Winesburg, Ohio | Study Guide

Sherwood Anderson

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Winesburg, Ohio | Godliness, Part 1 | Summary

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Summary

The four stories contained under the larger title of "Godliness" concern the family of wealthy landowner and farmer Jesse Bentley. George Willard does not appear in these stories.

In Part 1 the Bentley family, originally from New York state, purchased land in northern Ohio and settled there. The first generations of Bentleys cleared the land, but by the time Jesse Bentley's father and four brothers took over, there still was a great deal of farmwork to be done, and all of them worked to exhaustion, "ate heavily of coarse, greasy food, and at night slept like tired beasts on beds of straw." All of Jesse's brothers enlisted and were killed in the Civil War, which meant Jesse became the sole inheritor of the property. Jesse had by this time left Winesburg to become a minister, but the needs of the farm called him home. Jesse married a woman named Katherine, and although she works as hard as she can, Jesse seems unaware of the fact his city-bred wife—now pregnant—is slowly killing herself. Possessed of a religious fervor, Jesse recalls men of the Old Testament favored by God, and he fervently prays that he, too, will find God's favor. He prays, "O God, create in me another Jesse, like that one of old, to rule over men and to be the father of sons who shall be rulers!" Although he can barely manage the 600 acres he owns, Jesse begs God to give him more. On the day his wife Katherine is about to give birth, Jesse prays for a son he can call David, so he can push out the modern-day "Philistines," or "all of the Ohio farmers who owned land in the valley of Wine Creek."

Analysis

Most of the descriptions in this story provide a background on how Jesse came to be the kind of man he is. All his older brothers were killed in the war so Jesse has come to own his large farming property. He feels, in contrast to his father and brothers, physically smaller and therefore not as much of a man, so he strives to compensate with the largest ideas he can grasp. He also attempts to maintain his land on his own, and sacrifices the life of his wife in an effort to prove himself. Ignoring his obvious failure, Jesse turns to God, asking for mastery over even more land and men, ostensibly to offer himself as a tool for God's glory, but really with the intent of establishing himself as the head of an important family. It is obvious to everyone except Jesse that although he is able to make others fear him, he really isn't able to master himself. So, the "truth" Jesse reaches for is he must become as favored by God as Jesse was in the Old Testament. Unfortunately for him, no one else sees this in Jesse, for it renders him so "grotesque" over time his own grandson David is first frightened by "a new and dangerous person" who he does not recognize as his grandfather holding him in "Godliness, Part 2" and then is so utterly terrified by the religious fervor taking hold of Jesse he tries to get away from the man chasing him with a knife in "Terror."

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