Cowley & Son's store was run by Ebenezer Cowley and his son, Elmer. The family had lived on a farm for many years but had since moved into town to run the store. The father, son, and daughter, Mabel, lived above it. The store sold odds and ends which Ebenezer bought from traveling salesmen, often because he was too frightened to turn the salesmen down. Other times, Ebenezer would reject items before he was told what they were because of his fear. As a result, the store was made up of peculiar items which rarely sold. One day, Elmer sat in the back of the store trying to thread a new lace through his shoe. Standing, he could see into the Winesburg Eagle printshop where George Willard was looking about. Elmer felt like he was being watched and was furious. A salesman was at the front of the store trying to convince Ebenezer to buy metal collar fasteners. Angered by the scene, Elmer leapt up, grabbed a revolver from its case, and swung it toward the salesman. They did not need any fasteners, Elmer told the man; they were done being fools. The salesman stumbled out. Elmer turned to his father, replacing the gun but reiterating what he had said. Ebenezer stood in shock and muttered, "I'll be washed and ironed and starched!" The boy was infuriated and ran out.
Elmer wandered down to his old farm, thinking of how he no longer wanted to be viewed as queer. He wanted to be like other people, like George Willard. He viewed George Willard as a typical citizen of Winesburg. George symbolized the town and Elmer knew that the town judged him. At the farm, he saw the half-witted man, Mook, and called him over. Mook, the first to use the "washed" expression now used by Elmer's father, had remained after the Cowleys. He listened patiently to Elmer's ranting about the queerness of the Cowleys. For example, his father wore a ridiculous Prince Albert coat everyday which had been purchased for his marriage but was now old and tattered. Unlike his sister, Elmer refused to allow the queerness to continue when he knew better. By the end of his rant, Elmer was yelling. He declared that he would stand up to someone like George Willard. Otherwise, Elmer would be a coward just like Mook. As Elmer ran off, Mook echoed the "washed" expression and talked to the cows. That evening, Elmer peeked inside of the Eagle office and told George to come out and talk to him. George followed, eager with curiosity. Elmer tried to talk, flailing his limbs about him, but he could not. Finally, he shrieked at George that he had nothing to tell him.
Elmer wandered the streets, dismayed by his failure to stand up to George, when a new idea struck him. He would leave town on the midnight train to Cleveland and find a job there. In a big city, Elmer would be unrecognizable and able to act normal and make friends. He decided to find George before he left and explain things. Maybe he would challenging George and, thus, all of Winesburg. Elmer snuck into Cowley & Sons and took two ten-dollar bills from the stash of hundreds. He then had the boy night clerk at the New Willard House wake George and send him to meet Elmer at the train. When George arrived, Elmer tried again to explain but only his father's and Mook's senseless expression fell from his lips. He thrust out his hand with the ten-dollar bills and yelled at George to give them back to his father. Then, Elmer's fists began to fly, hitting George over and over until George fell to the ground. Jumping onto the train and running to a flat car, Elmer sighed with pride. He had finally showed the town that Elmer was not queer.
The message which lies beneath this story focuses on the issue of acceptance. Elmer Cowley yearns to be considered normal, like the rest of the town. Symbolically, the episode begins with Elmer noticing the flaws in his shoe and sock apparel when he looks up to see George Willard, apparently looking at him. In Elmer's mind George represents the town. He is a synecdoche for the town, being only part of its citizenship but standing for the whole because he is a typical citizen with whom Elmer relates the sensibilities of the town. The narrator explains, "George Willard, [Elmer] felt, belonged to the town, typified the town, represented the spirit of the town." It is a sweeping generalization as we have experienced firsthand the many abnormal characters of Winesburg. How could one character typify the many distorted qualities? Yet George is the member of town to whom most people look for release. Seth Richmond, George's good friend, feels detached from his own town and wishes he could be like George and participate in the town's life more readily.
