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Winesburg, Ohio

Sherwood Anderson

"Mother," "The Philosopher," "Nobody Knows"

"The Book of the Grotesque," "Hands," "Paper Pills"

"Godliness," Parts I-II

Summary

"Mother" is concerned with Elizabeth Willard, George Willard's mother. She and her husband, Tom Willard, run a boarding house in Winesburg, which is perpetually on the verge of failure, like her marriage. Elizabeth is frequently ill and has become a pale, ghostly figure, wandering aimlessly through their home. Tom, an energetic man with a zest for politics, is embarrassed by his wife, and spends his time airing his grievances. He is a Democrat in a heavily Republican town, lamenting the fact that he should have achieved great things politically, but now time has passed him by. The relationship between Elizabeth and her son is stiff and uncomfortable, and they frequently sit together for long periods of time without talking.

One night, after Elizabeth has been in bed for several days, she realizes that George has not come to see her, and becomes concerned. She gets up and hears Tom haranguing their son, urging George to "wake up" and make something of himself. This infuriates Elizabeth, and she decides that she will kill her husband. "When I have killed him," she tells herself, "something will snap within myself and I will die also. It will be a release for all of us." She remembers her girlhood, when she used to scandalize the town by dressing up in men's clothes and riding a bicycle, or by walking about with male guests from the boarding house. Looking at herself in the mirror, she decides that she must make herself appear more impressive, more beautiful and terrible before she kills her husband. But her sudden burst of energy subsides, and her plan slips away. George enters and talks to her awkwardly for a moment about his intention to leave Winesburg, probably in a year or two. He goes out for a walk, leaving her alone in the dark house.

"The Philosopher" describes Doctor Parcival, a middle-aged man who routinely visits the offices of the Winesburg Eagle to chat with George Willard. Doctor Parcival has been in Winesburg for five years, but his medical practice is still very small. Nevertheless, he always seems to have plenty of money. A talkative man, he tells long stories to George, about his past in Dayton, Ohio: how his father was in an insane asylum and his brother was a violent miser, and how he himself was at different times a minister and a reporter. Throughout his recounting, he implies that he has a criminal past by dropping hints about having dark secrets. Then, one day, a girl is killed in a Winesburg street, and all of the town's doctors are called to the scene. Doctor Parcival refuses to come, but nobody notices his absence. When George comes to visit him later, the doctor is convinced that the town will be furious with him for refusing to come to the scene, and that a mob will gather and hang him. He pleads with George, making him promise that if anything happens, George will "write the book that I may never get written." This book will contain the secret of human life--"that everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified."

The brief section entitled "Nobody Knows" describes how George Willard goes out into the country with a girl named Louise Trunnion to have sex. Later that night, he walks into town feeling an odd mix of pride and embarrassment. "She hasn't got anything on me," he tells himself. "Nobody knows."

Commentary

"Mother" takes the reader inside the Willard household, presenting an unhappy marriage in which husband and wife are alienated from one another. (Unhappy marriages abound in Winesburg, Ohio, most notably in "Surrender," "Respectability," and "The Untold Lie.") An atmosphere of decay permeates the family: Elizabeth Willard's body is slowly falling apart, turning her into a "ghostly figure" with a gaunt frame and a scarred face; the boarding house they own has "faded wall paper" and "ragged carpets." These physical details mirror the interior states of Elizabeth and Tom Willard, who are both like "things defeated and done for." Tom Willard had political ambitions that have come to nothing, while his wife had a wild youth, running about with various men, only to have her dreams of an adventurous life collapse amid an unhappy marriage and the wasting illness that afflicts her.

Understandably, both Elizabeth and Tom find themselves living vicariously through their son. Tom urges George to go out and make something of his life because he himself never did; Elizabeth feels a "secret bond" with her son. "Within him," she thinks, "there is a secret something that is striving to grow. It is the thing I let be killed in myself." This sense of deficiency is the cause of Elizabeth's tense rivalry with her husband for influence over George. She associates her own unhappiness, the death of her "secret something," with her marriage to Tom, and thus sees Tom as a threat to George's happiness as well. Her urge to kill Tom, however, is just that: an emotion-induced impulse. One has difficulty imagining Elizabeth, weak and worn out as she is, mustering the energy or the will to do anything so drastic. As her urge and energy fade, she slides easily back into her ghostly routine.

Like Doctor Reefy, Doctor Parcival is also an off-kilter man of medicine. The story's title "The Philosopher" is ironic, in that Doctor Parcival doesn't cut the figure of a pensive intellectual. He enjoys showing off for George Willard, hinting about unlikely criminal exploits and asserting that he, too, has been a reporter (though he can't remember where or when). His attitude toward life is at once self-satisfied and cynical. "I want to fill you with hatred and contempt so that you will be a superior being," Dr. Parcival tells George. In fact, this cynicism is a veneer covering a deep insecurity. Sitting in wait for an imaginary lynch mob at the end of the story, Doctor Parcival is not merely alienated, but also paranoid. His mistrust and fearfulness coexist with an immense sense of life's unhappiness, summed up in what seems to be the only philosophical notion he expresses--that everyone is Christ and thus everyone is crucified.

"Nobody Knows" offers the first direct glimpse of George Willard, the young man in whom everyone confides. Formally, this section deals with Louise Trunnion, but it is the male psyche that receives in-depth exploration. George comes across as a typically insecure adolescent--eager for sex, with a mixture of pride and guilt about it afterward. His insistence that "she hasn't got anything on me" is a manifestation of the degree to which he is self-absorbed about sex. It also hints at the dangers of sex and pregnancy in small-town America where social norms and gossip rule, a theme that will recur in later stories.

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