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Sherwood Anderson - Winesburg, Ohio

From the title of first chapter in Winesburg, Ohio, “The Book of the Grotesque”, it is clear to see Sherwood Anderson’s preoccupation with the “grotesque”. But what does “grotesque” mean in Anderson’s fiction? The definitions of grotesque, as offered in the Collins English Mini Dictionary, are ‘strangely distorted’ and ‘absurd’ (1). However, the “grotesques” in Winesburg, Ohio are not necessarily repulsive despite their absurdity.

Malcolm Cowley, in his introduction to Winesburg, Ohio, defined the “grotesques” as ‘solitary persons’ whose lives have been distorted by their inability to express themselves. (2) It is the life experiences that have made the characters in the short stories “grotesques”. Being “grotesque” also means that the ‘figures... are not, nor are they meant to be, “fully-rounded” characters – they are the shards of life, glimpsed for a moment, the debris of suffering and defeat.’ (3) We only see the “grotesques” at the point in their life that they are seeking contact with the world, when they are displaying the characteristics that make them “grotesque”.

David D. Anderson argues that the word “grotesque” does not ‘connote revulsion or disgust’. He compares them to the ‘gnarled, twisted apples’ (4) in “Paper Pills”, which are left behind because of their surface blemishes. The “grotesques” are rejected because they are different but their spiritual ills mean that they require more love and understanding. (5) In addition to this, Edwin Fussel states that the “grotesques” must not be thought of as necessarily unattractive. The truths that lurk within them include positive or neutral properties or conditions such as ‘the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty’. (6) The grotesques are not malicious just confused and afraid. However, as Irving Howe argues, the “grotesques” are not simply to be pitied and dismissed because ‘at some point in their lives they have known desire, have dreamt of ambition, have hoped for friendship.’ (7) They have not always been “grotesque”- their experience has made them such.

The three main shortcomings of the “grotesques” are summarised by Waldo Frank. The first shortcoming is the loss of creativity in the use of the human body, which is depicted in “Hands”. This is symbolised by Wing Biddlebaum’s desperate attempts to conceal his ‘slender expressive fingers’ in his pockets or behind his back. (8) Wing’s hands tell his story hidden deep within him. He is afraid to let them move freely because of the implications of doing so. Their second defect is the ineffectuality of human thought, which is illustrated by the pocketed paper pellets in “Paper Pills”. ‘On the papers were written thoughts, ends of thoughts, beginnings of thoughts.’ (9) Unable to express these random thoughts, Doctor Reefy hides them in balls of paper. The third shortcoming of the “grotesques” related to the previous two defects is the inability to communicate loving, in particular a mother’s love for her son in “Mother”. (10) Although a ‘deep unexpressed bond of sympathy’ existed between George and Elizabeth Willard she is ‘timid and reserved’ in his presence, and can only express her love for him when he is not there. (11) The loss of creativity in the use of the body and ineffectuality of thought prevents the “grotesques” from communicating their love. These three shortcomings isolate the “grotesques” and prevent them from reaching their potential .(12)

In “Loneliness” the “grotesque” character, Enoch Robinson, displays all the typical shortcomings. At the beginning of the story, Enoch’s house illustrates the “grotesques’” desire to hide from “ordinary” society because ‘the blinds of all the windows facing the road were kept closed’ (13). During his youth Enoch was ‘inclined to silence’ (14), but his move to New York City seemed to offer a promise of maturity.

There he opted to study French, although he has experienced problems in ordinary communication, and went to art school, in order to express his creativity. It is significant that like everything else in his life, his ambition to go to Paris ‘never turned out’ (15). This proves the theory that being “grotesque” means an inability to fulfil one’s ambitions.

