Winesburg, Ohio | Study Guide

Sherwood Anderson

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Winesburg, Ohio | The Teacher | Summary

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Summary

It is the middle of winter, and George Willard is thinking about his former schoolteacher, Kate Swift. He has maintained contact with her, and she continues to loan him books she wants him to read, offering a kind of concentrated attention to him that makes him think maybe she is in love with him. The idea is "both pleasing and annoying." The night is so cold and forbidding only four people are up and about. The night watchman, Hop Higgins, is a veteran of the Civil War. He finishes his rounds and settles into his easy chair, in which "he had trained himself to sit for hours through the long nights neither asleep nor awake." Curtis Hartman sits in his bell tower room waiting for God to give him a revelation. George Willard is in the newspaper office, thinking about Kate.

Kate Swift is also unable to sleep, and goes for a walk in the cold night storm. She thinks about her students, and about George in particular. Kate is perceived by the people of Winesburg as being cold and stern, but that's only on the surface. She is well read and well traveled, and "in reality she was the most eagerly passionate soul among them." One day, Kate had tried to fan the spark of genius she thinks she sees in George by telling him he should not write about what people say, but about what they think. At that point she and George almost close in an embrace, but she pulled away, telling him a decade will pass before he understands her. Now in the cold of the storm, Kate sees George is in the newspaper office and goes in to talk to him. Again, a romantic encounter almost happens before she leaves. George goes home and is "the last soul on that winter night to go to sleep."

Analysis

The most prominent image in this story is being awake and asleep. The story may appear closely related to the previous one, "The Strength of God," because what keeps some people awake on that cold night in January is passion. Curtis Hartman is awake waiting for Kate to show up in her room so he can spy on her, and feed his lustful passion. In "The Teacher" Kate herself is awake with the passion of a teacher to convey a sense of the larger world outside Winesburg to her students, most of whom spend their days "asleep" to her teachings. George is the rare exception, and she is as determined as George's mother Elizabeth that his spark should not be snuffed out. But it is a thin line between the awakening of educational passion and the awakening of romantic passion, and it is this "truth" that embarrasses them both, to the point the lonely teacher breaks away from him and leaves.

Alone in the night, George is completely confused, not only by his own growing feelings toward his teacher, but by beginning to sense her own womanliness that has been suppressed by her self-imposed spinsterhood. But it is this very confusion at the core of passion during which Kate delivers what is perhaps her most significant lesson to a student beyond mere words that "bugs" him such that he will probably return to the disturbance of it many times later in life. George has become awake to his own passion, and through it he will go on attempting to grasp at what it was his former teacher was trying to communicate as the most important lesson she has to give him. In this way Anderson melds both the powerful force of a physical attraction denied (which Kate knows she must not give in to with a student, despite her feelings and her perception George feels the same) and the force of meaning in an education on which George must build in the coming years.

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