The theme of loneliness in Sherwood Anderson's “Winesburg, Ohio”
Sherwood Anderson's short story cycle “Winesburg, Ohio” was first published in 1919. The cycle contains 25 short stories, including the outstanding first story “The Book of the Grotesque” and a four-part tale called “Godliness”. The narration in this cycle is authorial with a shifting focalization depending on who is the protagonist in the stories. The most important character, who appears in one form or another in every short story of the collection, is the young journalist George Willard. He and of course the city of Winesburg itself are the main links between the short stories, although not every short story takes place in Winesburg. However, if the story is not located in the city, Winesburg is at least mentioned. The setting of the cycle plays an important role in the understanding of the theme of loneliness. Winesburg is described as a sleepy mid- western town in the United States. Although one can say that everyone knows everyone in a small town, it is different in the case of Winesburg. The people know each other superficially but don't know the other person's true feelings.
I chose to analyse four stories of the cycle in terms of a very important recurring theme
– loneliness - because I think that this theme, although the cycle was written almost 100 years ago, has not lost a bit of actuality. Furthermore, I see this essay as a continuation to my first essay, which dealt with the themes of “Winesburg, Ohio” in comparison to Joyce's “Dubliners”. In this essay I will dive deeper into the theme of loneliness than I did before.
2) The theme of loneliness
One of the most present themes to be found in the collection is the theme of loneliness. The prologue-like opening “The Book of the Grotesque” gives the reader a first look of what makes the people in the stories lonely:
“They were all grotesques. All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques. The grotesques were not all horrible. Some were amusing, some almost beautiful, and one, a woman all drawn out of shape, hurt the old man by her grotesqueness.” (p. 22 – 23).
The grotesque, which is mentioned in the quote, is the people's obsession with certain ideas and manners as well as their inability to express feelings. The characters of the following short stories are even so obsessed with their ideas, that the old author in the prologue, who is supposedly George Willard, describes them as grotesques. “It [is] the truths that [make] the people grotesques” (p. 24), that turn them more and more away from their social lives and make them outsiders to society, who are unable to share their feelings and ideas with anyone else but themselves. Especially interesting about the old author's definition of the grotesque is the fact that he, who has collected all the stories over the years and wants to write a book about them, has never managed to write the book. He becomes so obsessed with his idea of the people's grotesqueness that he finally wants to sit down and start to write the book, but realizes shortly afterwards that he would become too obsessed and that the writing would turn him into a grotesque himself.
“The subject would become so big in his mind that he himself would be in danger of becoming a grotesque. He didn't, I suppose, for the same reason that he never published the book. It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man.” (p. 24).
The next story I am going to analyse in terms of the theme of loneliness is the first real story in the cycle entitled “Hands”. It is the story of Wing Biddlebaum, a former school teacher, who “forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts, did not think of himself as in any way a part of the life of the town where he had lived for twenty years.” (p. 27). The only person Biddlebaum seems to have at least a bit of trust is young author George Willard: “In the presence of George Willard, Wing Biddlebaum, who for twenty years had been the town mystery, lost something of his timidity, and his shadowy personality […] came forth to look at the world.” (p. 28).
Wing Biddlebaum's obsession are his hands. It is said that “he [talks] much with his hands” (p. 28), and that they are “forever active, forever striving to conceal themselves in his pockets or behind his back” (p. 28). The people of Winesburg have paid attention to his hands “merely because of their activity” (p. 29) some time before he meets George Willard. His hands have become “his distinguishing feature, the source of his fame.” (p. 29).
His hands are not only the feature that make him grotesque, they are the reason for his loneliness as well. All these years he has been trying to hide his hands - and because he can not hide them – he hides himself from the world. This fact goes hand in hand with his past. In the city he has lived in before he was forced to move to Winesburg, he was accused of child molesting. His hands were “caressing the shoulders of the boys, playing about the tousled heads” (p. 31). More and more children accused him by saying “He put his arm about me [and] his fingers were always playing in my hair” (p.