Enoch Robinson also displays the second shortcoming of the “grotesques” – the ineffectuality of human thought. He can develop ‘delicate thoughts’ but they remain ‘hidden away in his brain’ (16). His immaturity prevents Enoch from expressing the thoughts he develops and ultimately communicating with others: ‘he couldn’t understand people and he couldn’t make people understand him.’ (17) Life often confuses and frightens the “grotesques”. Before Enoch ‘became confused and disconcerted by the facts of life’ (18) he had companions. But whenever Enoch decided to partake in so-called normal activities, such as getting drunk or having a relationship with a woman, he ‘grew afraid and ran away’ (19). Enoch’s room best characterises him, as the narrator states that ‘The story of Enoch is in fact the story of a room almost more than it is the story of a man.’ (20) It as if he has no real personality outside of that room, and inevitably the intrusion of others in the room leads to an intrusion inside Enoch’s mind. When his friends intrude upon his room, Enoch feels out of place and is unable to communicate. His friends scrutinise his art, which like Enoch is ‘half finished’ (21), not fully developed or matured. Like a child at Christmas, Enoch was ‘too excited to talk coherently’ (22), which proves his immaturity. Like a typical “grotesque”, Enoch’s thoughts are developed in his mind but he cannot express them. Enoch’s frustration lies in the way people do not understand him, as he thinks ‘There is something else, something you don’t see at all, something you aren’t intended to see.’ (23) It is as if the “grotesques” minds are more advanced but their communication skills are not fully matured. The frustration of not being understood leads the “grotesques” to isolate themselves. Enoch’s frustration with humans leads him to invent friends ‘to whom he could really talk and to whom he could explain the things he had been unable to living people.’ (24) His thoughts are only successful in his imagination so Enoch can only communicate within his mind, where ‘he was always self-confident and bold.’ (25) However, the “grotesques” need love like everyone else and ultimately seek a companion.

Locked up in his room, Enoch Robinson had a desire to reach out to ‘flesh-and-bone people with his hands’ (26), so he married the nearest female. This gave Enoch a new sense of identity, which made him feel important: ‘he was very proud of himself in the role of producing citizen of the world.’ (27) But all too soon Enoch became claustrophobic and retreated back to his room. Enoch paid off his wife with his inheritance, but she was not devastated. Enoch’s wife provides the “ordinary” citizen’s view of the “grotesques”, as she thought him to be ‘slightly insane’ (28) and was afraid of his unusual character. It is perhaps significant that women always spoil Enoch Robinson’s happiness.

The “grotesques” seem to approach George Willard simply because he is there when they feel an urge to communicate with society. The narrator explains how George and Enoch ‘happened to be thrown together at a time when the younger man was in a mood to understand.’ (29) However, the “grotesques” are also drawn to George because of his ‘Youthful sadness’ (30). Deep within the “grotesques” lies something that demands expression, (31) so they approach George Willard because he gives them the opportunity to restore communication with the world they feel excluded from. (32)

As Howe argues, the “grotesques” approach George at night in order to avoid the mockery of public detection. (33) It is apt then that Enoch and George meet beneath a wooden awning, out of the view of others. Although George ‘was a little afraid’ (34) of Enoch due to his reputation, his mysterious nature arouses George’s curiosity. Howe also claims that is George’s moral freshness that attracts the “grotesques” (35), certainly Enoch believes that George will understand him if he tries hard enough.

The pathetic, endearing quality of the “grotesques” is illustrated when George feels a tenderness toward Enoch. Although George ‘did not think it manly to weep and carry on’ (36), he has an urge to sit on the cot and ‘put his arms about the little old man.’ (37) This reflects Anderson’s ‘deep fraternal sadness’ (38) at the suffering of the “grotesques”. As Edwin Fussel argues, even if the “grotesques” are not quite like other people, their lopsidedness endears them. (39) George is full of sympathy as he is moved by Enoch’s story but he does not really understand the “grotesques”. Howe states that the “grotesques” see in George’s difference from them the possibility of saving themselves, but it is actually a barrier that prevents a companionship. (40) What the “grotesques” really need is each other, since it is George’s differences that prevent him from truly understanding them. But ‘their estrangement is so extreme they cannot establish direct ties—they can only hope for connection through George Willard.’ (41)

