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Winesburg, Ohio

Sherwood Anderson

Study Questions

Analytical Overview

Review Questions

What role does George Willard play in Winesburg, Ohio?

Winesburg, Ohio sits uneasily on the divide between a novel and a collection of short stories. Although each of the sections in the book stands on its own, they all center on the Ohio town of the title, and they overlap one another in various ways. George Willard unifies the book, appearing in fifteen out of the twenty-four stories, sometimes as the main character, but more often as a confidant--someone to whom unhappy, alienated people such as Wing Biddlebaum and Wash Williams can relate their troubles. In these stories, he is a listener, standing in for the reader--a conduit through whom the reader receives other people's stories. As the book progresses toward its end, George moves out of the shadows and develops into an adult, leaving behind the superficialities of youth. By the end of Winesburg, Ohio, he is ready to leave his home town behind, and with his departure the reader leaves as well.

Discuss the role of religion in Winesburg, Ohio.

Out of the many stories in Anderson's book, two in particular focus on the relationship between God and man. "Godliness" and "The Strength of God" offer starkly contrasting views of religious life, and particularly of the way God communicates with man. In "Godliness," Jesse Bentley comes to see himself as a kind of Old Testament figure, the founder of a "new race of men sprung from himself." He believes he is chosen by God to prosper greatly, and anxiously looks for a sign of divine favor. He thinks he finds this sign in his only grandson, David Hardy. But when Jesse attempts to confirm God's gift, by taking the boy out into the woods and waiting for a sign or a miracle, the boy feels only fear, as if "a new and dangerous person" has taken possession of his grandfather's body. In "The Strength of God," the Reverend Curtis Hartman feels that God has abandoned him by allowing him to be gripped by sexual temptation. In a moment of utter despair, however, Hartman is allowed a glimpse of the divine (or so he thinks) in the praying figure of the very woman who has been the source of his temptation. The contrast is clear: Jesse Bentley looks desperately for God and finds nothing, while Curtis Hartman is on the verge of abandoning God when he has a miraculous vision.

How is marriage portrayed in Winesburg, Ohio?

There are noticeably few happy people in Anderson's Ohio town, and even fewer happily married people. In particular, his female characters are largely trapped in unpleasant, sterile marriages, yearning desperately for love. Elizabeth Willard hates her husband, for instance, while Louise Bentley bitterly regrets her decision to get married. Jesse Bentley's nameless wife dies in childbirth, succumbing to poor health induced by her husband's slave-driving management of their farm. The men, too, such as Ray Pearson in "The Untold Lie," are often dissatisfied with their marriages and feel trapped by the obligation to stand by their wives. Wash Williams endures the infidelity of his wife and develops an abiding loathing for all women. The only happy couple seems to be Doctor Reefy and his much younger wife in "Paper Pills"--and their happiness is cut short by her death. Bliss, Anderson seems to suggest, is necessarily fleeting, and marriage becomes something to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Discuss the portrayal of women in Winesburg, Ohio.

Compare and contrast Seth Richmond and Elmer Cowley, particularly in their attitudes toward Winesburg and George Willard.

Discuss the role of loneliness in the book. Who is lonely? Who isn't?

Are there any happy characters in Winesburg, Ohio? Who are they? Defend your answer.

Discuss the overall structure of the stories. Why do you think Anderson arranged them the way he did?

Discuss George Willard's relationships to women, particularly his mother, Kate Swift, and Helen White.

To what extent are the characters "grotesques"? How does this image play out throughout the book?

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