Isolation in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio

Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio opens with “The Book of the Grotesque,” in which he describes a grotesque as one who has consumed a manmade truth and attempted to live by it, and by doing so, “the truth he embraced became a falsehood” (S. Anderson 5).  The work that follows this introduction examines the isolation of the grotesques residing in Winesburg, Ohio.  The grotesques are isolated because their inner selves contain a truth which they are incapable of expressing, and thus, they live with the continual struggle of having an inner self and outer self that cannot be reconciled.  They are not grotesque in the typical sense of the word in that their deformities are internal, only manifesting themselves in small physical characteristics for each of the grotesques.  Anderson demonstrates that each grotesque exists in a realm of dualities, in which repressed truths conceal themselves beneath falsehoods, by tracing the isolation within the grotesques’ external, interpersonal, intrapersonal relationships.

First, Anderson reveals the duality of the expressed and unexpressed portions of the grotesques through their relationships with the external and impersonal.  By connecting the characters with inanimate elements within the environments, Anderson is able to amplify the contrast between expression and isolation for the characters.  Anderson’s use of doors in the work provides the first example of this external form of relationship.  A door possesses only two states, open and closed, which correspond directly to the expression and isolation the characters experience.  “Mother” and “Loneliness” provide the two clearest examples of how the doors function throughout Winesburg, Ohio.  In “Mother,” Elizabeth Willard shares a “deep unexpressed bond of sympathy” with her son, George, but she cannot find a way to make her love explicit (S. Anderson 25).  She instead has formed a habit of pressing herself against the door to her son’s room, trying to form a connection, because she is closed, just as the door is.  Other characters who are not grotesques also interact with the doors in “Mother,” most notably, Tom Willard, Elizabeth’s husband.  Elizabeth watches Tom as “in the light that streamed out at the door he stood with the knob in his hand and talked” (S. Anderson 31).  Tom’s interaction with George demonstrates that expressing ones sentiments to George is entirely possible for others, but not for Elizabeth, who remains trapped within herself.

Further, the idea of doors as a symbol for the open or closed channels of expression reappears in the same relationship later in Winesburg, Ohio, in the story titled “Death.”  Elizabeth’s father left her a sum of money, which he intended to function as “a door, a great open door” for Elizabeth (S. Anderson 275).  She saves this money, and intends to one day give it to George as an expression of her desire for him to get out of Winesburg and follow his dreams.  She her illness restricts her, however, and she lies “still and speechless in her bed” for a month, unable to tell George about the money and where she has hidden it (S. Anderson 280).  This “great open door,” then, is reduced to yet another closed one, and George is left with the final image of his mother as a closed door when he leaves her room, then “turn[s] and stare[s] at the door through which he had just come” (S. Anderson 284).

The symbolism of the open and closed doors is not restricted to Elizabeth Willard’s longing for expression and connection with her son, however, but it permeates the work and becomes particularly evident again in “Loneliness.”  Enoch Robinson is the grotesque in this story, and as he drew into himself and into his room, abandoning the friends to whom he could never express himself, “he locked the door” (S. Anderson 205).  Within his shut room Enoch created an entire world for himself, complete with people he constructed within his own mind.  When one of his neighbors began visiting him, however, Enoch “didn’t want to let her come in when she knocked,” but he did, and eventually he tried to let her into his world (S. Anderson 210).  When the neighbor tried to leave, Enoch “ran and locked the door,” desperate to preserve a human connection.  The open and closed door in this story again reinforces the idea of the contrast between access and isolation within a person.  Enoch opens himself up to his neighbor, but the fear of separation causes him to close it again, attempting to keep her on the inside with him.  By closing the door, however, he is severing the relationship, and when she leaves, “all the life there had been in the room follow[s] her out” (S. Anderson 211).

