Dislocation and Dysfunction
Winesburg, Ohio (1919) by Sherwood Anderson is full of characters who lead unhappy, unfulfilling lives – who feel alienated and isolated from one another and from the town in which they live. It could be described as a novel or it could be described as a collection of twenty-four stories which are connected by being set in the eponymous town of the title or by the development of George Willard, who features as a protagonist or secondary character in sixteen of the stories, and is mentioned in three others. George Willard is also privileged as a character since his parents won a boarding house and he becomes a reporter for the town newspaper; people often tell him their secrets or hint at them because they feel he is trustworthy. Brunn (9) argues this strongly:
In addition to being a collection of tales [it is] a Bildungsroman, a story of a boy growing to manhood and becoming involved in the perplexing world of adults.
However, although the ending of the novel and what happens to George is the experience of the quintessential American fictional hero, his own development is presented piecemeal and not in chronological order, and his presentation in some stories is too peripheral to argue that the novel is solely a Bildungsroman dealing with George Willard’s coming of age. The fragmentary way George’s story is told is typical of Anderson’s approach throughout the whole book. It will be argued in this paper that Anderson presents characters who live lives which are fragmented and broken and seem to lack meaning and coherence, but also that the subject matter informs the way the whole book is structured and how even some sentences are written. In other words, in Winesburg, Ohio there is a complete congruence between substance and style.
Apart from George and the fact that they all live in Winesburg, the characters are isolated and inarticulate, unable to voice their true desires or real fears. The twenty-four stories have occasional overlap, and characters from one story appear or are mentioned in other stories. At the same time some characters are described and named, and never appear again. This whole approach is a courageous attempt at a type of structural mimesis. Dunne (43) speaks of “Anderson’s awareness of the stunted, fragmentary nature of modern American life “ being reflected in the structure of the book. Furthermore, it will be shown later, when this essay deals with some of the characters, that “its fragmented organization mirrors the very content of the book – subjective portrayals of numerous stunted inchoate individuals.” (Dunne 44)
Even the style that Anderson adopts, the very sentences he writes, enhance this fragmentary approach to writing fiction and to the reality that that fiction portrays. This is how Tanner (208) describes the opening of ‘Godliness’:
Facts are suddenly thrust before us with no prior introduction. They present themselves to us insisting on their individual importance, an importance always left unexplained, or rather an importance they are left to explain for themselves. They are never differentiated or appraised. Each fact... is of separate and equal importance: there are no connectives but rather a series of isolated impressions.
‘A series of isolated impressions’ – a good description of the novel or collection of stories as a whole. Tanner also writes that one of the features of Anderson’s prose style is “the constant inclusion of seemingly gratuitous details.” (207). For example, in ‘The Philosopher’ we are told that Doctor Parcival eats at Biff Carter’s lunch room: “In the summer the lunch room was filled with flies and Biff Carter’s white apron was more dirty than his floor.” (Anderson 51) And then, as Tanner (207) puts it “Biff Carter and his lunch room disappear put of the story for ever.” In the same story we are told “the tales that Doctor Parcival told George Willard began nowhere and ended nowhere” (Anderson 51) – this description might be justly applied to the stories in the novel. As Tanner (209) sums it up:
It is a fragmentary view of life, and it is clear that Anderson’s approach can only lead to fragmentation. His vision permits of no plot developments or notable dramatic crises: there are no gestures of summarizing significance, nor do the individual details accumulate to the pint of revealing larger meanings.
This fragmentation of description is especially apt because the stories are about broken fragments of humanity.
The two opening stories set the atmosphere and tone for the whole collection. ‘Hands’ presents a broken man who has had to suppress and deny his real feelings, adopt a different name and move to a town where he is completely isolated and unknown. Wing Biddlebaum’s only friendship is with George Willard and even that distorted, reticent relationship is full of silent tension, since Wing is scared and terrified that his hands might do something wholly inappropriate and serve to isolate him even further. His previous life as a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania remains a dark and dangerous secret – one which he can barely admit even to himself. ‘Paper Pills’ deals with the grief and sorrow that Dr Reefy still feels for the death of his wife at such a very early age. It is a traumatic loss from which he has never been able to rally and recover, and, despite being the only doctor in town and having lots of acquaintances, he has no real friends, no-one to share his still-fresh grief with.
