What do you do behind closed doors? How do you feel? How do you really feel? We all have two lives — public life, which we have with friends and family, and a private life, which we have only to ourselves. Why do we close off our real selves from the ones who care for us? Maybe we are all alone and we prefer for a part of us to be apart from others. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio intersects the people of the eponymous city, and explores how and why people live. As different as everyone is, there is a similarity that everyone shares.
The novel is told through the town newspaper reporter, George Willard, who narrates the stories of the diverse townsfolk. From his regretful mother to the confused priest, George describes residents’ personalities and, in their most intimate states, how they handle life. Two recurring themes in the novel are loneliness and regret: how we come to be lonely and regretful, and how we cope with these emotions and feelings.
George’s mother knows much about regret, which she contents herself to living with. But she’ll be damned if she doesn’t push her son to follow a different path than the one she took: “If I am dead and see him becoming a meaningless drab figure like myself, I will come back.” The relationship between George and his mother is strange. It’s one that doesn’t converge or diverge, it just exists as if they are following some set guidelines on being a parent or a child.
Winesburg, Ohio is a small town that seems to trap people inside its city limits. Growth is stagnant because, like all small towns, there isn’t much room for making bad decisions, which comes to haunt many of the inhabitants. Alice Hindman lives with the decision of not leaving town with her love, Ned Currie, when he left Winesburg to start a fresh life in Cleveland, Ohio. She stayed. She constantly thinks of nothing but him, and refuses to love anyone but him. Years pass, but Alice stays devoted to Ned, where all signs point to him never coming back to her or to Winesburg: “I am his wife and shall remain his wife whether he comes back or not.” Making decisions is a natural part of life, but for the people of Winesburg, Ohio, making one bad decision can mean the difference between a life of happiness or sadness.
The heart of the novel is about making choices. Getting from one place to another requires decision-making. Another way to describe it would be risk-taking. Life is full of risks, but one needs to be able to decide the pros and cons of the risks in order to decide what to do or not to do. Is every action a risk? It depends on how you look at it, and it depends on what you value. If you value your car, you risk damaging it everytime you drive it. If you don’t value your watch, you shouldn’t mind if it gets stolen.
The town’s reverend, Curtis Hartman, jeopardizes his image with his thoughts of another woman he watches from a hole in the church through the woman’s open bedroom window. The reverend is married, yet he still peeps at the woman from his hole. He could lose everything, from his wife to his personal integrity, if he is caught. What Reverend Hartman values over everything else is his devotion to God. He believes that this temptation is a test from God, and in order to pass the test, he feels that he must continue peeping through his hole: “I am God’s child and he must save me from myself.” To him, the risk of getting caught is insignificant in comparison to the risk of not finding out God’s purpose for him, or of suffering God’s wrath.
In Winesburg, Ohio risks can seem so much larger in scale than in reality, which frightens many people into accepting their ordinary lives. To Reverend Hartman, his physical risks were minimal, and his spiritual risks were great. To George Willard, looking at the town from a journalistic viewpoint has taught him that risk is a good thing. The town is a haven for disappointed souls, and the greatest risk would be to stay in such place. Winesburg is George’s home, but the town’s residents teach George that disappointment comes only from inaction. Acting on your desires is what life is about; fulfillment is one joy that people must experience.
So admired are Sherwood’s stories and characters that Ernest Hemingway parodies Winesburg, Ohio in his novel The Torrents Of Spring. I think that sums up how good Winesburg, Ohio is. If it can linger in the mind and heart of a great like Hemingway and inspire him to parody, the book must be good. So innocent is George Willard that he resembles the eager and optimistic person that each of us were at some point in our life. The hardest part in life is deciding what direction we wanted to go from that point on.
NOTE: Article originally published on Blogcritics.
NOTE 2: Edited and updated page.