"The Philosopher" Summary
Doctor Parcival was a fat, unkept man who had a practice with few patients in Winesburg and yet he always seemed to have enough money. His eyes were peculiar, the left lid flapping like a window shade. He took a liking to George Willard and would come visit him immediately after the owner of the paper, Will Henderson, went to the saloon. He would smoke stogies and try to convince the boy to follow his advice. He was intent on making an acquaintance with George and would tell him long stories which George found very meaningful. Parcival had been in Winesburg five years since moving from Chicago. He got into a fight his first night in town. Since, he had worked and slept in his dirty office, eating whatever Biff Carter, the lunch room owner, felt like serving him.
Parcival told George tales of himself and how he had been a reporter like George in some unknown town. He gave hints to where he had lived but no more. His father had been placed in an asylum and his brother worked as a railroad painter and was continuously covered in orange paint. His mother liked his brother more than him even though his brother was mean and would not allow anyone to touch the money he brought home from work. His brother would spend the money frivolously and later send gifts to the family. Parcival was training to be a minister. He prayed often and gave his mother all the money from reporting, except for the few dollars he would steal from his brother's stash. When his father died, he traveled to the asylum and blessed his father's body. He told these tales for vague reasons, but mainly because he liked George and hoped he would not become a fool like himself. Parcival hoped to convince George to be like his brother, a superior being. His brother had been run over by a car and killed while drunk.
One day, an accident occurred in town and a little girl was thrown from a stagecoach. It was right before George made his daily visit to hear Parcival read from the book he was writing. Even though the girl was dead, people ran in search of doctors and someone ran up to Parcival. He refused to see the dead girl and then immediately feared the town would be incensed by his response. He did not know that no one had noticed. When George arrived, Parcival declared that he would definitely be hanged. Maybe not now, but someday. Parcival pleaded with George to pay attention to him and finish the book he had started. His message was simple and important, he felt. He wanted George to inform the world that all people are Christ and are crucified.
"The Philosopher" Analysis
This story is constructed to portray a multitude of paradoxical contradictions, implicitly and explicitly. The ironic contrasts relay the different emotions which are presented by the philosopher Dr. Parcival. To begin with, there are simple textual ironies which Anderson gives to Parcival in dialogue such as when he tells George about his family. Parcival says, "I studied to be a minister and prayed. I was a regular ass about saying prayers." The conflation of deep religiosity with a curse word is amusing and insightful. If we were to hear a minister say that he was an ass about prayers, we would be surprised. However, Parcival became a doctor instead of a minister. As a grotesque, Parcival could not lead the life he intended. The breaks and distortions in the lives of Anderson's figures are what makes them incomplete and grotesque.
How Parcival regards himself is also heavily laden with contradiction. Parcival is very self-centered. The narrator tells us that Parcival would relate to George long tales about Parcival himself. Yet, a paragraph later we are told that not only is Parcival incredibly dirty but he will eat anything, even the food Biff is unable to sell. It seems that Dr. Parcival is self-centered and yet cares nothing for himself. He is not self-conscious but self-centered? The analysis of the contradiction allows the reader to see into the heart of Parcival's personality. He lives inwardly, thinking and devising, but not truly taking part in the humanity around him. Note the grotesque description we are given of Parcival at the beginning of the story. Parcival's most noticeably awkward characteristic is the twitching left eye lid which flaps like a window shade. This lid is a form of metonymy, representing the whole of Parcival's character. He sees the world from inward out. His outward persona, his body and cleanliness, do not concern him. As often occurs in regard to Anderson's theme of life in death, Parcival lives only on the inside. The stories he tells George come from within and are his only living force. The book he is writing about all of man being Christ is much more important than his practice as a doctor. The lid as the shade of the eye implies that the eye symbolizes the window of the soul. Through his eyes, Parcival allows his soul to speak and tries to see into the soul of George Willard, with whom he feels he could share. Note that Parcival would appear at George's office immediately after Will Henderson left, almost as if he had been watching. The narrator is hinting that Parcival is in fact watching, whether physically or symbolically. Parcival can only function from within. He is turned inside out, twisted and irregular.
And yet, the story of Parcival is the story of universal man. In the state of modern man, anesthetized to normal social and personal emotions, one is not able to simply say what he feels or act as he wishes. Anderson's collection predated T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and other such works of the disillusioned modern sensibility which erupted in the United States after World War I. The distorted grotesque in Winesburg,Ohio was also an everyman, dealing with the issues and emotions humanity was facing at that time. Parcival searches George Willard out because he is the medium of communication in the town. Parcival needs for someone to listen to him and take him seriously. He has been looking out through his window shade in search of another soul to share his life and George fulfills that symbolic function. The stories he tells George are not important for his life specifically though he includes many details. The motivation for his storytelling is to express himself as a person to George, to try to make himself whole. He cannot give his exact locations in the story because as he comments, "it makes no difference." He is any man who needs someone to listen. Through his story, though, we learn of his ideas of a superior being and his wish to lead George in that direction. Even though Parcival's brother was killed without glory, he is under the delusion that a man who could control others and spend money any way he wished was a superior being. In the modern world, it seems that money and power rule.
