Winesburg, Ohio Summary

“Winesburg, Ohio” consists of several parts, each of which presents the fantasy of the old writer about the real people. The book is framed by the prologue called “The Book of the Grotesque”. The writer wants to see the street from the window while lying in his bed. He hires the carpenter to adjust his bed to the window level. While the man is working they have a conversation and the writer learns that the carpenter grieves a lot about his brother’s death. While the job is done, the writer returns to his bed and thinks about death, feeling that, strangely, this thoughts make him love life more. He thinks about the reality and writes “The Book of the Grotesque”, where the real-life situations are reinterpreted. The writer states that the world is filled with variations and thoughts, but when a person choose one variation as absolute, that person transforms into grotesque and the truth becomes lie.

The first story is called “Hands” and tells about the man named Wing Biddlebaum who lives a secluded life. Suddenly he starts to hear the voices going from nowhere and we see that he is always trying to hide his hands, being extremely anxious when they are exposed. The only friend of Biddlebaum is George Willard. Once, in the deep conversation, Wing forgets about his caution and reveals his hands, gently caressing Willard’s shoulder in a friendly gesture. When Biddlebaum realises it, he panics and runs back home, closing inside. We learn that the real name of Biddlebaum is Adolf Myers, a school teacher, loved and respected by the children of his class. He liked to speak about his dreams with them and touched their shoulders with the same friendly gestures. But one boy either misinterpreted it or decided to get rid of the teacher in a cruel and creative way. He told the unspeakable things about harassment and sexual advances and Adolf had to flee the town. He settled down in Winesburg, secluding himself and forever ashamed of the thing he has never done.

The second story “Paper Pills” is about Doctor Reefy, the old man with large knuckles. At first we see his situation as disgusting: he was married to the girl, almost a child, who seemed to die in childbirth. He sits in his office and writes his thoughts about her and letters to her on the little scraps of paper, than rolling them and tucking into his pockets until the pockets are filled with these “paper pills”. From these scraps we learned that the girl came to the doctor already pregnant. Her parents died, her suitors left her and the father of her future child immediately disappeared. Seeing doctor’s kindness she plainly refused to leave after the first visit. Doctor Reefy gradually fell in love with her sincerity and fragility. He never touched her. They married in the fall and he read her his thoughts on the scraps of paper until her sudden death in the spring.

“Mother” is the third story about the Willards - a couple that live in the New Willard House. Elizabeth used to be joyful and passionate girl, but after some disease affected her brain, she is unable to feel anything anymore. Tom - her husband - is ashamed of her numbness. The only human being Elizabeth still feels at least something is their son George. Elizabeth understands that Tom doesn’t love her anymore and prays that George will become the sense of their life together. Once, after George didn’t come to her, Elizabeth felt that she is worried about him. She accidentally heard that Tom told him to cease his dreaming and get a real life. Elizabeth feels rage (too many emotions for a short time for her) and plans to kill her husband for it. But then George comes to her, explaining that he just needed time to think about the situation in their family. But after the conversation with his father, when something important was said, he decided to leave. Elizabeth wants to cry about it, but she isn’t able to do it.

“The Philosopher” shows us Doctor Parcival who has a bad tic. His left eye “flapped like a window shade”. He almost lives in his office, dirty and filled with trash items. He also likes George Willard from the first story and often tells him story from his life. He has a childhood trauma of being the unloved son: his mother loved his brother much more, though he was selfish and pampered and Parcival did everything to get his mother’s approval. Now he searches the image of his brother - a superior and perfect being - in his friend and hopes that George will agree to play this role. Suddenly Parcival is called to examine the body of the girl killed in the accident. He refuses. When George comes to his friend, Parcival is convinced that he is going to be hanged and desperately asks George to tell the world that every person is Christ and will be crucified.

“Nobody Knows” again returns to George Willard. We see him extremely anxious during all the day. He persuades himself that he should act, not hesitate, and runs into the night to raise his spirit. He calls the woman named Louise Trunnion, while she is doing the dishes in her home. Louise is curious about how he guessed she wanted to see him. George is shocked and frustrated, because he has received the flirtatious letter from her, that made him so worried before. They go for a date and George doesn’t dare to touch Louise, but finally persuades himself to be a man and do this. When he returns from the date, he finds a man to discuss his experience. Returning home Willard thinks if Louise feels something towards him or it was just her playing with her admirer.

