boy reporter of the Winesburg Eagle. George would occasionally walk to his house in the evenings and Wing looked forward to these times. Only with George would Wing become alive, walking into town or talking loudly and feverishly above the whisper he normally used.

He spoke mainly with his hands which flew in excitement. Their movement was fidgety and restless, compared by a poet to the wings of a bird, giving him his name. Normally, Wing attempted to keep his hands hidden. He looked at others' calm hands in amazement. When he spoke with George, he would harness their energy by making fists and beating them against walls or fences. The town was proud of Wing's hands like one is of any novelty. George wished to know why Wing restrained his hands and why he seemed almost frightened by their power. He nearly asked one day when Wing was very excitedly talking to him about George's propensity for being too easily influenced by the townspeople. Wing wanted him to think and act for himself, and not to be afraid to dream. Wing's involvement with his lecture led him to reveal his hands without noticing. While talking in earnest, they touched George's shoulders and caressed him. Fear suddenly crossed Wing's face and he ran quickly back home.

Wing had previously lived in Pennsylvania as a school teacher named Adolf Myers who was loved by the boys he taught because of his gentle power. He spoke dreamily and with his hands and voice tried to convey that dream into the hearts of the young boys. He caressed their shoulders and tousled their hair. Through his hands, he expressed himself and the boys began to dream instead of doubt. One boy came along who yearned for the teacher and dreamt of unspeakable things at night, spreading his dreams through the town as truth. Fears of Adolph were substantiated. The boys confirmed that he had played with their hair and touched their shoulders. One father beat Adolph and at night, the town came forth to drive him from it, nearly hanging him. He gathered a new last name from a box of goods and lived in Winesburg with an aunt until she died. Wing was only forty-five but looked much older. He felt ashamed for his hands, though unsure of what he had done wrong. He paced on his veranda after leaving George until the sun set and then ate and prepared for bed. George acted as his medium of expression and Wing missed his presence. Crumbs of white bread littered the floor. He picked them up nimbly and rapidly, appearing in the low light like a priest with his rosary beads.

"Hands" Analysis

Wing provides us with the first in-depth look at the character as a grotesque. The young thing inside the old writer created the figures, one of which is Wing Biddlebaum. As is ordinary in Anderson's short stories, the grotesque figure has become old before his time due to the tiring and stressful circumstances which he has endured in life. Most of the figures share the similar history of a failed passion in life, of some kind or another. Many are lonely introverts who struggle with a burning fire which still smolders inside of them. The moments described by the short stories are usually the moments when the passion tries to resurface but no longer has the strength. The stories are brief glimpses of people failing.

Wing's hands are a manifestation of his being grotesque. They are a form of metonymy if one understands grotesque as awkward and strange. But Anderson more largely explored the figure of the grotesque. According to his theories, a grotesque was one who grasped a truth of the world too independently and too completely and thus failed. Anderson's grotesque is one who is ineffectual in communication, one who fails at expression. Wing's hands CAN express Wing's feelings, he just does not allow them to. Moreover, the hands are a symbol of the old writer from the prologue. Wing's hands had once been his medium of expression like a pen or typewriter is writer's medium of expression. We are told that Wing's hands are quick and skillful; he is talented. But his skill is tainted and feared - grotesque - giving the reader another perspective through which to view the act of writing itself and through which to understand the hand of the book's author.

The reader understands Wing as a harmless, sensitive man who is frightened by his own passions. He tends to be misunderstood by the people around him. We are endeared to Wing especially after learning about the circumstances which brought him to Winesburg. He urges George to dream and follow his own heart without giving into the influence of the townspeople. This parallels the life he had led as a school teacher before the scandal. The similarity of circumstances leads to his fear arising and his need to flee from George. But, we are soothed by the fact that the passion, the young woman inside of Wing, is still alive even though it has been chased out of one town and lives in fear in another.

Still, Wing has failed. He had lived a content life as a school teacher until his dreams had been dashed. Then, he was unable to fight back and nearly was killed. The moment with George Willard which is highlighted in the short story occurs as a result. Wing comes close to finding that life within himself again. With George, Wing can act openly. George's role as the medium will reoccur throughout the collection of stories. He will be the link between reader and grotesque figure, allowing us to see inside of each for one glaring instant and to view the living passion which had once driven them. When Adolph Myers flees to Winesburg and becomes Wing Biddlebaum, he is afraid to express himself through his hands and gestures as he once had with the boys he taught. This all changes when Wing is around George. In George's presence, Wing is feels freer to be himself. George makes whole the ineffectual attempts at communication with which Wing struggles.

"Paper Pills" Summary

Doctor Reefy was an old man who had once been a doctor. The knuckles on his large hands looked like wooden balls when he made a fist. He was tall and had worn the same suit for ten years. He had been married to a dark, beautiful, wealthy girl for less than a year before she died. After her death, he would sit in his office all day long and smoke a pipe with the windows closed. He was a man with an inner fire. While sitting, he would create pyramids of truth before tearing them down. When thoughts occurred to him, he would write them down on scraps of paper and shove them into his pockets. His pockets would fill with these scraps, forming balls, until he developed a truth out of the thoughts. The truth would grow to terrible proportions and then Doctor Reefy would destroy that truth and begin again with the bits of paper.

