Literature Study GuidesWinesburg OhioThe Strength Of God Summary

Winesburg, Ohio | Study Guide

Sherwood Anderson

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Winesburg, Ohio | The Strength of God | Summary

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Summary

The Reverend Curtis Hartman has a habit of retiring to a small room in the church bell tower to pray. The pastor is a very serious and dedicated man, and while he doesn't seem able to inspire his congregation, he doesn't have any enemies either. His one prayer is a "power would come like a great wind into his voice ... and the people would tremble before the spirit of God made manifest in him." One hot day, he has the window of the bell tower room open and sees through it into the house next door where a woman is lying on a bed smoking a cigarette and reading a book. Mightily upset by this unacceptable behavior to him, Curtis closes the window and later, completely distracted from the carefully rehearsed modulations of his voice and gestures, delivers a sermon that "attracted unusual attention because of its power and clearness."

The house next door belongs to Aunt Elizabeth Swift, who lives there with her daughter Kate Swift, the schoolteacher. Curtis begins to weave his speculations around why Kate smokes, and would very much like to have his redemptive sermons reach her ears. Eventually, he finds himself engaged instead in a tremendous struggle to keep himself from the "carnal desire to 'peep.'" He takes a stone and smashes a corner out of the stained-glass bell tower room window, which shows a child receiving the blessings of Christ. Through this hole, he continues to watch Kate in her room, and becomes obsessed with her figure. For a while Curtis puts up a fight to overcome his lust, and then gives up, saying, "I will see this woman and will think the thoughts I have never dared to think." One cold winter night, Curtis bursts into the newspaper office—where George Willard is "undergoing a struggle of his own"—to tell George the startling news that "God has appeared to me in the person of Kate Swift, the school teacher, kneeling naked on a bed."

Analysis

Curtis Hartman has lived under the assumption the best life one can lead in the service of the Lord is one devoid of any sin. Anderson likely draws upon experiences observing religious fervor such as that which seized both the Reverend Curtis Hartman in this story, and Jesse Bentley in "Godliness: A Tale in Four Parts." But somehow, the harder Curtis tries to subdue his interest in Kate Swift, the more intense it becomes. Curtis at first wants Kate to be "saved," and of course he is just the one to accomplish this. But Curtis is, unlike so many others in Winesburg, able to shift his "truth" to accommodate what is happening to him instead of the other way around. If he is imbued with passion and lust, then he figures he should leave the ministry and do something else. By the end of the story he has smashed the stained-glass window—which both obstructs his view of Kate and represents the boundaries of his ministry—with his fist, and declared Kate has appeared to him as a manifestation of God.

Curtis is like other good preachers of the time, infused with the power of his lofty rhetoric. While much of a sermon was based on the Bible, the fear of hell—hence the term "fire and brimstone"—was supposed to drive sinners into redemption. The United States experienced a revival of religious sentiment in the "Second Awakening," which included tent revival meetings that originated in Kentucky, and spread across the country during the 19th century. The rhetoric of the preacher at these meetings was crucial to work the crowds into a frenzy of repentance and dedication to Christ.

It is this kind of frenzy of religious fervor Curtis begs God to give him so he can compel his congregation on the strength of his voice and carefully crafted words. What he tragically does not grasp is it is only when he forgets the mechanics by which this is crafted because his mind is on Kate Swift he actually manages to impress his congregation during one sermon. The reader is left at the end of the story to consider the peculiar "truth" Curtis holds onto, which is very different from the one he has at the beginning. The concept of Kate Swift being "an instrument of God bearing the message of the truth" is one Curtis comes to after a considerable and painful transformation, not unlike that of the little girl in the previous story "Tandy." While it may be no less "grotesque" than others in Winesburg, Ohio, Curtis's new truth is completely different than the one he had at the start of his story. In this he is quite different than other characters who, in the face of changes around them, never let go of their original "truths" as is the case of Alice Hindman in the earlier "Adventure."
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