Loneliness and Isolation in a Troubled Community: Winesburg, Ohio

Term Paper 2012 14 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents!

1 Introduction

2 The Illustration of Loneliness Via Character Depiction

3 How Setting and Atmosphere Contribute to the Isolation of the Grotesques

4 Conclusion


1 Introduction

The 1919 short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio, written by the American author Sherwood Anderson, deals with an imaginary American Midwestern small town named after its title and tells the stories of its odd citizens. Each of the 22 stories is concerned with another character and his or her troublesome life in Winesburg. The book’s prologue (The Book of the Grotesque) already suggests, what will be inevitably experienced by the reader throughout the cycle: the large majority of all characters introduced are somewhat distorted and psychologically deformed. In the community of Winesburg, most of these characters lead a life of loneliness and isolation, burdened with the inability to communicate their thoughts and desires. What turned these characters into grotesques is for instance unfulfilled dreams, being misunderstood by others, or the tension between the human drive for lust and morality. In most cases it is only through the character of George Willard - who can be perceived as the protagonist of the cycle - that the grotesques open up and allow for an insight into their trials and tribulations. George, who works for the local newspaper in Winesburg, seems to be the only trustworthy inhabitant to all the others, so that only he gets the chance of delving into meaningful conversation with the grotesques from time to time. He therefore functions as an intermediary in the whole cycle appearing regularly and interlinking the stories with each other. Apart from encounters with George Willard, deeper-going communication is a rarity in Winesburg since individual characters mostly spent their time alone being plagued by their restless souls.

In Winesburg, Ohio, Anderson depicts an interesting perspective upon lives of individuals in an American Midwestern small town by prioritizing psychological insights into his characters and neglecting plot. In addition to this, plain writing and sharp language constitute Anderson’s cycle, which makes it an early piece of modernist literature. The author manages to create and maintain a gloomy and dismal atmosphere of solitude and helplessness, which permeates the whole town of Winesburg throughout the cycle.

This term paper is concerned with the question of how this atmosphere of isolation and loneliness is created via narrative transmission. Therefore, use of language, word repetition, symbols, reoccurring themes and other stylistic features in three exemplary stories are taken into account. It commences by analyzing the characters of the stories Hands, Mother and Loneliness with the intention to find features that isolate them from the Winesburg community. After that, the setting and the tools for the creation of atmosphere in these stories are taken into consideration in order to understand how Anderson manages to arouse a sentiment of loneliness in Winesburg, Ohio.

2 The Illustration of Loneliness Via Character Depiction

Since Winesburg, Ohio strongly focuses on its characters and neglects plot, it is obvious that the way characters are presented plays a major role in the cycle. As a matter of fact, it is of great interest for the analysis of narrative transmission how individual characters are presented and how this influences the reader’s impression of loneliness and isolation. The book’s prologue already indicates that all figures are twisted and misshapen in some way, caused by the truth they adapted for themselves in their lives. Wing Biddlebaum is the name of the cycle’s first character. He is introduced in the story Hands with the narrator’s explicit description of a “fat little old man”, which clearly denotes his misfortune concerning physical appearance and makes his grotesqueness obvious to the reader.1 Furthermore, Wing Biddlebaum is introduced via a contrastive situation that implicitly illustrates him as a misfit. In this scene, the narrator describes a couple of young and cheerful men and women coming home from work. When they see Biddlebaum, they start bullying him by telling him to comb his hair although he is bald. This very first encounter between the citizens of Winesburg clearly illustrates Biddlebaum’s status in Winesburg: he is an outsider living isolated from others. The imagery is additionally reinforced by the narrator saying “Wing Biddlebaum […] did not think himself as in any way a part of the life of the town where he had lived for twenty years.”2 Furthermore he is described as the “town mystery” with a “shadowy personality”, which makes clear that nobody really knows him and that he does not open up to anyone.3 The only friend he really has is Anderson’s protagonist George Willard, who visits him for a chat. In general, most stories of the book include a conversation with one of the characters and George Willard, through which the reader is allowed to get a glimpse of the characters’ secluded souls. The story Hands for instance, makes the world of Wing Biddlebaum accessible to the reader by switching to direct speech in the conversation with George Willard.4 Through this, the individual characters are given a voice in order to reveal their sorrows and inner struggles to the reader.5 Apart from short emotional outbreaks, the characters’ inability of communicating via language is a reoccurring major theme in the whole cycle. As characters struggle to put their ideas into words and make others understand, they frequently use their hands to convey their thoughts. The importance of hands in Biddlebaum’s story - named Hands - is evident, since he used to be a very friendly and gentle schoolmaster,called Adolph Myers, who used to caress his students with his hands while talking to them. This behavior was natural to him until a school boy fell in love with him and started to have sexual fantasies at night, which he told as facts. As a result, Adolph Myers was driven out of town and was forced to change his name to Wing Biddlebaum in order to start a new life in Winesburg. From this particular moment on, things were no longer the same for him. He accepted that his hands did not do any good and were to blame.6 Consequently, he “wanted to keep them hidden” although he “talked much with his hands”.7 This dilemma resulted in Biddlebaum’s isolation and his inability to communicate. In fact, the theme of hands as a tool of communication occurs in most stories throughout the whole cycle and allows the figures to express what they are not able to do via language. Sometimes the “inexpressiveness […] tend[s] to culminate in a comedy of tongue-tied silence”, which demonstrates that individuals in Winesburg are disconnected from each other for the most part.8 In how far Biddlebaum is disconnected can be seen when his present character is contrasted with his former as a schoolmaster. In the present he is fearful and talks with a trembling voice, except when George is with him; whereas, twenty years ago he used to spent a lot of time talking to his students after school until late in the evening. The statement that “his voice became soft and musical” then, points out that he used to be a warm and loving person.9 In the story of Wing Biddlebaum, a lack of direct speech and a failed attempt to communicate with George contributes to the loneliness of his character. As he tries to talk to George, he eventually breaks out in tears and eludes the situation. The narrator describes Wing’s hand gestures with a simile: “[…] like […] the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird.”10 By comparing Biddlebaum to a bird that is kept from a life in freedom, the narrator points out that he tries to achieve what will not be possible to him: he wishes to explain himself to George and make him understand what troubles him, but he cannot succeed as he is prevented from conveying his message. His medium of expressing emotions - one of the boys - was taken away from him.11 The bird’s cage stands for the spiritual prison that locks up his soul and cuts him off from what is an “imagined” community.12 As a matter of fact the community of Winesburg as such does not exist. Even public figures like Doctor Parcival or the reverend Curtis Hartman rarely get in touch with others and spent most of their days in solitude, plagued by their personal dilemmas. On the level of narrative transmission, the isolation of the characters is emphasized the abrupt breaks between individual short stories of the cycle. Each of the stories is concerned with another character who rarely gets in contact with other characters of Winesburg. Once a story is told, it seems that the narrator abandons the individual and focuses on another figure. The only link between the stories is the reappearance of George Willard, who works for the local newspaper and therefore represents “a nexus of communal identity”.13 Nevertheless, “the textual break between these stories signals an important separation of consciousness” that contributes to each character’s loneliness and denies a sense of community.14

