Winesburg, Ohio | Study Guide

Sherwood Anderson

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Winesburg, Ohio | Mother | Summary



This story introduces the reader to George Willard's mother, Elizabeth, and how she came to marry Tom Willard, his father. She is described as "tall and gaunt" with some disease that has permanently "taken the fire out of her figure," even though she is only 45. She goes about her day as a chambermaid in the hotel she inherited from her father—the New Willard House—but which her husband Tom claims to own. For his part, the stern and opinionated Tom pays both his wife and the hotel as little attention as possible, because he prefers to get out and about town, guiltily looking over his shoulder as if both his ruined wife and run-down hotel might follow him.

George is an only child, and there is a "deep unexpressed bond of sympathy" between him and his mother. Elizabeth sees in her son all the potential for a life of meaning, which she herself has been denied, or "the thing I let be killed in myself." She prays George will be "allowed to express something for us both," but also he will not "become smart and successful either."

This hope Elizabeth has for her son's future seems threatened when she overhears Tom telling George he has secured a job for him as a reporter for the local newspaper, adding: "You're Tom Willard's son and you'll wake up." The implication is the job will knock the dreamy nonsense out of George, thereby turning him into a sensible and successful man. This has Elizabeth entirely up in arms. She pulls out an old makeup kit, dresses herself up into a persona of ferocious courage, and grasps a pair of scissors with which she intends to murder Tom. But before she can act, Elizabeth loses her nerve, and George comes into her room to tell her he is going to leave Winesburg, and he cannot talk to his father about it. He says, "I just want to go away and look at people and think." This appeases Elizabeth's fury, and she simply tells him, "I think you had better go out among the boys. You are too much indoors." George replies, "I thought I would go for a little walk."


This story sets up the emotional and intellectual underpinnings in the development of young George Willard. Although other stories in Winesburg, Ohio outline the relationships between other young boys and their mothers, Anderson establishes only a vague emotional relationship between George and Elizabeth. This relationship differs from the one between Seth and his mother in "The Thinker," Enoch and his mother in "Loneliness," and Tom Foster and his grandmother in "Drink."

Although Elizabeth drags her gaunt, ghostly body through each day as a chambermaid in the hotel, the fire of life that has "died" in her is very much alive in her hopes for George. She trusts he will become something for the both of them.

Elizabeth already knows how deadly success is for a young man destined to become an artistic writer—as opposed to a successful newspaper reporter—and prays George will not become successful. After all, her husband Tom is very self-satisfied and claims to be "successful," even though nothing he has ever done has resulted in any kind of success. The idea a writer's art is destroyed by success is one Anderson himself espoused. It is pertinent here, since George is a somewhat fictionalized representation of Anderson's early life.

As it turns out, Elizabeth does not need to carry out her desperate plan. She is put more at ease when George tells her not only will he be leaving Winesburg, but he has also no interest in what his father has to say. As George tells his mother his plans, there is no indication he even sees her, or recognizes the change she has made of herself on his behalf. His words reflect his thoughts, and they are entirely focused on his future. But this is all Elizabeth needs. She tells him to go outdoors, as she has many times before. George responds to this familiar exchange between them by saying he intends to take a walk.

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