In “Loneliness” it is a woman that causes the ineffectuality of Enoch’s thoughts. When the woman came into Enoch’s room she was ‘driving everything else away’ (42). If Enoch’s friends were only thoughts, then symbolically the woman drove out his thoughts, which inevitably leads to his isolation. Enoch loses control of his emotions, consumed with lust and a desire to be understood and the negative effects are blamed on the woman. He tells George that he ‘wanted her to understand’ but also ‘couldn’t let her understand’. (43) Enoch feels the same way once he has told George - he regrets trying to make him understand. Once the woman had spoiled the illusion of Enoch’s imaginary friends she left ‘and all the life there had been in the room followed her out’ (44). Similarly, when George leaves Enoch shows his loneliness, whimpering ‘“I’m alone, all alone here...It was warm and friendly in my room but now I’m all alone”’ (45).

Alice Hindman in “Adventure” is an important character because her name reinforces her behaviour. When she turns her back to the wall it is only her hind that we can see, and also desires to hide behind a man. At the beginning of “Adventure” we observe the youthful optimism of sixteen year old Alice. Although it is out of her character, Alice, ‘betrayed by her desire to have something beautiful come into her rather narrow life... grew excited. She also talked.’ (46) Ned Currie’s reaction, that he wants to ‘protect and care for her’ (47), reflects the sympathy that Anderson feels for the “grotesques”. However, their sadness at Ned’s departure leads them to become lovers. This giving in to physical longing leads to Alice Hindman’s “grotesquerie”.

Although Ned Currie easily forgets about Alice she spends her life waiting for him to return. Alice Hindman has the appearance of an independent woman, due to the amount of time she works, but she ‘could not have understood the growing modern idea of a woman’s owning herself’ (48) because she wanted to belong to Ned. Alice can only communicate through prayer, which she turned to when she became ‘more and more lonely’, whispering all the things she ‘wanted to say to her lover.’ (49) At work Alice ‘stood near the front window’ (50) of the store as if she was putting herself on display, in the hope that Ned would come past and “buy” her. Sometimes when she was alone in the store, Alice would weep ‘“Oh, Ned, I am waiting,”’ due to her fear that he would never return. (51) This pitiful, endearing insight into the life of Alice Hindman characterises what it is to be “grotesque”.

Alice Hindman has a moment of epiphany after a few years of waiting, when ‘she realized that for her the beauty and freshness of youth had passed.’ (52) Once she has expressed her frustration she feels relieved. But with the remarriage of Alice’s mother when Alice was twenty-five, ‘Alice became frightened by the loneliness of her position in life.’ (53) Alice responded to her isolation by joining a church for the purpose of ‘becoming acquainted with people.’ (54) There she met Will Hurley who offered to walk Alice home. Alice reached out to Will Hurley because of her fear of being alone, but she admits: ‘“It’s not him I want,” she told herself; “I want to avoid being so much alone.”’ (55) When she was twenty-seven, Alice refused to see Will Hurley, because there was something within her ‘that would not be cheated by phantasies and that demanded some definite answer from life.’ (56) Alice realises that Will is only a substitute for Ned Currie, whom she associates with love.

Alice’s longing for affectionate closeness is filled by her pillow, which she held ‘tightly against her breasts’ (57) like a nursing infant. Alice also arranges a blanket to look like a human form and caressed it. What she really desires is ‘to be loved, to have something answer the call that was growing louder and louder within her.’ (58) As Brian Way has argued, it seems that Alice has confused ‘sexual contact with genuine communication.’ (59) Her previous sexual experience with Ned Currie has led her to believe that having a sexual encounter equates loving someone.