The story Mother, presenting the figure of Elizabeth Willard - George’s mother - is another example providing an insight into a twisted figure’s desolate life. As in the story of Hands, it starts off with an explicit description of Elizabeth’s appearance by the narrator. In this scene she is depicted as a “tall ghostly figure […] [,] gaunt and her face was marked with smallpox scars.”15 As with most grotesques in Winesburg, Elizabeth’s outward appearance is unattractive and rather odd. Furthermore, her husband - Tom Willard - is described as “a slender, graceful man with square shoulders” and factually stands in direct contrast to the figure of Elizabeth. This comparison reinforces the negative and bizarre impression Elizabeth leaves in the reader’s mind. The relationship between Tom and Elizabeth is no longer nourished by mutual love, as Tom “thought of the old house and the woman who lived there with him as things defeated and done for.”16 In this quote, the focalization takes place from Tom’s perspective of life. He sees Elizabeth merely as “the woman who lived there with him”, a defeated thing.17 On the one hand he obviously does not feel any kind of connection to his wife; on the other hand he goes even further by calling her a thing. Consequently, marriage in Winesburg, Ohio does not protect the characters from separateness and isolation. In fact, one could go even further and argue that marriage resembles imprisonment in the cycle. Albeit Elizabeth only seems to have a connection to her son George - for she desires to make him live the life she dreamt of all her lifetime - their communication fails: “’I suppose I can’t make you understand, but oh I wish I could,’ he said earnestly.”18 In addition, “[s]he wanted to cry out with joy because of the words that had come from the lips of her son, but the expression of joy had become impossible to her.”19 In the course of the story, Elizabeth’s struggles are expressed metaphorically. Sitting in her room, she observes a cat which creeps into the bakery’s open door. In the next moment the cat is driven away by the angry baker going after the cat.


1 Anderson, Sherwood (1919): “Winesburg, Ohio” . In: Modlin, Charles and White, Ray Lewis (eds.): Winesburg, Ohio. A Norton Critical Edition. 1sted.1996. New York: W.W. Norton. 9.

2 ibid.

3 ibid. 9, 10.

4 cf. ibid. 11.

5 cf. Kennedy, J. Gerald (1995): Modern American Short Story Sequences. Composite Fictions and Fictive Communities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 197.

6 cf. Anderson, Sherwood (1919): 13.

7 ibid. 10.

8 Updike, John: “Twisted Apples”. In: Modlin, Charles and White, Ray Lewis (eds.): Winesburg, Ohio. A Norton Critical Edition. 1sted.1996. New York: W.W. Norton. 190.

9 Anderson, Sherwood (1919): 12.

10 ibid. 10.

11 cf. ibid. 13.

12 Kennedy, J. Gerald (1995): 200.

13 ibid. 197.

14 ibid. 199.

15 Anderson, Sherwood (1919): 16.

16 ibid.

17 ibid.

18 ibid. 21.

19 ibid. 22.


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Title: Loneliness and Isolation in a Troubled Community: Winesburg, Ohio