For the reader, we are introduced to many of the grotesque figures more fully through George as a medium and so in this manner, it is a proper identification to align George with Winesburg. Symbolically, he is the essential grotesque, aware of all the grotesque aspects of his town but still unable to escape being a grotesque as well. When Elmer looks up from his feet to see George, his isolation from town is metonymically emphasized to him. Elmer feels queer because he is a metaphor for the theme of the disconnected bonds of man, struggling forward against insolation in a modern world. The passion Elmer holds inside of himself as a tragic Winesburg grotesque, thematically a figure of life in death, is released due to the anger which welled up in him from seeing George. He is tired of being looked at differently by the town (George as the metonym) and strikes at his father for following the same queer patterns he cannot escape from.
The shoes and socks Elmer focuses on in the beginning are also symbolically significant because they represent a journey to be taken. Elmer runs away from the store and back to his old farm after yelling at his father. Returning to a place of childhood, Elmer tries to resurrect a type of archetypal rebirth, giving him the freedom to express himself as George Willard is able. Ironically, he feels he can only talk Mook, described as a "half-wit" who talks to animals. Even in this vein, Elmer recognizes the expression of his feelings has failed because he is not using it to produce any change or remedy his self-pity. He must speak to George because George is symbolically the medium for more effective communication and metonymically a boy equated with the sensibility of the entire town.
When Elmer finally tries to speak to George, his body quakes with a fear parallel to the fear of his father when dealing with salesmen. The quotation about being laundered used by Ebenezer and Mook finds its way to Elmer's mouth when he is under pressure, creating a parallel and tragic moment in the life of the son. Elmer makes another attempt at rebirth and hopes to speak his feelings when he decides to leave Winesburg and start over. Elmer's goal comments on the state of modernity as he wishes to move to a city where he can lose his identity. The text states, "when he got to Cleveland [he] would lose himself in the crowds there. He would get work in some shop and would be indistinguishable. Then he could talk and laugh." Elmer mistakenly combines the isolation of modern society as is symbolized by the industrialized and "indistinguishable" man with creating communal bonds of friendship. In the end, George does not know why Elmer felt the need to punch him. Elmer further estranges the bonds of humanity instead of drawing them closer in this ironic finish to the story. Elmer hopes to have progressed, showing George his normalcy, but instead gives George no communicable message. The episode remains static although Elmer leaves town. The passion within Elmer has manifested itself but it has made no effect on George, or, metonymically, the town. The repetitive use of the laundered quotation smartly and tragically presents a textual contrast to the disunity stressed thematically.
"The Untold Lie" Summary
Ray Pearson and Hal Winters were farm hands who worked together but were of very different characters. Ray was quiet and nervous whereas Hal was younger and fiery. Hal came from a bad family. His father was killed by a train while driving drunk. The entire town thought old Windpeter Winters crazy except for boys like George Willard and Seth Richmond who found the man brave. Hal himself was remembered for his drunken fist fight with Windpeter after Hal had frivolously spent his money. Furthermore, Hal was rumored to have gotten many women in trouble. He was a bad one. As Ray and Hal worked together, one would occasionally comment to other and they would laugh. Usually, though, there was silence.
One day, Ray was especially quiet because he was affected by the beauty of the landscape. His hands were chapped so he would rest for periods and stare off thinking. Mumbling, he thought back to his young, wandering days such as when he met his wife. He had taken a girl for a ride and it had changed, trapped, his whole life. Sensing his thoughts, Hal asked Ray if marriage was worth the sacrifice. Hal became excited at the thought and burst forth, telling Ray that he had gotten Nell Gunther into trouble. Standing together like a picture, Hal sensed the solemn, alive moment and asked Ray what he should do. Hal knew the right thing to do but wanted to know what Ray thought. But, Ray could not respond. All of his training told him how he should reply but he could not do it. Later in the day, Ray was working behind the barn when his wife came and called to him. Following her home, Ray could not put his finger on what was wrong but the beauty of the countryside made him angry and he wanted to hit his wife. It was not really her personally though that was the problem. When they reached home, Ray's wife nagged him to go for groceries and not putter as was his tendency.