The story of Reefy's courtship with the dark girl is similar to the sweetness hidden in the gnarled twisted apples of Winesburg. The girl had visited the Doctor because she was pregnant and frightened. After the death of her parents, many suitors had pounced upon her due to the inheritance she gained. They all spoke to her about passion except for two men, one who spoke to her about virginity and the other who would silently move her into the darkness to kiss her. The girl figured she would marry the first of the two suitors until she began to fear that his passion was the most intense of all. She dreamt of him biting into her and then became pregnant by the silent suitor.

Once she had visited Doctor Reefy, she did not want to leave his side. The Doctor was to the girl like the sweet hidden part of a twisted apple. She waited in his reception area while he pulled the teeth of a woman from the town. The doctor then took her for a ride in the country. They spent the next couple of weeks together. The girl's pregnancy passed during an illness. They married in the fall and the Doctor read his little scraps of paper to her over the winter. She died that spring.

"Paper Pills" Analysis

The descriptions provided by Anderson are often quite intentional. It seems almost silly to even question whether his character descriptions would be intentional however, it is important to note that the details he gives are given for a reason, often symbolic. Also, they allow Anderson to illustrate the voice of the narrator, who is by no means a perfect or wholly objective voice. He or she appears to be rather judgmental and could even be said to invent much of the stories he (gender chosen for simplicity) tells. The implications behind many of the events or conversations or intentions could not have been determined by a narrator unless he was omniscient and this narrator admits speedily that he is not. During the last vignette, "Hands", he confesses, "And yet that is but crudely stated. It needs the poet there" (31). Thus the narrator knows that he is flawed and that other narrators of a more cultured upbringing may have done the characters a greater justice.

Anderson was purposely writing in a more simplistic, common American tone and would occasionally replace his prose with a more antiquated or colloquial style. Still, the words he chooses and the product he creates is far from rough. Critics generally refer to his style of writing as lyrical prose as the flow is consistently melodic and well structured. It rolls easily to the reader while retaining a high quality of language. Thus an ironic perspective is given to the narrator who is illustrating through his own voice the grotesque qualities of the people of Winesburg while battling with the grotesque within himself while simultaneously the reader knows that Anderson is controlling and adding irony to the narrator. The narrator becomes another of Anderson's character sketches.

In "Paper Pills", the knuckles are first focused on by the narrator. After reading "Hands", this characteristic strikes the reader immediately because the knuckles are so closely associated with the hands. Anderson's figures tend to have extremely awkward and grotesque features, functioning as a form of metonymy, which loom from their bodies. We are told that the knuckles look like wooden balls but then the focus shifts and we nearly forget about the knuckles. Is this merely an overview by the flawed narrator? Or, does Anderson hint at a connection between the knuckles and the paper pills which the narrator misses?

The image of the wooden balls parallels the balls of paper which form in the Doctor's pockets en masse before he empties them out. This man carries around heavy thoughts concerning the world which weigh him down in much the same manner as his overbearing knuckles. The knuckles foreshadow the odd tendency of the man to take ideas from the air and form them into balls of truth. Remember back to the old writer of the prologue who had a parallel theory to that of the Doctor. Thoughts form into truths which them become too dominant and great for their own good and must be destroyed. Much like the twisted apples, metaphors for the twisted truths construed by the Doctor, the thoughts begin as fertile wholes, but become distorted and hide their sweetness. He must spill out the paper balls as the truth becomes too dominant and the paper fills his pocket.

On a much smaller level, Parcival plays this out in his own life. He feeds on the creation and destruction of a world of truths and his life functions for the reader as a microcosm of the old writer's role in the book. The old writer created the figures, but never gives them wholeness in their lives. Like the truths, he builds them up and then tears them down. In this manner, the figures are metaphors for the theory of universal truths created by the old writer. Parcival cannot be solely sustained by the pyramids of truths he constructs but must share them. The girl is easily another symbol of fertility, as she dreams vividly of being bitten into and then is quickly described as pregnant. She is his twisted apple (as he is hers), violated by the suitor, but hiding a sweetness, a truth, which the Doctor finds for himself. The narrator strips him of this life force rapidly and he is destined to sit in a stuffy office and dream of truths which can never be.

"Mother" Summary

The parents of George Willard, the boy reporter of the Winesburg Eagle, were Elizabeth and Tom Willard, the proprietors of the New Willard House hotel. Elizabeth walked listlessly around the old hotel and attempted to straighten up the drab surroundings when she had the energy. As a girl, Elizabeth had been passionate and restless. She had talked with the traveling men at the hotel about theater and had torrid affairs with them. Since then, some disease had killed the fire inside of her causing her to look older than forty-five. Her husband was ashamed of her and the state of disrepair she and the hotel presently stood in. He looked at both as a statement of his failure in life. Tom prided himself on being the leading Democrat in a town of Republicans.

