Winesburg Ohio A Book Of Grotesques Essay

Winesburg, Ohio: A Book Of Grotesques Essay, Research Paper

The figures of Winesburg, Ohio usually

personify a condition of psychic deformity which is the consequence of

some crucial failure in their lives. Misogyny, inarticulateness, frigidity,

God-infatuation, homosexuality, drunkenness?these are symptoms of their

recoil from the regularities of human intercourse and sometimes of their

substitute gratifications in inanimate objects, as with the unloved Alice

Hindman who “because it was her own, could not bear to have anyone touch

the furniture of her room.” In their compulsive traits these figures find

a kind of dulling peace, but as a consequence they are deprived of one

of the great blessings of human health: the capacity for a variety of experience.

The world of Winesburg, populated largely

by these back-street grotesques, soon begins to seem like a buried ruin

of a once vigorous society, an atrophied remnant of the egalitarian moment

of 19th-century America. Though many of the book’s sketches are placed

outdoors, its atmosphere is as stifling as a tomb. And the reiteration

of the term “grotesque” is appropriate in a way Anderson could hardly have

been aware of; for it was first used by Renaissance artists to describe

arabesques painted in the underground ruins, grotte, of Nero’s “Golden


The conception of the grotesque, as actually

developed in the stories, is not merely that it is an unwilled affliction

but also that it is a mark of a once sentient striving. In “The Book of

the Grotesque,” Anderson writes: “It was the truths that made the people

grotesques?the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself,

called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque

and the truth he embraced a falsehood.” There is a sense, as will be seen

later, in which these sentences are at variance with the book’s meaning,

but they do suggest the significant notion that the grotesques are those

who do suggest the significant notion that the grotesques are those who

have sought “the truths” that disfigure them. By contrast the banal creatures

who dominate the town’s official life, such as Will Henderson, publisher

of the paper for which George Willard works, are not even grotesques; they

are simply clods. The grotesques are those whose humanity has been outraged

and who to survive in Winesburg have had to suppress their wish to love.

Wash Williams becomes a misogynist because his mother-in-law, hoping to

reconcile him to his faithless wife, thrusts her into his presence naked;

Wing Biddlebaum becomes a recluse because his wish to blend learning with

affection is fatally misunderstood. Grotesqueness, then, is not merely

the shield of deformity; it is also a remnant of misshapen feeling, what

Dr. Reefy in “Paper Pills” calls “the sweetness of the twisted apples.”

As they approach George Willard, the grotesques

seek not merely the individual release of a sudden expressive outburst,

but also a relation with each other that may restore them to collective

harmony. They are distraught communicants in search of a ceremony, a social

value, a manner of living, a lost ritual that may, by some means, re-establish

a flow and exchange of emotion. Their estrangement is so extreme that they

cannot turn to each other though it is each other they really need and

secretly want; they turn instead to George Willard who will soon be out

of the orbit of their life. The miracle that the Reverend Curtis Hartman

sees and the message over which Kate Swift broods could bind one to the

other, yet they both turn to George Willard who, receptive though he may

wish to be, cannot understand them.

The burden which the grotesques impose

on George is beyond his strength. He is not yet himself a grotesque mainly

because he has not yet experienced very deeply, but for the role to which

they assign him he is too absorbed in his own ambition and restlessness.

The grotesques see in his difference from them the possibility of saving

themselves, but actually it is the barrier to an ultimate companionship.

George’s adolescent receptivity to the grotesques can only give him the

momentary emotional illumination described in that lovely story, “Sophistication.”

On the eve of his departure from Winesburg, George reaches the point “when

he for the first time takes the backward view of life?. With a little gasp

he sees himself as merely a leaf blown by the wind through the streets

of his village. He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows

he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing

destined like corn to wilt in the sun?. Already he hears death calling.

With all his heart he wants to come close to some other human, touch someone

with his hands?.” For George this illumination is enough, but it is not

for the grotesques. They are a moment in his education, he a confirmation

of their doom. “I have missed something. I have missed something Kate Swift

was trying to tell me,” he says to himself one night as he falls asleep.

He has missed the meaning of Kate Swift’s life: it is not his fault: her

salvation, like the salvation of the other grotesques, is beyond his capacities.


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