Ray left for town as the sky darkened and the world came alive to him. It was too beautiful. Suddenly, he threw off his old overcoat and ran across the field, shouting a protest against the ugliness of life. Ray would tell Hal not to pay the same price he had. He thought about all the things in his life he had planned but never accomplished, such as moving west. He had never wanted to be a farm hand. Ray imagined his children clutching and grabbing at him as he ran to warn Hal about the accidents of life. When Ray found Hal, however, he lost his nerve. Hal ran up to Ray and shook him, crying that he would not be a coward. He would take responsibility for Nell and marry her because he wanted to. Ray wanted to laugh. Walking home, Ray picked up his overcoat. Ray must have thought fondly of his children because he told himself that it was better that he had not lied to Hal Winters.
"The Untold Lie" Analysis
This story is very close thematically to Anderson's own life because of a singular episode that Anderson experienced and then held to be pivotal years later. Anderson had a mental breakdown due to marital, work, artistic, etc stress when he was managing a paint factory. He left his office one day and was not seen again for days. He turned up in Cleveland days later, disheveled and disoriented, and taken to a hospital. Though most likely a mental episode Anderson had no control over, he turned this disappearance into an epiphany he had experienced. He said he had consciously broken from the industrial humdrum of his life brought on by the isolating factors of a modern society as well as his personal responsibilities in order to be free to follow a more artistic, bohemian lifestyle where he could write as a profession. Regardless of how little he truly followed this path after the incident, in Anderson's writings and to many of his followers, this was a climactic moment in Anderson's life which brought him to writing and gave many of the younger generation a reason to look at him as a model.
The "Untold Lie" tells of a somewhat parallel mind set which occurs in Ray Pearson's life when he realizes that does not wish to remain a slave to his responsibilities. The narrator details his thoughts at this point, "[Ray] was thinking of that afternoon and how it affected his whole life when a spirit of protest awoke in him." Ray recognizes that he does not have to continue in the line his life is taking him. He feels he has been tricked.When he and Hal talk about Hal's future responsibility to Nell Gunther, he tries to tell Hal the right thing but is unable to. His consciousness has been altered and he wishes to be free from the constraints of a modern society. As a grotesque it is not a surprise that Ray should have trouble saying something but this moment is slightly different because Ray's silence represents his protest. Ray feels detached from his life, burdened from it instead of fulfilled. Symbolically Ray approaches his freedom when he strips himself of the torn overcoat he had been wearing as he was running an errand to the store. He drops the coat and takes off running across a field. The torn overcoat is symbolic of his tattered, old existence as an unhappy man in an unwanted station of life. He remembers he had never even wanted to be a farm hand; he had wanted to go out West. He is not able to even recall this old dream until he strips himself of the coat which is a metaphor for his family life as a farm hand.
Ray is a character who functions within the theme of Winesburg as a microcosm for the universal. Anderson turned his breakdown into a heroic venture but in reality it was beyond his control and a result of mental illness. Ray teeters on this line as well, stripping himself of all responsibility, but as most humans, unable to go through with an escape from his life. Like most humans, Ray has had to give up on some of his dreams and compromise and adjust as his life continued. This is not unusual. The episode is indeed static as Ray finds himself not even to tell Hal what has happened. Hal, the narrator told us, "shook the old man as he might have shaken a dog that had misbehaved." And this is Ray's tragedy. Following the life in death theme, Ray has not only suppressed his own dreams but he has given up an identity. He is compared to a dog through simile because Ray has shown only the ability to follow what others are telling him. He follows his wife home and then runs to the grocery store because she told him to. The only moment he breaks from this is when he refuses to tell Hal to do what is right. Yet when Hal says he is going to do what is right, Ray has lost the power to protest and the life dies back inside of him.
