Winesburg, Ohio | Study Guide

Sherwood Anderson

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Winesburg, Ohio | Loneliness | Summary

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Summary

When he was young, Enoch Robinson lived with his mother, and the older people of Winesburg remember him as a quiet, smiling boy but somehow things never quite work out for him. He had a habit of coming into town and walking in the middle of the road reading a book, and was hit once by a streetcar that made him lame. Although Enoch had a talent for drawing, and left Winesburg at age 21 to spend 15 years in New York City to study and become a painter, he couldn't understand other people, and other people couldn't understand him. Enoch was a good listener but never seemed able to say anything himself: "He knew what he wanted to say, but he knew also that he could never by any possibility say it."

Although Enoch has retained the emotional state of a child in the body of a man, he longs for human contact. While in New York, Enoch managed to get married and have children. He also got a job as an illustrator for advertisements, but this newfound respectability didn't last. Unable to cope with "actualities like money and sex and opinions," Enoch left his wife and children and for a while remained alone in his New York apartment at his job in advertising, though his heart wasn't in it. Over time Enoch managed to imagine for himself a host of fantasy people, and he was content enough with that until he met a woman to whom he thought he could explain his imaginary people. But when she begins to understand him, he is compelled to leave and move back to Winesburg.

Impelled by the desire to tell someone his story, the now-old man-child Enoch corners George Willard, a young man in whom he perceives an inkling of the sadness that has permeated his own life. Enoch tells George about the encounter he had with a woman who he had thought capable of understanding him and his "people." He tries to explain to George when she looks like she began to understand what Enoch was telling her, he threw her out. "I was furious," he tells George, "I couldn't stand it. I wanted her to understand but, don't you see, I couldn't let her understand." But as soon as the woman leaves, all Enoch's imaginary people leave with her. And when George leaves, Enoch wails now he is all alone in his room.

Analysis

Enoch is as miserable in his isolation from other people as Wing Biddlebaum is in "Hands." Like Wing, Enoch lives alone, and the only person to whom he can express himself is George Willard. Enoch is an "almost-might-have-been" George, for he left Winesburg to study painting in New York. But although Enoch has a talent as a painter, his enduring childlike nature—with its attendant self-absorption—means he isn't able to paint pictures people understand, or want to buy.

There is a strong hint Enoch is, perhaps as much as George, a reflection of Anderson himself. Almost by default, Enoch turns to a job as an advertising illustrator, gets married, and has children. This is a turn of the story that perhaps reflects Anderson's own stint in advertising, marriage, and family life before he left it to concentrate on his writing. As Enoch tells George, he "began to feel choked and walled in by life in the apartment." But instead of moving on as Anderson did, Enoch simply returns to a solitary life in Winesburg. The ghostly people with which Enoch fills his emptiness recall the figures populating the dreams of the old writer in "The Book of the Grotesque," and the many characters with which Anderson populated his own writing.

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