The piece below was written by Marina Keegan ’12 for a special edition of the News distributed at the class of 2012’s commencement exercises last week. Keegan died in a car accident on Saturday. She was 22.
We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life. What I’m grateful and thankful to have found at Yale, and what I’m scared of losing when we wake up tomorrow and leave this place.
It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team. When the check is paid and you stay at the table. When it’s four a.m. and no one goes to bed. That night with the guitar. That night we can’t remember. That time we did, we went, we saw, we laughed, we felt. The hats.
Yale is full of tiny circles we pull around ourselves. A cappella groups, sports teams, houses, societies, clubs. These tiny groups that make us feel loved and safe and part of something even on our loneliest nights when we stumble home to our computers — partner-less, tired, awake. We won’t have those next year. We won’t live on the same block as all our friends. We won’t have a bunch of group-texts.
This scares me. More than finding the right job or city or spouse – I’m scared of losing this web we’re in. This elusive, indefinable, opposite of loneliness. This feeling I feel right now.
But let us get one thing straight: the best years of our lives are not behind us. They’re part of us and they are set for repetition as we grow up and move to New York and away from New York and wish we did or didn’t live in New York. I plan on having parties when I’m 30. I plan on having fun when I’m old. Any notion of THE BEST years comes from clichéd “should haves…” “if I’d…” “wish I’d…”
Of course, there are things we wished we did: our readings, that boy across the hall. We’re our own hardest critics and it’s easy to let ourselves down. Sleeping too late. Procrastinating. Cutting corners. More than once I’ve looked back on my High School self and thought: how did I do that? How did I work so hard? Our private insecurities follow us and will always follow us.
But the thing is, we’re all like that. Nobody wakes up when they want to. Nobody did all of their reading (except maybe the crazy people who win the prizes…) We have these impossibly high standards and we’ll probably never live up to our perfect fantasies of our future selves. But I feel like that’s okay.
We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time. There’s this sentiment I sometimes sense, creeping in our collective conscious as we lay alone after a party, or pack up our books when we give in and go out – that it is somehow too late. That others are somehow ahead. More accomplished, more specialized. More on the path to somehow saving the world, somehow creating or inventing or improving. That it’s too late now to BEGIN a beginning and we must settle for continuance, for commencement.
When we came to Yale, there was this sense of possibility. This immense and indefinable potential energy – and it’s easy to feel like that’s slipped away. We never had to choose and suddenly we’ve had to. Some of us have focused ourselves. Some of us know exactly what we want and are on the path to get it; already going to med school, working at the perfect NGO, doing research. To you I say both congratulations and you suck.
For most of us, however, we’re somewhat lost in this sea of liberal arts. Not quite sure what road we’re on and whether we should have taken it. If only I had majored in biology…if only I’d gotten involved in journalism as a freshman…if only I’d thought to apply for this or for that…
What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over. Get a post-bac or try writing for the first time. The notion that it’s too late to do anything is comical. It’s hilarious. We’re graduating college. We’re so young. We can’t, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it’s all we have.
In the heart of a winter Friday night my freshman year, I was dazed and confused when I got a call from my friends to meet them at EST EST EST. Dazedly and confusedly, I began trudging to SSS, probably the point on campus farthest away. Remarkably, it wasn’t until I arrived at the door that I questioned how and why exactly my friends were partying in Yale’s administrative building. Of course, they weren’t. But it was cold and my ID somehow worked so I went inside SSS to pull out my phone. It was quiet, the old wood creaking and the snow barely visible outside the stained glass. And I sat down. And I looked up. At this giant room I was in. At this place where thousands of people had sat before me. And alone, at night, in the middle of a New Haven storm, I felt so remarkably, unbelievably safe.
We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale. How I feel right now. Here. With all of you. In love, impressed, humbled, scared. And we don’t have to lose that.
We’re in this together, 2012. Let’s make something happen to this world.