One night when it was raining Alice experienced her “adventure” which ‘frightened and confused her.’ (60) Alice did not think about what she was doing but ‘a mad desire to run naked through the streets took possession of her.’ (61) It was as if Alice wanted to expose her body in order to gain love – she was certainly motivated by her loneliness. Anderson states how Alice Hindman ‘wanted to leap and run, to cry out, to find some other lonely human and embrace him.’ (62) Alice wants closeness with another “grotesque” who can understand her loneliness. However this moment of freedom from the reserve that makes Alice “grotesque” is suspended and Alice ‘dropped to the ground and lay trembling.’ (63) Alice appears to be ashamed of her sudden release of emotion because she ‘crawls on hands and knees through the grass’ (64) like a frightened animal.

After her “adventure” Alice crawled into bed, turned her face to the wall and ‘began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.’ (65) Alice seems resigned to the fact that she will die alone in her bed, unloved and misunderstood. This is echoed in Sherwood Anderson’s novel, Poor White:

‘All men lead their lives behind a wall of misunderstanding they have themselves built, and most men die in silence and unnoticed behind the walls.’ (66)

Howe states that ‘Misunderstanding, loneliness, the inability to articulate, are seen by Anderson as virtually a root condition, something deeply set in our natures.’ (67) It is this ‘root condition’ that makes the residents of Winesburg “grotesque”.

Edwin Fussel argues that what the “grotesques” want of George Willard is to have their stories told, and to have a stake in the way the stories are going to be told. (68) However, the “grotesques” also choose George because as a journalist he is a good communicator, and he is a fully integrated member of society. The “grotesques” observe George Willard’s involvement in society and wish to restore communication with that society through him. There are exceptions though – Alice Hindman being one of them – that are so far removed from society that they do not approach George.

In his essay “Winesburg, Ohio: Art and Isolation”, Fussel argues that only a sentimental reading of Winesburg, Ohio fails to recognise that the “grotesques’” anxiety to escape their isolation is in itself excessive and symptomatic of their “grotesquerie”. (69) Similarly, Irving Howe, in his “Introduction”, describes the stories of Winesburg, Ohio as ‘Narrow, intense, almost claustrophobic’ and as a book about ‘extreme states of being...’ (70) Therefore being “grotesque” is excessive and related to a desire to escape from isolation. However, while they are “grotesque” there is no possibility of escaping from their isolation. Howe states that Anderson’s depiction of ‘a depressed landscape in which lost souls wonder the darkness of night’ is itself grotesque. (71)

It has been argued that the intention of writing Winesburg, Ohio is ‘to show that life in all American small towns is grotesque in the same way.’ Anderson shows compassion for his characters and expresses dismay at the social order that marginalises them. (72) In comparison, Howe argues that ‘It would be a gross mistake...if we were to take Winesburg, Ohio as a social photograph of “the typical small town”(whatever that might be.)’ He claims that Anderson was not focusing upon social detail but on ‘a highly personal, even strange vision of American life.’ (73) The “grotesques” are arguably more important to Anderson than their social context.

Sherwood Anderson’s “grotesques” are characterised in many ways. They are solitary individuals who have not been allowed to mature fully. “Grotesques” are different from so-called ordinary people, but it is these differences that demand more love and understanding. Anderson recommends that we empathise with the “grotesques” but not pity them. In particular, the “grotesques” are characterised by three shortcomings: the loss of creativity, ineffectuality of thought and the inability to communicate. The “grotesques’” experience of life is what has made them “grotesque” – something that remains unfulfilled haunts them and disables them. From this devastating experience, the “grotesques” wish to re-establish communication with society in order to warn people not to become “grotesque”.


