Winesburg, Ohio | Study Guide

Sherwood Anderson

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Winesburg, Ohio | Hands | Summary

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Summary

Wing Biddlebaum (formerly known as Adolph Myers) holds a dark secret because of his hands: "The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands." Wing has lived alone in a ravine near Winesburg for 20 years, and is described as a "fat little old man" of "forty but looked sixty-five." His only friend is George Willard, the young reporter for the Winesburg Eagle. One autumn evening, Wing waits, hoping George will come, as he looks across "a long field that has been seeded for clover but that had produced only a dense crop of yellow mustard seeds." On the other side of the field, Wing sees groups of young berry pickers coming home for the day, and he remembers when he was famous in Winesburg for the speed with which his hands could pick berries.

George is intrigued by how Wing's hands pound on tables or trees while he talks. Wing has something terribly important to convey to George, and he tells the young reporter: "You must try to forget all you have learned ... you must begin to dream." George speculates there is something in the movement of Wing's hands that conceal the secret of why the old man is so afraid of everyone, but he is determined not to ask. The reader is told Wing had long ago been a schoolteacher in a Pennsylvania town, and was known as "Adolph Myers." He was liked by everyone until one of his young male students accused him of inappropriately putting his hands on him. Suspicions grew until a group of alarmed parents showed up one night at Adolph's home, and "one of the men had a rope in his hands." Their intention is clearly to hang him, but instead they allow him to make his escape.

Adolph runs away to live with an aunt in Winesburg, and changes his name to Biddlebaum, a name taken from a box he had seen at a train station. The name "Wing" was given to him by "some obscure poet of the town" because the incessant fluttering of his hands suggested "the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird." Terrified by his memories, Wing tries to hide his hands as much as possible, because "he felt that the hands must be to blame." Wing's day ends with his fingers flashing in the light as he picks up bread crumbs from his kitchen floor.

Analysis

This story takes place over an evening during the harvest season. The setting of this first story parallels the last one, "Departure," which takes place in the early hours of a spring day when Anderson's main character, George Willard, makes a different kind of "harvest" of his childhood by leaving the town in which he has grown up.

Wing anxiously waits to see if his friend George will come to see him. He looks across a "long field" that has been seeded for a desired crop of clover, but only produces worthless mustard weeds. The field itself suggests Wing's state in life, which may once have been "seeded" for a valuable crop when he was young, but has ended up producing tiny, worthless mustard seeds. A biblical reference also may have been indicated here, as the Book of Matthew states: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of ... seeds."

Now a fat little old man, Wing catches sight of the young berry pickers coming home after a day's work. This scene reminds him of his younger days when his hands were admired for the speed with which they could pick berries. Although now forgotten, this youth still lives inside Wing, like the young and fearless warrior woman living within the old writer in "The Book of the Grotesque." Wing's advice to George is similar to the old writer's desire to be awake to dreams. Although Wing dreams and remembers, he hasn't the courage to speak aloud his own painful isolation, even as his hands pound out the importance of his advice for George.

Wing is indeed trapped in his self-imposed isolation by how his expressive hands have been misinterpreted by the parents of his students. There is nothing to indicate Wing ever tells George about his previous life as a schoolteacher, but Wing's hands give George a clue. The degree of shame associated with same-sex attraction in Anderson's time was both intense and hidden. Until the late 1800s, Western society didn't even have words to describe it, but both secular and sacred law banned it as a crime and a sin. It is poignant the final image of Wing is of him "kneeling like a priest engaged in some service of his church ... hands ... going swiftly through decade after decade of his rosary." The implication he has been consigned to the barren fringes of life in Winesburg and both his physical and emotional hunger is expressed in the speed with which his hands "flash in and out of the light" to grasp sweetened bread crumbs that have dropped onto the floor.

Anderson often combines the physical usefulness of hands in work—such as picking berries—and the ways in which hands describe the deepest longings of the human heart. The gnarled but sweet apples pickers reject "look like the knuckles of Doctor Reefy's hands" in the following story, "Paper Pills."

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