An unexpressed, deep bond existed between Elizabeth and her son, although she remained quite timid around the boy. When George was out of the house, she would crouch in his room and pray to God that he would live to express meaning for the both of them and not become drab like herself. When George was at home, he would sometimes join his mother if she was ill. They would sit quietly in her room during the evening and look out the window. Often, they would watch a cat sneak into the bakery and the baker throw him out. Once, while alone, Elizabeth wept because the scene reminded her of her failed struggle in life. Frequently, George would sit with her in an awkward silence. She would tell him to play outside, trying to alleviate the awkwardness, and he would tell her he was going for a walk.

Elizabeth became very ill for a while and George did not visit her. She was worried by his absence and crept toward his room. She heard him inside speaking to himself. It pleased her to hear him like that as she thought it meant he had a secret striving for life as she had once had. George's door opened and his father stepped out. In the shadows, Elizabeth was infuriated to hear Tom tell the boy that he would have to wake up if he was to become successful like his father. Her weakness suddenly gone, Elizabeth strove to punish Tom and save her son from his influence. She had felt a general hatred toward Tom for years but now it became directed and Elizabeth decided she would stab him. After Tom died, she too would die.

Elizabeth decided she should look beautiful when she descended upon her husband. She found an old box of theater make-up. She would be like a tigress. She stood up to act when George entered and told her that he was leaving. She asked George if he thought he had to wake up and become a business man to feel alive. George was sad neither parent understood him. He explained that he just wanted to look at people and think. However, because of something his father said, it was important that George go away. His mother wanted to cry with joy but she no longer could. Elizabeth told him to go outside and George replied that he would take a walk.

"Mother" Analysis

The table of contents tells us that the short story, "Mother", is "concerning Elizabeth Willard" and thus we know to focus or analysis of the grotesque upon George's mother. The figure of Elizabeth functions as a perfect example of Anderson's theme of life in death. Similar to the life trapped inside of the old writer or the passion restrained within Wing Biddlebaum, Elizabeth Willard was once young and vital with big dreams but now is unable to communicate them or live effectively. Anderson gives a vague reason for her decline. He writes, "Šsome obscure disease had taken the fire out of her figure." Yet the woman has retreated into such anonymity because of this disease that she finds herself drab. She has become used to long periods of sitting silently and staring. Her lack of communication with the world mirrors a living death. She is threatened by all vitality except from her son. She gleans that he is vital from the fact that he likes to talk to himself. George is the seed which has the chance to germinate and revitalize her dashed dreams in life.

Note that Elizabeth had wanted to be an actress when younger and even then could only communicate with men from out of town. The theater men could not support her ideas of the theater life. Only the traveling men sustained these dreams and were apparently rewarded with sex. This act is only alluded to, but the narrator suggests it strongly by commenting, "It was always the same, beginning with kisses and ending, after strange wild emotions, with peace and then sobbing repentance." Thus, even in her wilder days, Elizabeth had an emotional passion inside of her which she did not know how to harness. She allowed herself to be used by the traveling men in order to satisfy a craving within herself for expression and attention. Yet it was ineffectual. We understand more than Elizabeth why she was the only one overcome by emotion after the lovemaking. Elizabeth had grabbed onto the absolute truth that acting and a theater life would be the ultimate escape for herself and refused to be distracted from this plan when men from the theater world told her that their life was not what she imagined. By holding onto this one supposed truth, she became grotesque, her disease acting as a metaphor for the grotesque which overcame her.

Another metaphor Anderson provides for the struggle of Elizabeth's character is the poor cat which is hated by Groff the baker. She wept when she identified with the cat's failure and the reader is given another vehicle through which to read her persona. She has tried to find the goodies in life, but has been thrown out the door and beaten down by life instead. As a figure, she has traveled the spectrum. She was wild and of ill repute in town when young and then drab and nearly anonymous when older. She is never able to find the happy medium, as none of Anderson's characters ever are. Even in her moments of action, such as when she decides to kill her husband, she must first take out her old theater make-up. This plan is inadequate because she is still grasping at an absolute sense of being. Instead of learning to be herself, she can only hope to impress Tom by masking her visage and playing the "tigress."

Playing an actress and covering herself in make-up symbolize Elizabeth's pretense. She should not look for singular events which symbolize or represent truths in the world. Her belief in her son rises in part from her notion that since George talks aloud to himself that he must have a passion for life as she once had. She is also pleased that he does not agree with his father's philosophy that he must wake up but she is mistaken to use two singular episodes as definitive in George's life. Furthermore, though she wishes strongly to show her happiness to George by weeping or crying out in joy, she is no longer able to produce emotion and resorts to the token response she uses to relieve an awkward moment. Her old passion is trapped within her or masked by pretense. Elizabeth is truly a sympathetic grotesque.