Several of the stories present dislocated, dysfunctional marriages. George Willard’s mother appears as a central character in two stories – ‘Mother’ and ‘Death’. The physical decay of the lodging house she runs with Tom, her husband, is clearly symbolic of their marriage; her husband, Tom, sees the “old house and the woman who lived there with him as things defeated and done for.” (Anderson 39) In the story it is revealed that Elizabeth Willard once had great ambitions for the future which have been disappointed, but which she now hopes can be achieved vicariously through her son. Anderson writes without any emotion about her dislocated, dysfunctional marriage:
Although for years she had hated her husband, her hatred had always before been a quite impersonal thing. He had been merely a part of something else that she hated. Now... he had become the thing personified. (Anderson 45)
She imagines stabbing him so that they can both be free of this sterile marriage: “It will be a release or all of us.” (Anderson 45) But she does not do anything. When Elizabeth re-appears in the story ‘Death’ she knows she is dying, but she goes to see Dr Reefy simply because she relishes his company, his sense of humour and his conversation. Elizabeth tells him that in her younger days she had been considered an “adventurer” (Anderson 224), but now feels her life has been completely wasted. She yearns for death to end the monotonous and unloved agony of her life: “The sick woman spent the last few months of her life hungering for death.” (Anderson 228) There is one critical moment when she for once follows her feelings and permits Dr Reefy to kiss her: “When she came and knelt on the floor beside his chair he took her into his arms and began to kiss her passionately.” (Anderson 227) This small, trivial act of love becomes, she comes to feel, the only highlight of her life, but she and the doctor never meet again. ‘Surrender’ also deals with a dislocated, dysfunctional marriage. Anderson writes that Louise Bentley had “a vague and intangible hunger... that was still unsatisfied.” (Anderson 96) She finds her husband unsympathetic to her needs:
Filled with his own notions of love between men and women, he did not listen but began to kiss her upon the lips. That confused her so that in the end she did not want to be kissed. She did not know what she wanted. (Anderson 96)
‘The Untold Lie’ also reveals a deep unhappiness and a sense of dislocation on the part of Ray, who, having been asked for advice by a fellow farm labourer, Hal Winters, starts to reflect on his own early, unplanned marriage and the unhappiness it has brought him:
Every time he 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. (Anderson 206)
It seems clear that Ray has to marry his girlfriend because she is pregnant – exactly the same dilemma faced by Hal. But by the close of the story, Ray sees his situation in a different way and “some memory of pleasant evenings spent with the thin-legged children in the tumble-down house by the creek must have come into his mind,” (Anderson 208-9) and at the close of the story we see him more contentedly reconciled to his marriage and situation. The title of the story is interesting: at one stage it seems that Ray will tell Hal not to marry his girlfriend, not to ruin his life by being tied down, to leave town for freedom – but that would have been a ‘lie’ and, typically of Anderson’s dislocated characters who find it so hard to communicate, the ‘lie’ remains ‘untold’ anyway.
Three stories especially present characters that are dysfunctional and living lives of emotional dislocation. In ‘Adventure’ Alice Hindman has wasted her entire life believing that Ned Currie will one day return to her, but in the story she realizes – “I will never find happiness. Why do I tell myself lies? She wanted to be loved, to have something answer the call that was growing louder and louder within her.” (Anderson 117-119) But because of the rigid constraints of small town life and her inability to connect emotionally with anyone apart from Ned, the story ends in frustration. Kate Swift in ‘The Teacher’ is also filled with unfulfilled desires, but small town, conventional morality and the difference in age between her and George Willard conspire to prevent any real relationship developing. Wash Williams’ deep and visceral hatred of women and his disgusting neglect of his own physical appearance in ‘Respectability’ also have its roots in the emotional dislocation and trauma of his wife’s infidelity.
In conclusion, we can see that several characters – male and female – are dislocated and dysfunctional: Wing Biddlebaum, Dr Reefy, Elizabeth Willard, Alice Hindman, Kate Swift, Louise Bentley – all lost, sad and lonely characters – as alienated from the town they live in as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. And what is the conclusion of George Willard’s journey to maturity? That he must leave the stultifying atmosphere of Winesburg. Dunne (46) argued that
The town functions... by holding up individual sin relief to scrutinize their behaviour, as the individuals submit to the test of the town’s normalized standards.
And so like Huck Finn before him, George Willard leaves to preserve a sense of self and a sense of integrity.
Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. 1919. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Print.
Brunn, Stefanie. Sherwood Anderson’s and Ernest Hemingway’s Stories of Initiation. 2011. Munich: GRIN Verlag. Print.
Dunne, Robert. Contemporary Approaches to Sherwood Anderson’s Early Fiction. 2005. Columbia, OH: Kent State University Press. Print.
Tanner, Tony. The Reign of Wonder: Naivety and Reality in American Literature. 1965. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Print.