Isolation In Winesburg Ohio Essay, Research Paper
In 1919, Sherwood Anderson composed his work Winesburg Ohio, which depicts the inner lives of small-town America. Anderson’s fascination to explore what’s beneath the surface of human lives results in another story in 1933 called “Death In The Woods”. These two works, incidentally, share a common theme of isolation. The characters in these works, are portrayed as “grotesques” or people who live their lives by one truth, thus living a life of falsehood and isolation from the rest of the world. This essay will examine the theme of isolation in the two works described, and will also relate it to Anderson’s idea of the “grotesque”.
In Winesburg Ohio, the reader is first introduced to “The Book of the Grotesque”. This introductory chapter, provides the reader with what might be considered a summary of the characters in the novel itself. The elderly writer, who has obviously seen and experienced a lot of the world’s turmoils, e.g. The Civil War , has been haunted by the faces of all the people he has ever known. The faces of these people are twisted and distorted, and ultimately appear “grotesque” to the elderly writer:
It was his notion that 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 became a
In relation to the theme of isolation in this novel, Anderson uses this chapter to illustrate how the characters in the town of Winesburg should be perceived. Characters that are “grotesque” because they live their lives by a single “truth” that prevents them from
maturing, developing, and ultimately growing into what Anderson would consider “normal” (Fussell, p.111).
The novel itself is broken up into several short stories. These short stories are linked through the character of George Willard, who is essentially the main character. Because of this, Winesburg is considered a Bildungsroman, the character development of George “the artist” to George “the man”. His development occurs through his contact and dealing with the characters in the stories. Each character offers something new in his development, as in advice or wisdom. These “grotesques” rely on George to take notice of their isolation and falsehood, in hopes of George publishing their “truths”:
Each in turn comes forward to offer his secret (the material of art)
And to give up whatever fragmentary wisdom he may possess
Toward the development of the artist who will be the spokesman
For everyone.” (Fussell, p.111).
So, it is through these encounters with George that the reader is introduced to the strong sense of isolation and underdevelopment the characters possess.
The first example, is in the story “Hands”. Here, the character of Wing Biddlbaum is introduced, and right from the start, appears to have isolated himself from the rest of society. “Among all the people of Winesburg but one had come close to him.” (p.27). This one person, is of course George Willard, who is portrayed in this first story as a friend of Wing Biddlbaum. George is someone he can talk to, break free temporarily of
his isolation. In addition to talking openly with George enthusiastically, he also was very expressive and active with his hands when in the presence of George. In doing so, Wing is the first to approach George with the notion that there is more to the world than the town of Winesburg. He suggests George “forget all he has learned” (p.30) and pursue his dreams. Later, we learn of George’s wish to be a writer, and thus supporting the idea that each character is looking for a publisher for their individual piece of wisdom.
In addition to Wing’s isolation, the reader is also introduced to the first example of Anderson’s “grotesque”. Upon relating his individual piece of wisdom to George, Wing, who had placed his hands on George, realizes what he was doing and quickly runs away in embarrassment. Although George remains baffled, the reader learns of Wing’s involvement in being accused of caressing a boys student of his and being publicy humiliated because of it. This directly relates to Wing’s bizarre hand movements, and also to his running away scared when “caressing” George. It is through his hands that he can express his true “love of man”. This love for Wing can only be expressed with George and because of this, feels isolated and lonely when he isn’t around. This “hunger became again a part of his loneliness and his waiting” (p.33) and ultimately ends up making him “grotesque”.
Another important example illustrating these points in Winesburg Ohio, is the story of “Paper Pills”, the second story in the novel. Here, the reader is introduced to the character of Doctor Reefy, a lonely man who like Wing Biddlbaum, has isolated himself
from the day-to-day life of Winesburg. He has done so out of misery and depression from the death of his wife, to whom he was only married to for one winter to the next spring. Previous to her death, the doctor had the habit of scribbling his thoughts and feeling down on little bits of paper and then stuffing them in his shirt pocket to be saved. Upon his wife’s death, Dr. Reefy proceeds to isolate himself to his office to make a life of this. The reader is provided with evidence that this process makes up his day-to-day world for he has “worn one suit of clothes for ten years. It was frayed at the sleeves…” (p.36) almost directly proportional to Reefy’s frayed soul.
It is through his “Paper Pills” that his true “grotesqueness” is revealed, however, and the nature of his isolation becomes understandable. These thoughts he wrote, although they are never revealed, make up Reefy’s one “truth”:
One by one the mind of Doctor Reefy had made the
Thoughts. Out of many of them he formed a truth that
Arose gigantic in his mind. The truth clouded the world. It
Became terrible and then faded away and the little
Thoughts began again.” (p.37)
Later, we also learn of Dr. Reefy’s love for George’s mother, Elizabeth. What makes their relationship strange is the fact that they ultimately end up marrying different people, although Dr. Reefy talks of Elizabeth frequently to his wife. This could be interpreted as
Dr. Reefy’s denial of his feelings and his attempt to isolate himself further from the Winesburg community.
