Literature Study GuidesWinesburg OhioThe Book Of The Grotesque Summary

Winesburg, Ohio | Study Guide

Sherwood Anderson

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Winesburg, Ohio | The Book of the Grotesque | Summary

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Summary

An elderly writer finds the windows of his house are so high his bed must be elevated to see out the window of his bedroom when he wakes up in the morning. He asks an elderly carpenter to raise his bed. For a while, the two men—who both have a mustache and smoke cigars—discuss options by which the bed can be raised to the level of the window. But before long, the carpenter begins to reminisce about his experiences as a soldier in the Civil War, and how his brother died of starvation in prison. The carpenter raises the bed, but the writer has such a hard time climbing up into it at night that he thinks of death because the effort to get into bed causes his heart to flutter. He knows his body is old and wearing out, but he also knows inside himself is an entity, "a woman, young, and wearing a coat of mail like a knight."

In his dream the writer sees this knight driving a "long procession" of people—everyone the writer had known in his long life. When the dream is over, the writer gets out of bed and writes "The Book of the Grotesque"—a book about people who take hold of a truth, and live their lives by it. But in so doing, each figure becomes grotesque, and the truth becomes a sort of lie. The unnamed speaker telling this story states the writer was in danger of becoming a grotesque himself, but probably didn't because the book he wrote was never published: "It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man."

Analysis

This very short and enigmatic story seems at first entirely unrelated to the characters and events in the rest of the Winesburg, Ohio tales. The two characters are not named, and in this respect, "The Book of the Grotesque" resembles the latter story, "Tandy," in which a young girl and a stranger who connect through the "truth" are not named. There is also no specific location except the old writer's bedroom in his house. Nevertheless, the reader is given a psychological "location" that holds through all the other stories in the book. For example, Anderson first introduces the theme of reality and dream that plays throughout other stories, notably in "Mother," "The Teacher," and "Departure."

The old carpenter is described as a veteran of the Civil War, and this plays in and out of several stories in Anderson's book, as the "former soldier" reappears in the character of the watchman, Hop Higgins, in "The Teacher." The opening of "Part 1" of "Godliness: A Tale in Four Parts" also refers to how this region of Ohio was settled by Jesse Bentley's family in the 20 years following the war, which would have been within memory's reach for veterans during Anderson's early life. It is also possible Anderson may have been drawing upon experiences of his own stint in the US Army during the Spanish-American War (1898–99).

The similarities between the two old men—one a carpenter who creates physical objects, and the other a writer who creates fiction from the mind—suggest two opposite identities of one and the same person. At one point during the 1920s, Anderson bought a Democratic and a Republican weekly newspaper and edited both at the same time! Opposing identities are not uncommon in Anderson's writing. The opposites of youth and age, and male and female, play out in Winesburg, Ohio—notably in Curtis Hartman's mystic determination Kate Swift had appeared to him as the embodiment of God in "The Strength of God," or the small child infused with the power of an adult woman in "Tandy." The old writer in "The Book of the Grotesque" has within him a young woman dressed as a knight, who "saves" him from becoming "grotesque" himself.
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