Winesburg, Ohio: A Book of Grotesques

Ohio: A Book of Grotesques
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, drunkennessthese 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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