Winesburg, Ohio | Study Guide

Sherwood Anderson

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Winesburg, Ohio | Drink | Summary



Tom Foster and his grandmother live together in Winesburg, after having spent some years in Cincinnati. Possessed of a gentle and soft voice, Tom manages to get along with everybody. He never argues with, or crosses anyone. Hardened gang boys and prostitutes in Cincinnati left him alone, because Tom never challenged them. Instead, he simply observes and runs errands for them when asked to do so. When they arrive in Winesburg, Tom and his grandmother go to work for the White family. But Tom is forgetful of his duties, and leaves to live alone in a rented room. He takes odd jobs, thinks, and enjoys simple things like the smell of coffee.

Women don't enter Tom's mind until he gets drunk one spring night, and decides to fall in love with Helen White. This is a problem for George Willard, who feels at least half in love with her himself. But when George finds Tom wandering helplessly around town and takes him in to sober him up, Tom tells George what a wonderful night he's had making love to Helen White. George knows this is not true, because he saw Helen that night with her father. He repeatedly tells Tom to quit saying such things, but Tom is relaying his experience of having gotten drunk. "It was like making love, that's what I mean," Tom tells George, "I wanted to suffer, to be hurt somehow ... I thought of a lot of things to do, but ... they all hurt someone else."


Tom is envious of George, but it takes a bout of drunkenness for him to find—if not the reality of it—then at least the dream of boldly making love to a beautiful young woman like Helen, who is herself pursued by other would-be suitors (George among them). Tom's attempt to grasp a "truth" for himself that goes against his generally peaceful nature is painful, but at least his self-inflicted pain is a brief release.

The character of Tom is akin to others in Winesburg, Ohio, notably Enoch with his imaginary people in "Loneliness," and Wing Biddlebaum in "Hands." All three are described as gentle and nonconfrontational, unlike another "refugee" from the outside world, Wash Williams in "Respectability," who smashes his own illusions about his wife's profession by trying to kill his former mother-in-law with a chair.

It is in the character of Tom that Anderson brings forward a tactic of survival he had to adopt himself in dangerous situations. In an autobiographical sketch, Anderson relates he witnessed a brutal attack in a bar, similar to what Tom might have experienced living among the tough gangs and prostitutes of Cincinnati. Anderson writes a large, drunk man handed his young son to him before beating up another man by knocking him down, and stomping on the man's shoulder: "I could hear the bones crunch and it made me so sick I could hardly stand up."

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