The last major ironic contrast that we experience entails Parcival's theory that all people are Christ and all are crucified. It is greatly ironic that Parcival is worried that he will not be allowed to complete the book containing this idea if the town hangs him for being unchristian. He refuses to see a young, injured girl after an accident for no apparent reason. This could easily be considered evil and yet this man is proclaiming that he and all men are Christ! Anderson was stressing that the idea of religion had degenerated in the modern community. Instead of enacting the theories of his religion, Parcival has twisted it and distorted it. Parcival is not able to reach his fellow man with his theories so refuses to aid man when he is approached for help. The lack of courage is symbolic of the degeneration of the ties between man and community.
"Nobody Knows" Summary
George Willard had been nervously sitting in his office at the Winesburg Eagle during the day trying to think. Finally deciding to act, he sprang into the dark alleyways. Walking along the streets, he peered into each store and stumbled over the drunk lying in the alley. Skipping over the light, he ran in the darkness. He was afraid he would lose his courage before he got to Louise Trunnion's house. Stopping, he saw her washing dishes in the kitchen with her father. After a few minutes he got up the nerve to call her name. She asked why he was so sure she would want to see him and then told him she would meet him in a few minutes after she talked to her father. George felt frustrated because she had been the one to solicit his attention. That morning, he had received a letter from her saying she was his if he wanted her.
They walked silently together, George afraid to touch her. Finally he got up the nerve and words spilled from his mouth. He became the man and told her there was nothing to worry about. They crossed a bridge and walked along until they found boards upon which to sit. When George got back to town later that night, he was glad to find a man, Shorty Crandall, with whom to talk. He then walked toward the New Willard House, pausing to think how Louise had nothing on him. Nobody would ever know.
"Nobody Knows" Analysis
This story details George's mistaken rite of passage into manhood. In the beginning of the story, the narrator is purposely vague. Anderson's narrator provides a mock oral narration, in the style of Mark Twain. For example, Twain would create an environment for a storyteller in order to infuse his own voice and message. The narrator alternates between keeping his distance from the situations with an air of objectivity and having a propensity to speak directly to the reader at times. He is objective and yet subjective, telling the stories as he chooses. In this way, Anderson has made the narrator a character of the stories.
In this case, the narrator sets the scene by withholding certain information. The reader does not know why George is so nervous. She only understands that it is dark and George is anxious and feels he must sneak about. We get a taste for the underside of Winesburg at night - alleyways and drunkards lying in the street. George it seems is almost on a prowl like a predator. He is out for the hunt in a mock rite of passage. The narrator uses the word "adventure" to describe the mission George is on when he leaves the office. Note that Anderson applies this word for many of the characters to describe many of the moments they will experience. By providing this term, we note that an adventure for one of the grotesque characters is usually a minute experience, a trivial or insignificant event but one which involves a great amount of courage or anxiety on the character's part. An adventure is a journey to release the passion, the life within the death, for the grotesques. For George, this is the first time that we have read a story concerning him as the main character and not solely the medium of expression for others.
And yet, Anderson lists the story in the table of contents as "concerning Louise Trunnion". Thus it is a mistake to focus only on George. He is a window through which we can view the grotesque character of Louise Trunnion. She is being hunted. George stalks through the dark alleyways, representing the his anxiety, and then stands in the fields calling to Louise. She claims the upper hand. Not only had she sent George the letter claiming that she would be his but she plays hard to get when they meet. Nonetheless, George uses the opportunity to feel like a man and uses Louise as a conquest. The two teenagers are thrown together as a metaphor for the broken ties of community. The story is a mock look at the rituals of love and lust which control both of their moves as George wants to touch Louise because he can and Louise uses the situation to boost her confidence. About George, the text reflects his motives, "He became wholly the male, bold and aggressive. In his heart there was no sympathy for her." George has been fit into the archetypal mating pattern. Louise on the other hand deprecates herself in order to move closer to George. The text states, "'You think you're better than I am. Don't' tell me, I guess I know,' she said drawing closer to him." The weak and vulnerable female is taken advantage of by the masculine, controlling male.
The details of their lust are avoided by the narrator because it is not the point. The two moving in broken patterns express the changing society and mocks the traditional rites of passage to maturity for both characters. George feels extremely satisfied after the experience. He smokes a cigar and talks with a man. These symbolize his newly found masculinity and maturity. And yet the story ends with George afraid that he has changed his life too drastically and that Louise will have a claim on him now. He cannot yet accept the responsibility inherent in being an adult and forming valid relationships. The scene at the end shows George standing alone in the darkness. Louise is left behind and George has made zero strides toward maturity. The static episode illustrates that in the life of the grotesque nothing changes.