Walking home, Ray retrieves his coat, symbolic of his acceptance and submission into his unsatisfying lifestyle. As many people would do, he persuades himself that his cry for freedom was a lie. Yet the narrator's description of Ray's figure as the piece closes tells a different story. The text states, "then his form also disappeared into the darkness of the fields." The symbolic imagery of the darkness of the fields swallowing Ray up is a metaphor for his reintegration into a world where he lacks identity and self-fulfillment. The darkness foreshadows unhappiness and the disappearance symbolizes his position as an isolated, indistinguishable man of modern society. The contrast of pastoral imagery compared to the beautiful, light scenery described earlier in the story is great. Reflecting Ray's time of awakening and escape, the narrator continually expresses Ray's amazement at the beauty of the land. The symbolic connection is illustrated by the text, "Every time [Ray] raised his eyes and saw the beauty of the country in the failing light he wanted to do something he had never done before, shout or scream or hit his wife with his fists or something equally unexpected and terrifying." Thus it is a noticeable change in pastoral imagery when Ray's light of hope is snuffed out. The light is gone and he disappears back into the darkness.
Tom Foster's grandmother had been raised on a farm near Winesburg, Ohio when the town had only a few families. Since then, she had lived all over the country and in Canada with her husband before he died. After his death, she lived with her daughter in Kentucky until her son-in-law was killed and her daughter died. She had spent much of her savings on their care so took her grandson to Cincinnati where she worked as a washer woman for five years. From her work, her hands became twisted out of shape. One day she found a pocketbook which had enough money to take her grandson and herself to Winesburg by train. She was ecstatic and told Tom all about Winesburg. When she reached the town however, she was shocked by its growth and did not know what to do. She feared that Tom may have a hard time fitting in but he never really did have trouble. He had lived among prostitutes and touch gangs in Cincinnati but never had any problems because he was quiet, gentle, and would not assert himself. The one time Tom had gotten into trouble he stole $1.75 from a shop because neither he nor his grandmother could could pay for food. Later he was caught and his grandmother scrubbed floors to amend his crime. Tom understood this shame as a valuable lesson.
Tom was small at sixteen but had a large head with spiky black hair. He and his grandmother found work quickly in Winesburg at the home of Banker White. Mrs. White was glad to have an older woman do housework and she gave Tom a job in the barn, taking care of the horses and other jobs. Tom worked for a year before he lost his job. He would often get distracted in town and hang out listening to boys instead of doing his work. Tom fit into town life easily though he never really became a member of it. After Tom lost his job, he rented a room from Rufus Whiting in a law office. His grandmother would come visit in the evenings. Often she would scrub the floors for free and then sit with her grandson and smoke cigars. Tom was made happy by the small things, such as the overcoats given to him by Banker White. He slept in one lined with fur and was content with his situation in Winesburg. He found odd jobs to earn money which allowed him to loaf around as he pleased. Tom had always avoided the vices he saw while in Cincinnati. He viewed sex as dirty after observing prostitutes and the men who wanted them. He entered a prostitute's room once and was sickened. Thus he was not interested in women when he came to Winesburg but could not help but notice the many young people making love. Finally he too fell in love. However, he would only allow himself to think of Helen White certain times and thus controlled his emotions.
One beautiful spring night, Tom walked through town trying to form his thoughts. He pictured Helen and himself. Tom sat for awhile listening to men in town before deciding that he would get drunk. He bought whiskey and took it away from town where he sat to think. As he drank, he recalled fond memories and his journey from Cincinnati. Tom got very drunk. He finally made his way back to town where George Willard saw him stumbling about and brought him into the alley in case he got sick and then to the Eagle's printshop. Tom spoke in a confused jumble about making love to Helen White. George became angry since he had feelings for Helen and told Tom to stop lying. After three hours, George took Tom for a walk. He felt strangely closer to Tom than anyone he had ever known. Tom's head began to clear and George walked them back to the printshop. When Tom spoke of Helen again at the shop, George scolded him. Tom refused to argue so tried to explain how he had needed to get drunk once but would never need to again. Tom wanted to see how it felt to suffer because everyone suffered and did wrong. He wanted to learn. It was like making love, Tom explained to George.