The next short stories are connected to each other that is stated in their names (Part I, Part II etc). The first one is called “Godliness. Part I” and tells the story of the Bentley couple. Four of five sons of the Bentleys were killed during the Civil War. Mr. Bentley, who was old at the time, decided to move to the countryside, to his farm. He wants his last weak son Jesse to inherit the farm and his fragile and gentle wife Katherine, who used to live in the city with comfort - to work like a horse. All the farm workers are afraid of him, seeing his cruelty and how he makes his pregnant wife to work herself to fatigue. Jesse, who is very religious and who gave himself to God when he was only a child, prays for his mother and himself. When Katherine is in labor he prays God to give him brother named after Biblical David. He believes that his brother will be stronger than him and defend the family from the Ohio farmers who Jesse considers to be cruel, evil and merciless, as his father. Katherine, exhausted and weak after months of work, dies in childbirth.

“Godliness. Part II” continues this story to next generation. Jesse was married and had a daughter Louise, who, in her turn, married a man named John Hardy and gave birth to a boy she finally named David. But Louise had a really bad temper and when David grew up a little, he decided to run away from abusive mother to his grandfather’s farm that he really loved to be on. He tried, but returned and realised with surprise that after this attempt Louise became much kinder and more attentive to him. Still, as a teenager, he moved to Jesse and became calmer and happier. Now Jesse is glad, believing that God finally gave him David he asked in his prayers. He and David go into the woods. The boy thinks it is just a walk with his granddad, but Jesse secretly prays for a miraculous proof of David being the chosen one. Suddenly David is frightened and runs away, getting lost, falling and losing his consciousness. When he regains his senses, he finds himself in Jesse’s arms, safe and intact, but also sees that his grandfather is crying. The miracle didn’t happen.

“Surrender. Part III” is Louise’s story. She was an unwanted child - Jesse wanted no one except the son named David. When she turned fifteen her father finally sent her away to Hardy family to care for her while Louise is attending school. Louise is used to work so hard (repeating the story of his father, Jesse treated her as badly as his father treated his mother) that Hardy’s daughter appear lazy in comparison. This make them hostile and resentful. John Hardy is the only one kind to her. When she sees Mary Hardy - the girl of roughly her age - with a boy, she decides that she can be loved and have a relationship too. She writes a romantic letter to John. He answers only after several weeks and agreed to the relationship. Louise loves him sincerely, but he wants only sex and demands it. The girl gives up, but than they discover that she is pregnant. Now John has to marry her, but he still doesn’t love her. Louise feels trapped and despaired, she doesn’t receive any love she desired so much. She gives birth to the baby boy and calls him David - just as her father always wanted.

The final part is “Terror. Part IV” and it is about David living on his grandfather’s farm. He is fifteen and he likes to walk outside the farm. One day he helps Jesse to catch a stray lamb, who is born strangely out of season. Jesse sees it as a sign and decides to sacrifice the lamb to God, reenacting the Biblical plot and hoping that God will speak to him. He wants to slaughter the lamb, soak his hand in blood and touch David’s forehead with it, blessing the boy. David is scared of such behaviour, lets go the lamb and runs away. Looking back he sees his grandfather, chasing him with a knife (actually Jesse was chasing a lamb, but it wasn’t obvious for the terrified teenager). When Jesse was close, David hit him with his slingshot, accidentally reenacting another Biblical plot. This allows him to run away, weeping and promising to never return to Winesburg and to his family. When Jesse comes back to his senses, he proclaims that the angel descended from heavens and took David with him.

“A Man of Ideas” returns us to the previous setting. Joe Welling is generally a shy and reserved man, but he sometimes have uncontrollable seizures of speech. His mother died of old age and, deciding to change his life, Welling moved to Winesburg. He bought the New Willard House to live in and became a founder of Winesburg Baseball Club and a respected man despite his flaw. Soon Joe starts the relationship with the woman named Sarah King. Her family, consisting of father and brother, is hostile to him, but Welling isn’t scared of them. Instead, as George (the same man that was in the previous stories) heard, he brought them for a talk. Joe told them about the weird vegetable kingdom and, surprisingly, this warms the Kings up to him. Joe persuades them to invite him to their house, so that he can tell Sarah about the vegetable kingdom too.