The story that holds the most importance in shedding light on isolation and George Willard’s own development as a character is “Sophistication”. At this point in the novel, George is wandering through the Winesburg County Fair, and is pondering his trip to a big city, where he hopes to pursue his career as a writer with a newspaper. George’s character at this point is also described as having matured and “new thoughts were coming into his mind” (p.233). Due to his mother’s passing, George has learned to “take the backward view of life” and to “live and die in uncertainty” (Fussell, p.113). These new feelings for George make him, for the first time, feel extremely isolated from the rest of the world, and he longs to come close with some other humam.
Helen White, who has been George’s love interest, has also matured to this point of womanhood. She, like George, longs to share her feelings of isolation from the world and to have George “feel the conscious change in her nature.” (p.236). After being at the fair for a while, Helen and George ascend a hill overlooking the Winesburg fair. It is this moment that George and Helen both lose their sense of isolation, and also experience the feelings that represent maturity in both men and women:
The feeling of lonliness and isolation that had come to the
Young man….was both broken and intensified by the
Presence of Helen. What he felt was reflected in her.
In Anderson’s short story, “Death In The Woods”, the reader is introduced to a brief, yet another bold exploration of the things that “lie beneath the surface” of human lives. Like Windesburg, this story takes place in a small town, where people know very little about each other, even to the point where they don’t recognize faces. The story begins with the description of an old woman walking into town, through the woods. The kind of woman that “All country and small-town people have seen, but no one knows much about them.”(p.3). This statement, right from the start, presents a picture of an extreme isolation of lives. The feeling that even a woman of old age, who has probably spent a great time in this town, is unknown and unrecognized creates this extreme sense of isolation. Her journey into town to do some shopping and trading requires her to carry a heavy load. The towns’ people “never gave her a lift. People drive right down a road and never notice an old woman like that.”(p.4). This isolated woman, as compared to those in Winesburg, would have been included in the elderly writers collection of “grotesques” due to her “twisted” and unrecognized face amongst the townspeople. In the author’s eyes, she is isolated from the world.
This woman, as a young lady, was a slave to a German farmer, who used to rape and take advantage when his wife was away from home. Her main duty in life was to make sure everyone was fed. “Every moment of every day, as a young girl, was spent feeding something.” (p.8). This illustrates the corruption of youth, and the loss of
Innocence. The young lady goes on to marry Jake Grimes, a husband not too far off from the qualities of the German farmer. Again, her one duty in life is make sure everything is fed and because they were poor, “She had to scheme all her life about getting things fed.”(p.9). This relates directly to the elderly writers definition of the “grotesques” in that this woman lives by her one “truth”, making her twisted, and distorted as a “normal” human being. This, in turn, results in the extreme isolation from the world in which the
woman has entered.
Even her son, who like his father, mis-treats his mother and can even be said to not recognize her as a human being. The son, at one point in the story, brings a woman home to the house and “ordered the old woman about like a servant. She didn’t mind much; she was used to it.” (p.13). This constant abuse from her family, and the abuse she has received her whole life has desensitized her from the ills of the world, thus making her “grotesque” and isolated. The fact that she is also described here as an “Old Woman” is somewhat significant, for she is in fact only forty year old. Because she is perceived this way, one can only assume that from the years of abuse and misery, it has twisted and distorted her outside appearance. “Her dreams couldn’t have been very pleasant. Not many pleasant things had happened to her.” (p.15).
The event in this story that clearly illustrates the feeling of isolation in the small town, and especially the isolation the old woman had from it, is when her body is discovered in the woods. A town hunter had found the body, and upon reporting it to the
Local sheriff, they walked into the woods to try to identify it. When the people got to where she was, no one could identify her, as if she was a complete stranger to the likes of the townspeople. “At that time no one knew who she was.” (p.21). This presents conclusive evidence of the isolation in which the old woman has lived in this town. It also exhibits Anderson’s portrayal of the “grotesque” and how even the townspeople are “grotesque” for not paying enough attention to their worlds.
Anderson’s hunger to “see beneath the surface of human lives” is clearly illustrated in these two works. In Winesburg, the character of George Willard , on his quest to manhood, is an artist struggling to find the meaning of the world in which he lives. On this journey, he encounters many “grotesques” or distorted examples of human life, that enable George to break free from the isolation of Winesburg and venture out to live the life of what Anderson would consider to be “normal”. In George’s case, the isolation leads to creation, whereas in the townspeople, it leads to self-destruction. The story of “Ghost In The Woods” is in itself, a modified, shorter version of Winesburg due to its’ narrator, an introspective man, desolate and lonely who questions the meaning of his world. In conclusion, the two works examined in this essay provide concrete evidence in support of Anderson’s view on isolation and the “grotesque”. He uses his “grotesques”, who essentially are isolated, to enable his main characters to question the purpose of life and examine the world beyond their immediate surroundings.