Tom Foster's character contrasts with his grandmother's figure because he is given to silence where as she will talk excitedly. As with most grotesques, her features are abnormal in some way or another. However her hands become twisted from having to work to support her grandson and her mouth becomes toothless because she grows very old. Thus she is not naturally distorted and seems to be a much healthier character. She is shocked to find that Winesburg has expanded in a large degree but she adjusts. Tom is also good at adjusting to different situations but for a different reason than his grandmother. Tom is often silent and invisible. He, the narrator tells us, does not assert himself because the neighborhood he had lived in before Winesburg was tough and dangerous. By molding to whatever company Tom is in, he was able to escape trouble. The invisibility of Tom however symbolizes the modern man, lacking a personal identity. His senses anesthetized, he has become a spiritless husk unfitted for the love of man or the connection to community. In Cincinnati, Tom was comfortable and in Winesburg, he is comfortable. He was not bothered by Winesburg's expansion and modernization as his grandmother had been because it did not matter to him.
Though not quite numb because of the passion inside of Tom, reiterating the life in death theme for the grotesque figures, Tom experienced life in an uncommon way. Once he had been impressed by a sinful occurrence, he had no desire to try it again. Tom was made happy by very simple things and could absorb a sensory experience and retain it within himself. In this way, he experienced life from within. He was disgusted by sex because of his encounters with prostitutes in Cincinnati and thus had no need for love until he lived in Winesburg. Yet even then he was then able to control his passions for Helen White. He could think of her in his mind and be satisfied. He turned love into a mental not emotional activity. Tom has the ability to become a part of life while staying fully detached from the life, the narrator tells us, which explains why his drunkenness affects no one by George Willard. George is the medium of communication for the reader. Without dialogue between George and Tom the reader would not be aware of Tom's explanation of his activities. He is reborn every time he experiences a new sensation or experience.When Tom decides the get drunk, Anderson describes the scene as one which would make someone drunk, further taking the responsibility out of Tom's hands. It is spring, symbolic of rebirth and innocence, and the text relates, "The trees along the residence streets of the town were all newly clothed in soft green leaves, in the gardens behind the houses men were puttering about in vegetable gardens, and in the air there was a hush, a waiting kind of silence very stirring to the blood." The spring air was excited and anticipatory, allowing Tom to try out a new identity for one night, to experience it and absorb it as his own.
After buying the whiskey, Tom escaped from town to drink it. He makes the rite of passage a solitary activity as symbolically it must be. The road from town Tom takes with his bottle of whiskey is symbolic of the rite of passage he is taking. The text reports, "Before him was a white road and at his back an apple orchard in full bloom." It seems as if he is walking toward innocence, symbolized by white, and away from experience, symbolized by the orchard in full bloom. The symbols are confusing because Tom does not experience the archetypal patterns of life in a normal manner. His grotesquerie lies in his inability to experience life on a full sensory manner. The language reflects his smooth invisibility, entitling the story "Drink" and using verbs to reflect his actions like "he slipped away". His invisibility creates in him a fragmented human, experiencing life an experience at a time but not able to unite the moments together into a satisfying whole. The one time Tom is able to feel excited, he explains to George that the experience of drink allowed him to feel love and many other sensory emotions all at once. It blew him away. "'It was like making love, that's what I mean,' he explained." The transitory experience of feeling love through a drunken state is the closest Tom can get to that whole sensation. His life is fragmented and disconnected, symbolic of modern man who must live and love isolated.