Winesburg, Ohio | Study Guide

Sherwood Anderson

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Winesburg, Ohio | Plot Summary



The Book of the Grotesque

This short introduction to Winesburg presents two characters. The first old man is a writer, and the second is an equally old man who is a carpenter, whom the writer has asked to elevate his bed. When he is in this bed and about to go to sleep, many ghostly figures appear to the old writer as "grotesques," who will populate his book.


Wing Biddlebaum, a lonely and frightened middle-aged man, has made friends with the newspaper reporter of the Winesburg Eagle, young George Willard. Although he has lived in Winesburg for over 20 years, Wing doesn't feel as though he is part of the town, because he isn't. His restless hands puzzle George as Wing, who had been a disgraced schoolteacher when he was younger, is unable to overcome his past, chased out of another town and barely escaping with his life.

Paper Pills

Old Doctor Reefy has been forgotten by most of Winesburg, but he was once married to a wealthy young woman. She had come to the doctor because she was unmarried and pregnant. The doctor read to her all the thoughts he had written down on pieces of paper while she was alive, but when she died, he continued his habit of crumpling the papers into hard little balls and stuffing them into his pockets.


George Willard's mother, Elizabeth, works most unhappily as a chambermaid in her stern and opinionated husband Tom's hotel, the New Willard House. Although neglected by Tom, Elizabeth has a quiet companion in her son, George, who sits with her in the evenings. When Tom gets his son a job as a reporter for the local newspaper, Elizabeth fears it will destroy George's spirit.

The Philosopher

Doctor Parcival, who is large, unkempt, and dirty, takes an interest in young George Willard sometime after George has become a reporter. Doctor Parcival does all the talking—mostly about himself and his thoughts—and George listens. Patching together bits and pieces of what the doctor says, George learns the man had taken up several professions, and is in the process of writing a book about his life.

Nobody Knows

George is determined to have an adventure, which starts with a note given to him by Louise Trunnion. The pair secretly meet, although it is clear neither cares much for the other. Several hours later, George strolls into town and buys himself a cigar, unnerved by the meeting.

Godliness: A Tale in Four Parts

"Part 1" is about the Bentley family fortunes following the Civil War, and about Jesse Bentley in particular. Although frail, Jesse's wife works hard on the farm, but Jesse doesn't seem to notice. His mind is consumed with an Old Testament sensibility, and he begs God to give him dominion over even more land than he already has, and a son he can call David, as in the Bible.

"Part 2" concerns Jesse Bentley's deep disappointment in having fathered a daughter instead of a son. This daughter, named Louise, unhappily grows up to marry John Hardy and bears a son, David. As his mother shows increasing signs of insanity, young David goes to live with his grandfather, Jesse.

"Part 3|Surrender" reveals a little more about how the unhappy Louise Bentley grew up and married John Hardy. She searches for love and friendship, but is unable to find it no matter where she goes, or whom she encounters. When her son, David, is born at the end of the story, Louise has no love to give him, and turns away in bitterness.

"Part 4|Terror" is about a biblical misunderstanding between Jesse and God, and between Jesse and his grandson David. It all starts with a walk Jesse takes with David into the woods, carrying one of his lambs and a very sharp knife. When David believes he has killed his grandfather, he disappears.

A Man of Ideas

Small and quick, Joe Welling has so many ideas in his head his speech is incessant, and he spends a great deal of time talking to himself. The problem is although his head is brimming with ideas, he doesn't know what to do with them all. Sarah King is his sweetheart, but when Sarah's father and brother corner Joe to convince him to end the courtship, they are swept away in the flash flood of Joe's ideas.


Alice Hindman is an old maid of Winesburg, but when she was 16 she had an affair with a young man. Although they swore to be together, the young man leaves Winesburg to become a writer, and never comes back for her. It is many years later the totally repressed Alice has her nocturnal "adventure" all by herself, and through it comes to understand it is her lot to live and die alone.