“Adventure” starts from introducing the woman named Alice Hindman who was in the relationship with Ned Currie. But then he travelled to Cleveland, promising to return and marry her, and persuaded her to become his lover before his departure. Ned abandoned Alice right away they had sex, but she still loves him and can’t forget the man. She sublimates her worries in the hard work. When Alice is twenty-five her loneliness becomes unbearable and she joins the Methodist Church just to have people around. She tries to start a relationship with a man named Will Hurley to comfort herself, but at twenty-seven she snaps and runs from her home naked, desperately asking for a person feeling as lonely as she is. She shouts at the old man on the streets, hoping that he is that person, but then realises that he is deaf and doesn’t hear her. Alice makes a conclusion that everyone in Winesburg, including herself, has to live alone and die alone.

The main character of “Respectability” is Wash Williams who works on the telegraph and looks very ugly. He is always dirty, from head to toe, except his hands he uses to operate the telegraph. His temper suits his appearance: Wash hates people of Winesburg, especially women. He also tells George the story of his life: once he was a happy young man, loving his wife madly and having a happy family. They had a house and the garden where they planted seeds. But then Wash found out that her wife cheats on him and immediately sent her back to her mother. Still he loved her and soon came to her mother’s home. Her mother, seemingly trying to “sell” Wash’s wife back to him, strips her naked in front of him, offering her like a prostitute. Wash hit her mother, desiring to kill her for such humiliation of his beloved, but he never had a chance. Wash warns George to never trust women.

“The Thinker” tells about Seth Richmond, the man who have troubles with expressing his emotions. Everyone in the town considers him a deep thinker, but he desperately wishes to have the ability to feel like the others. Once, George asks Seth to tell Helen White that he loves her, because he doesn’t have the courage to do this himself. Seth is furious and confused - he loves Helen himself, but never told her about that - he didn’t know how to do this. Seth goes to Helen, but instead of George’s confession he tells her that he is going to leave the town, because nothing holds him here anymore. Then he still tells her what George asked, but also manages to spit out that he loves her too. Seth tells her about his plans for the future life and hopes that Helen will be impressed, but the woman just returns to her house, confused with this double confession. Seth understands that loving isn’t enough, eloquent talk about love is what wins the women.

“Tandy” is the story about the young girl who lives with ignorant father, Tom Hard. Suddenly the stranger comes to the town. He is drunk and decides to tell to Tom, George and Tom’s daughter who appears to be nearby the story of his life. He tried to stop drinking several times, but failed. He says that he developed an addiction to love, but the women now don’t deserve it. Stranger tells that soon a new generation of superior women will grow, the beings that are better than any men or any women. He begs Tom’s daughter to become that woman, “Tandy”. Next morning the stranger leaves and the girl demands her father calls her “Tandy Hard’. He tries to persuade her to return to her previous name, but Tandy refuses.

“The Strength of God” is another story about religion. Reverend Curtis Hartman is very confused before the sermon and prays God, asking to help him. Week before he accidentally saw Kate Swift naked in her house while looking through the bell tower window. From that moment he became obsessed with her and came to the bell tower again and again to look at her naked going to bed. He prays for freedom from these thoughts, but when once he completely gives up to his sin one night, he saw that the naked woman came to him to pray. Frightened, Curtis ran to George’s office, screaming and crying, saying that it was Kate and she was a messenger from God.

“The Teacher” tells us some facts from Kate’s life. She considered George a genius and persuaded him to try to understand the thoughts of the people. She teased him, pretending that she is in love with him, but never stating this openly. One night she finally admits it and comes to George, passionately telling him that she is lonely and wants to be loved. Suddenly, while George still is picking words, Kate slaps him and runs away. Just hours later Reverend Hartman runs to his office, telling that Kate is a messenger from God. George thinks that he failed, and didn’t understand Kate’s thoughts as she wanted him to.

