Winesburg, Ohio | Study Guide

Sherwood Anderson

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Winesburg, Ohio | The Untold Lie | Summary



Hal Winters is a young farm laborer who is friends with an older farmhand, Ray Pearson. There is a strong note of wildness running through Hal's people. His father, Windpeter Winters, met a strange and tragic death when he got drunk, and drove a team of horses along the railroad tracks to be struck by an oncoming train. Hal is himself regarded as every bit as bad as—if not worse than—his father and brothers, who had reputations as obnoxious fighters and woman-chasers. Ray, on the other hand, quietly courted and married a woman, and raised a bunch of children. One day while they work together, Hal asks Ray if it has all been worth it: "What about marriage ... ? Has a fellow got to do it? ... Has he got to be harnessed up and driven through life like a horse?"

Hal follows this question with the statement he's gotten a girl in trouble, and wants to know what Ray thinks he should do about it. Ray is not able to answer right away. When Ray's wife sends him out to get food, he decides he needs to tell Hal not to get married. After all, no promises had been made. However, by the time he catches up with Hal, the younger man tells him he's decided to go ahead and marry the girl. This news makes Ray laugh, because he feels anything he might have told the young man would have been a lie.


The two laborers Hal and Ray may be viewed as two different perspectives on life in Anderson's thinking in which there is no "third option." These men have basically two choices in how they will lead their lives. The older Ray has accepted the safety of a regular life of labor that—like the life of a horse in a harness—changes very little from one day to the next. The implication is this is what may have happened to Ray such that he now has a wife and children to support, and for whom his life is confined to this "harness" of uneventful respectability. As Hal puts it to Ray in asking for his advice "Perhaps you've been in the same fix yourself." However, the reader may suspect while Ray accepts his stable family life, there is a part of him that would like to "break out," and walk away from the "lie" that a man, like a domestic beast of burden, is meant for this kind of life and nothing else.

But Ray isn't Hal, and he knows it because this presents to him an unresolvable dilemma. What advice should he give that can be the "truth" for the young Hal? The reader is given a good deal of information in this story about Hal's father, Windpeter, and about Hal himself, both of whom get into all kinds of trouble in town. Hal's father comes to a bad end, and if Hal keeps up the same behavior, there is every chance he will do the same. Ray realizes if he tells Hal to ignore the fact he's gotten a girl pregnant, he will be adhering to the "truth" of himself as a wild, disreputable man who, sooner or later, could end up in jail (a confined "harness") or dead like his father. And if Ray tells him to do the "right thing" and marry the girl he's gotten pregnant, it would be a lie to believe his life will ever be anything more than the "harness of respectability."

However, it seems Hal—very much like Ed Handby in "An Awakening"—has decided to try a respectable and settled life of marriage and family. How both Ed and Hal respond to the day-to-day drudgery of this life and this path is every bit as much a "lie" as the other. The story leaves the reader asking if there is a "third option." By tying the stories of Winesburg, Ohio together in a successive string, Anderson suggests this third option may be found in the pursuit of education. Both George's mother, Elizabeth Willard, and his former teacher, Kate Swift, seek to infuse George with this third option before he leaves Winesburg.
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