Wash Williams is the very ugly and unclean telegraph operator of Winesburg. He hates both men and women, because it is easier for him to reject others before they reject him. But Wash does make friends with George Willard, so he can tell him his story.

The Thinker

George Willard and Seth Richmond are friends, but they both have their sights set on the attractive daughter of the town's banker, Helen White. Seth is both intelligent and filled with thoughts that seem to separate him from everyone else he knows. When he has a chance to make his move with Helen, she reminds him his mother is waiting for him, and Seth is sure he is never destined to find love.


Tom Hard is a self-proclaimed agnostic, and ready to argue with anyone about it. But when a stranger comes to Winesburg intent upon curing himself from drink, the stranger proclaims he has love for a woman named Tandy, even though he has never found her. The stranger gives the name Tandy to Tom Hard's young daughter, if only she will dare to be strong, courageous, and to be loved.

The Strength of God

Things start out pretty well for the earnest and serious Reverend Curtis Hartman and his wife when they come to pastor the Presbyterian Church of Winesburg. But over time he discovers a view through the window of the house next door of a young woman lying on her bed reading and smoking. Before long, the upright reverend has become utterly obsessed with her, and through a great internal battle with his own health and sanity has a mighty battle with himself to overcome his lust.

The Teacher

Young George Willard has a crush on his schoolteacher, Kate Swift. Kate's driving need is to have the minds of her students open to the experience of life and education. It is in one of her former students, George Willard, she believes she has found someone open to life's experiences.


Nothing ever quite works out for Enoch Robinson. Possessed of a naive artistic personality, Enoch leaves Winesburg for New York City to become a painter. But after getting married and having a family, Enoch returns to Winesburg, and as an old man, tells George Willard the long story of how it came to be he is now all alone.

An Awakening

George Willard has his eye on Belle Carpenter, but she is actually in love with the local bartender, Ed Handby. When George comes calling on Belle, she uses him to make Ed jealous. George awakens to the differences between what can and cannot be communicated to others, and in a highly sexualized scene, ends up defeated and disillusioned in a confrontation with Ed.


Elmer Cowley is jealous of George Willard's freedom to roam about gathering news for the local paper while he is stuck as a merchant in his father's store that sells "everything and nothing." Elmer's father is good at buying merchandise, but not very good at reselling it. Elmer is fed up with his "queer" family, so he steals some money from the store, and hops a train to run away.

The Untold Lie

Ray Pearson and Hal Winters are friends and laborers at a farm near Winesburg. Hal has gotten a local girl in trouble, so he asks Ray what he should do about it—either marry her or leave her. Ray is unable to tell Hal, but Hal decides for himself to marry and have a family.


Wherever he goes, the silent and shadowy young Tom Foster gets along and gets by. At least, that's how things work for Tom until he falls in love with Helen White, and gets drunk over it. His imagination shoots into overtime, and he tells the jealous George Willard he had a romantic night with Helen. The lie angers George, and the two boys have a heated exchange baring their souls a bit.


George's mother, Elizabeth, and Doctor Reefy are good friends. They spend many hours in conversations, which usually end with Elizabeth feeling better for a while. She and Doctor Reefy fall in love, but nothing comes of it. When George Willard is 18, his mother dies before she can give him money she has hidden away.


Following the death of his mother, George Willard realizes he is close to becoming a man. Feeling restless and knowing he is about to leave Winesburg, George seeks the company of his sweetheart, Helen White, who is herself on the cusp of becoming a woman. They try to embrace, but neither is confident. Finally, they chase and laugh through the woods in a last expression of spontaneous freedom before adult life overwhelms them.


The people of Winesburg have turned out to say goodbye to George Willard, who is leaving the town and his childhood behind. They shake his hand and wish him well, while George's father carries up the luggage to the train station. Once on the train, George's mind is not on the large issues of what he will be doing with his life. Instead, he thinks of all the little things he remembers as the town disappears from sight and his life as a man begins to unfold.

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