In addition to the external representation of isolation through doors, Anderson demonstrates isolation through the contrast in expression during the night and isolation during the day.  Characters experience their great moments of epiphany during the night throughout the work.  In Winesburg, Ohio, “the deformities caused by day (public life) are intensified at night, and in their very extremity, become an entry to reality” (Howe 411).  In adventure, for example, it is night when Alice Hindman gives in to the “mad desire to run naked through the streets” in “Adventure” and seek the human connection she has not allowed herself for years (S. Anderson 133).  The stranger’s plea for the little girl to “be Tandy” and “[b]e brave enough to dare to be loved” occurs late at night (169).  In “The Strength of God,” Curtis Hartman’s experience of God in the form of Kate Swift takes place late at night.  At night, each of these grotesques has the opportunity to release the things he or she has not been able to in the light of day, “as if the most sustaining and fruitful human activities can no longer be performed in public communion but must be grasped in secret” (Howe 411).  These moments of epiphany, however, are brief, and they recede again with the sun.  Although the grotesques finally release their truths in powerful moments of expression, they are shrouded in darkness, where they are unseen by others, as they do so.  Their moments of triumph, then, only serve to reinforce their isolation, as they are able to find understanding in intense yet fleeting moments, and in these moments when they are most able to connect with others, they fail.  The epiphanies “merely serve to emphasize the intensity of their isolation” (D. Anderson 428).  Even when the grotesques open their closed doors momentarily, they realize that the darkness of their isolation surrounds them.

Next, Anderson employs interpersonal relationships to highlight how the contrast between expression and suppression relates to the isolation of the grotesques in Winesburg, Ohio.  He uses George Willard as the primary agent for this task.  George is not yet a grotesque in the story, and so when he communicates with the grotesques, they see in him “the key that will release them from their prisons and enable them to resume normal human forms” (D. Anderson 428).  Many of the grotesques project what they want for themselves onto George, and so he becomes the collection of the communication they wish they could access.  George as a specific character, then, is less important than George as an attempted representation of the truths within them.  In the opening story, “Hands,” for example, Wing Biddlebaum “hunger[s] for the presence of the boy, who was the medium through which he expressed his love of man” (S. Anderson 16).  Once Wing Biddlebaum begins his expressive act, George Willard is no longer named, but simply referred to as “the boy,” because for Wing, George simply represents the innocence of youth and the vitality of not having yet become a grotesque.  The schoolteacher, Kate Swift, offers another example of the grotesques trying to access humanity again through George Willard.  She experiences “a great eagerness to open the door of life to the boy, who had been her pupil and whom she thought might possess a talent for the understanding of life” (S. Anderson 194).  Although George’s identity is almost secondary in many of his interactions with the grotesques, the fact that he is a writer and reporter remains important.  George’s identity as a writer necessitates that he have the ability to express what he thinks, which establishes a clear distinction between him and the grotesques.  The most common interpersonal relationships within Winesburg, Ohio are those between George Willard and the grotesques, and the contrast between the natures of George and the grotesques emphasizes the isolation of the grotesques.

Finally, in addition to Anderson’s emphasis on the ways in which external elements of the environment and the relationships between George and the grotesques demonstrate how the contrast between what is expressed and what is reserved establishes isolation, the also uses the isolated intrapersonal relationships to the same end.  On a physical level, the grotesques often have a small deformity to reflect the deformities within them.  As Ray Lewis White suggests, “the unusually active hands of Wing Biddlebaum lead the reader to awareness that one of the few intellectuals in Winesburg, Ohio has an unusual mental and psychological constitution” (58).  Anderson provides a particularly grotesque description of Wash Williams in “Respectability,” stating that he resembled “a huge, grotesque kind of monkey creature with ugly, sagging, hairless skin below his eyes and a bright purple underbelly” (S. Anderson 135).  These physical deformities demonstrate the intensity of the strain of suppression.  Because the grotesques are incapable of releasing their own truths through verbal expression or action, the truths reveal themselves physically.

In conclusion, Sherwood Anderson demonstrates the intensity of the isolation created through the grotesques’ inability to express their thoughts and feelings in Winesburg, Ohio through the environments of the grotesques, their relationships with George Willard, and their own physical deformities.  Anderson’s work provides a comprehensive survey of the lives of the grotesques in Winesburg, Ohio, but he suggests that this phenomenon is applies to everyone, and that he has only offered an account from a handful of individuals in a single town.  In “The Book of the Grotesques,” Anderson claims that “all of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques” (3).  He offers a solution to the outcome of isolation, however, in the form of George Willard who grasps that “the thing that makes the mature life in the modern world possible” is love (S. Anderson 298).

Works Cited

Anderson, David. “The Grotesques and George Willard”Winesburg, Ohio: Text and Criticism. New York: Viking, 1966. 421-430. Print.

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Viking, 1958. Print.

Howe, Irving. “The Book the the Grotesque” Winesburg, Ohio: Text and Criticism. New York: Viking, 1966. 405-420. Print.

White, Ray L. Winesburg, Ohio: An Exploration. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Print.

Leave a Reply