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Winesburg, Ohio | Themes

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The Writer as a Sounding Board

Throughout Winesburg, Ohio the young George Willard is a willing and attentive listener. It is this characteristic that draws the people of Winesburg to him. Each person becomes less "grotesque" when they reveal to George the "truths" and events of their lives. Their stories are, to George, like the little rejected apples the pickers leave behind on the trees described in "Paper Pills." But these stories are "delicious," like the story Doctor Reefy tells him: "Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apples."

The "truths" people reveal to George are often accompanied by violence. While Wing Biddlebaum bangs on tree trunks and tabletops to compel George to listen attentively to what he has to say in "Hands," Joe Welling pins George against the wall of a store to fire him up with his ideas in "A Man of Ideas." But it is the sheer force of hatred generated by betrayal that hits George hardest in the story Wash Williams tells him in "Respectability."

Reality and Dream

The first story in Winesburg, Ohio, "The Book of the Grotesque," sets the stage for the succeeding tales. The old writer dreams of people who grasp "truths," which eventually turn them into "grotesques." Thus, the old writer seeks to remain "awake" to his dreams.

George himself is knocked down three times by Ed Handby to wake up to Belle Carpenter's true intentions of him in "An Awakening." And while the night watchman Hop Higgins dreams of ferrets, George, Kate Swift, and Curtis Hartman remain awake to grapple with the implications of the truths they have chosen to hold in "The Teacher."

Reality and dream are part of the stories people reveal to George about themselves. Doctor Parcival intrigues George by telling him a mixture of lies and truths about his life so tightly intertwined the doctor himself likely doesn't even know which is which in the story "The Philosopher." And the solitary Enoch Robinson tries to get George to grasp how he both did and did not want his wife to understand him, and his company of imaginary people in "Loneliness."

Speech and Silence

While Joe Welling is a virtual "volcano" of speech in "A Man of Ideas," not everyone is able to give voice to their deepest needs. George's encounters with these people leave him to fill in the blanks. Although Wing Biddlebaum almost tells George about how his hands have caused all the trouble in his life, he stops with such fear in his eyes George knows not to ask him about it in "Hands." George's mother, Elizabeth, hardly speaks to him, but her silent presence is enough to convey the essence of what she never had the courage to become in "Mother."

The most shocking example occurs in "Respectability." Wash Williams has turned himself into an inward and outward "grotesque," consumed with hatred for women. Although he describes his last encounter with his unfaithful wife, the one thing he does not say drives home the fact he had loved and married a girl prostituted by her own mother.

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