  1. Collins English Mini Dictionary (Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995), p. 242
  2. Malcolm Cowley, "Introduction" in Winesburg, Ohio , Sherwood Anderson (London: Penguin Books, 1976), p. 14
  3. Irving Howe, "Introduction", Winesburg, Ohio [11 December 1998]
  4. Sherwood Anderson, "Paper Pills", Winesburg, Ohio , p. 36
  5. David D. Anderson, Sherwood Anderson: An Introduction and Interpretation (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), p. 41
  6. Edwin Fussel "Winesburg, Ohio: Art and Isolation" in Sherwood Anderson: A Collection of Critical Essays , ed. Walter B. Rideout (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice-Hall, 1974), p. 45
  7. Howe, "Introduction"
  8. Sherwood Anderson, "Hands", Winesburg, Ohio , p. 28
  9. Anderson, "Paper Pills", p. 37
  10. Waldo Frank in Sherwood Anderson, Irving Howe (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1951), p.101.
  11. Sherwood Anderson, "Mother", Winesburg, Ohio, p.40.
  12. Anderson Sherwood Anderson, p.41.
  13. Anderson, "Loneliness", Winesburg, Ohio, p.167.
  14. ibid. p.167.
  15. ibid. p.167.
  16. ibid. p.167.
  17. ibid. pp.167-8.
  18. Anderson, "Loneliness", p.168.
  19. ibid. p.168.
  20. ibid. p.168.
  21. ibid. p.169.
  22. ibid. p.169.
  23. ibid. p.169.
  24. Anderson, "Loneliness", p.170.
  25. ibid. p.171.
  26. ibid. p.171.
  27. ibid. p.171.
  28. ibid. p.172.
  29. ibid. p.173.
  30. ibid. p.173.
  31. Anderson, Sherwood Anderson, p.44.
  32. ibid. p.45.
  33. Howe, Sherwood Anderson, p.102.
  34. Anderson, "Loneliness", p.174.
  35. Howe, Sherwood Anderson, p.102.
  36. Anderson, "Loneliness", p.174.
  37. ibid. p.175.
  38. Howe, "Introduction".
  39. Fussel "Winesburg, Ohio", p.45.
  40. Howe, Sherwood Anderson, p.104.
  41. Howe, "Introduction".
  42. Anderson, "Loneliness", p.176.
  43. ibid. p.177.
  44. ibid. p.177.
  45. ibid. p.178.
  46. Sherwood Anderson, "Adventure", Winesburg, Ohio, p.112.
  47. ibid. p.113.
  48. Anderson, "Adventure", p.115.
  49. ibid. p.115.
  50. ibid. p.116.
  51. ibid. p.116.
  52. ibid. p.117.
  53. ibid. p.117.
  54. ibid. p.117.
  55. Anderson, "Adventure", p.118.
  56. ibid. p.118.
  57. ibid. p.119.
  58. ibid. p.119.
  59. Brian Way as quoted in A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Sherwood Anderson, Judy Jo Small (New York: G.K. Hall, 1994.) (11 December 1998).
  60. Anderson, "Adventure", p.119.
  61. ibid. p.119.
  62. ibid. p.119.
  63. Anderson, "Adventure", p.120.
  64. ibid. p.120.
  65. ibid. p.120.
  66. Sherwood Anderson, Poor White, as quoted in "Introduction", Irving Howe.
  67. Howe, "Introduction".
  68. Fussel, "Winesburg, Ohio", p.43.
  69. Fussel, "Winesburg, Ohio", pp.43-4.
  70. Howe, "Introduction".
  71. ibid.
  72. Nina Baym et al. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 5th edition, vol. 2 (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998), p.1144.
  73. Howe, "Introduction".


    Anderson, David D. Sherwood Anderson: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

    Anderson, Sherwood Winesburg, Ohio. London: Penguin, 1976.

    Baym, Nina ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature, 5th ed., Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998.

    Collins English Mini Dictionary. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 1995.

    Howe, Irving “Introduction” in Winesburg, Ohio, [11 December 1998]

    Howe, Irving Sherwood Anderson. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1951.

    Rideout, Walter B. ed. Sherwood Anderson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

    Small, Judy Jo A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Sherwood Anderson. New York: G.K. Hall, 1994. [11 December 1998]