Winesburg, Ohio | Study Guide

Sherwood Anderson

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Winesburg, Ohio | Paper Pills | Summary



In this story the reader meets Doctor Reefy, who has "a white beard and huge nose and hands." Doctor Reefy is described as wearing the same old shabby clothes all the time, and inhabiting an equally unkempt office. He has the habit of writing down ideas on little pieces of paper while traveling in his buggy, and then wadding them up and shoving them into the pockets of his coat, where they turn into "little hard round balls." On occasion Doctor Reefy throws them at his friend, the nursery man John Spaniard, and laughs at him.

The reader learns the tale of Doctor Reefy and his deceased wife is "delicious, like the twisted little apples" left behind on the trees in the frosts of early winter after all the other apples have been picked and sent to the cities. These rejected apples are described as gnarled "like the knuckles of Doctor Reefy's hands." One day, the daughter of wealthy land-owning parents had consulted Doctor Reefy because she was afraid she has become pregnant. Her mother and father have died, leaving her alone, wealthy and pursued by suitors. She is torn between the son of a jeweler who talks at great length about virginity, and a silent but persuasive lover who "always managed to get her into the darkness where he began to kiss her." Perceiving both suitors as equally lustful and eager to use her for her wealth, the girl instead marries the older Doctor Reefy. He spends the winter before she dies reading to her everything he had written on the bits of paper.


Anderson continues to build upon the symbolism of people's hands. He gives a description of Dr. Reefy's hands and what he does with them, including the comparison of Dr. Reefy's knuckles to the sweet, gnarled apples the pickers have left behind on the trees after having shipped the "better" crop off to the cities.

The two different kinds of apples are compared to what people read, and how they think about it. Anderson states the apples shipped off to the cities are consumed by apartment dwellers in the cities surrounded by "books, magazines, furniture, and people." In this juxtaposition of apples people in the city would buy, and the books and newspapers they read, Anderson suggests the "nice" appearance means very little to anyone who "consumes" the books, newspapers, and apples. It is in the small rejected apples the real sweetness can be found, just as it is to be found in the stories of Winesburg people like Doctor Reefy and his "paper pills."

Oddly enough, although there are three doctors in Winesburg, two of them—Dr. Reefy and Dr. Parcival—are interesting to George Willard precisely because both have appearances and habits unlike those expected of a doctor intent upon healing others. It is through George's eyes and ears the reader comes to understand the truths that turn the people of Winesburg into "grotesques." One of these is Doctor Reefy, whose thoughts loom large in his mind until he writes them down on pieces of paper. He doesn't seem to think anyone in Winesburg is worthy of sharing these ideas (there is no indication he reads any of them to George in this story). Instead, Doctor Reefy wads them up into hard paper balls and stuffs them into his pockets. Once his pockets are full of them, they are discarded, either by throwing them at his friend while he laughs, or by just dropping them on the floor of his office. For some months during his marriage, he is able to read some of what he has written on them to her, but when she dies, it is no longer possible for him to share these ideas with anyone else. His isolation and loneliness is unrelieved, although the reader does learn in the much later story "Death" he had meaningful conversations with George's mother, Elizabeth. By and large, though, the only "patient" served by such pills is Doctor Reefy himself, for it is only in writing his thoughts down he can maintain a stable mind.

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