Winesburg, Ohio | Study Guide

Sherwood Anderson

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Winesburg, Ohio | Respectability | Summary



Wash Williams is Winesburg's telegraph operator. He is described as the ugliest and dirtiest creature—"A huge, grotesque kind of monkey." Wash's one redeeming quality is he takes care of his hands, because he is proud of his reputation as "the best telegraph operator in the state." There is nothing half-hearted or tentative about Wash. He lives at the New Willard House, owned by George's father, and drinks "unbelievable quantities of beer." Most emphatically, Wash hates everybody—men and women—with a complete resentment people in Winesburg may feel themselves, but never have the courage to express. Wash has nothing to lose, because as absolute as his hatred of others is, his lack of concern over what others think of him is just as absolute. When he sees George walking with Belle Carpenter, Wash decides to tell George about how he fell in love and got married.

Wash tells George he and his beautiful wife planted a garden at their new home, but within two years' time, the young wife had managed to acquire three lovers. Wash was unable to touch her once he found out about it, and sent her back to her mother. Later he tried to see her, but her mother pushed her into the room where he was waiting, and the young woman was naked! Furious, Wash attempted to kill the mother, but was disappointed hitting her once with a chair didn't do the trick. Now that his ex-wife's mother has died, his only regret is he "won't ever have a chance to kill her now."


In Anderson's day telegraph operators sat in a small room at a desk with the telegraph machine in front of them. If a person wanted to send a telegraph to someone, the person approached the telegraph operator from the outside of a small window with bars in front of it, very much like a zoo cage in which a wild and potentially dangerous animal is kept separate from the public.

Wash is made "grotesque" inside and out by the fury of emotions caged within him. The story Wash tells George about his life is infused with advice to the young reporter: "Don't have fool notions in your head." This is not unlike Doctor Parcival's urge to mold George into a "superior being" in "The Philosopher." But in this story, Wash is specifically targeting all women as the direct object of his hatred because he saw George walking with Belle Carpenter, and doesn't want George to make the same dreadful mistake.

The account Wash gives of the last time he saw his former wife is all the more horrible in he never tells George the incident had finally destroyed all his illusions about her. He doesn't tell George the lovely girl had been a prostitute before he met her. She simply had carried on in that capacity throughout their marriage, and her mother had put her to it all along, as evidenced by her mother pushing her naked into the room where Wash was kept waiting to see her. This incident caused Wash's passionate love for his wife to turn into a deep hatred for all women, and his only lasting bitter regret is he never had the chance to kill his wife's mother for what she did.

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