In “Loneliness” we learn about the misfortunes of Enoch Robinson. He never had real friends in his art school - he felt like they didn’t understand his paintings at all. He imagined the other people on their place, who understood everything in the right way. Gradually he started feeling lonely and married to eliminate this feeling. He behaved as a decent husband, but then he felt that it wasn’t what he wanted and returned back to his lonely apartment with his imaginary friends. Now Enoch is old and telling George that his wife kept coming to his place and he eventually understood that he hated her. But when he ordered her to left and she did, all his imaginary friends went with her and he grew old alone.

“An Awakening” is about Belle Carpenter, who had an abusive father, but now she is a grown up confident woman who never allows anyone to bully her. She likes to spend time with George, but Belle is in love with Ed Hanby. Ed is jealous, seeing George as a rival and as an obstacle. Once George practices self-hypnosis and felt big and strong. He goes to Belle’s house to defend her from Ed, who have threatened the girl before. Belle is happy to go with George to make Ed feel bad. They go away together and George finally kisses her. But suddenly Belle looks over his shoulder, seeing Ed there. Ed kicks George aside and makes Belle to go with him.

“Queer” is the story about the Cowley family who owned the shop “Cowley & Son”. Elmer Cowley sees his father’s action as “queer” and is enraged with them. It goes as far as holding his father at the gunpoint. Elmer sees George as his role model, not his father. George is a most ordinary citizen, not queer at all. Elmer tries to talk to George about it, but doesn’t have the opportunity. After that Elmer decides to change everything and start the life anew, in the new town. He steals the money from the shop and wakes George up, trying to persuade him that he, Elmer, is normal and totally not queer, but slips into his father’s “queer” babbling. He hits George and leaves.

“The Untold Lie” shows us the farm divided between Ray Pearson and Hal Winters. Ray returns in his thought to the time when he met his wife and got his friend Nell Gunther into trouble, choosing the woman instead. Now he thinks if his married life was worth his friendship and can’t find the answer. Suddenly he snaps and runs to the town, losing his overcoat while running. Ray sees Hal, who is going to make the same choice. He begs Hal not to sacrifice anything, but Hal says that he is ready for responsibility. Ray returns back, finding his overcoat and wishing he had not lied many years ago.

Tom Foster, the main character of “Drink” moved to Winesburg with his grandmother. He adjusted well, because didn’t have what to miss in his former town. Now they work in Winesburg and Tom can become content with small daily joys. He isn’t too social, but the girl named Helen White wins his heart. Confused, Tom decides to get drunk. George notices him while Tom is wandering the town, saying nonsense about his desire to make love to Helen. George loves Helen himself and gets angry, but then Tom explains that sensation of being drunk is already equally satisfying to making love to Helen.

In “Death” we return to Dr. Reefy and Elizabeth Willard. They are discussing their dreams and thoughts and it makes Elizabeth feel again. She remembers that on his deathbed her father ordered Elizabeth to run away from Winesburg. She didn’t obey and married Tom instead. She wanted to be ordinary woman who behaves appropriately. But then she understood that her father was right and tried to escape, but didn’t have enough willpower to do so. While Elizabeth is telling her story, her feelings return to her and she suddenly kisses Dr. Reefy with passion - and then runs away from his office, ashamed. We then see Elizabeth four years later, broken and miserable. She tries to tell George about the treasure her father left her. George is thinking about his dead mother and accidentally whispers her the same words of affection that Dr. Reefy did.

“Sophistication” is one of the two stories closing the book. Now it is about George Willard. He is shown as a boy, thinking about what exactly is being a man. He feels lost thinking that he needs to leave Winesburg. He thinks with sadness about Helen White, who left the town to study in the college to return back only for holidays. Now it is one of the days Helen is in the town and George comes to her house and invites her out. He takes her hand and they go to the abandoned Fair Ground, thinking about their feelings. They both want to be loved but find only solitude. They kiss for the first time and then, embarrassed, resort to the childish games. The night spent together soothed both their sore souls.

The last story - “Departure” - shows Willard raising at 4 PM and preparing to leave Winesburg. He walks the familiar streets and goes to the train station. Several people he meets shake his hand goodbye. George jumps into the train and sits down, not seeing Helen White running to the station. He counts his money, trying to conceal the sum from the rest of the passengers. He is surprised that the train still stands on the station. George becomes immersed in the thoughts about some trivial daily things and remembers that he have always had a passion for dreams. The train starts moving and when George looks at the window for the next time, Winesburg is already gone.