In the small town of Winesburg, Ohio, an elderly writer hires a carpenter to raise his bed so that he can awaken to see the trees out of the high windows in his house. The carpenter has a plan to raise the bed onto a platform, but the two old men fall into a conversation about the carpenter’s life—his service as a soldier in the Civil War, his time in prison, and his brother who starved to death. The carpenter becomes emotional at the memory of his dead brother and forgets about raising the bed until a later date.
Though the carpenter is ostensibly hired to raise the bed, the writer seems to be more concerned with the carpenter’s personal story than with what he’s been hired to do. The carpenter’s emotional reaction to his brother’s death reflects a deep sense of loss that continues to negatively affect his life. This struggle with grief is one that paralyzes many characters throughout the novel.
The writer often lies awake in bed, preoccupied by the idea that his heavy smoking will kill him unexpectedly. He is not alarmed by this notion—rather, it makes him feel more alive. Despite being an old man, the writer feels young and invincible at heart. He imagines this youthful presence within himself as a young woman protected by “a coat of mail like a knight.” The writer reflects on the women who were in love with him as a young handsome man and the people he believed he knew on a uniquely intimate level as a writer.
Whereas Winesburg, Ohio is primarily focused on the journey from boyhood to manhood, the writer’s dismissive attitude toward his age disputes the notion that a man can ever fully leave his youth behind. The writer paradoxically feels invincible yet accepting of his mortality and looks back on his life fondly, grateful that his vocation has allowed him to experience the deep complexities of life.
One night, the writer has a dreamlike vision in which the youthful presence within him is leading a procession of grotesque figures in front of him. The vision lasts for an hour, with the grotesques varying in appearance from disturbing to amusing to beautiful as they pass by. The writer is deeply affected by this bizarre fantasy and decides to write about it in a book titled “The Book of the Grotesque.” The narrator comments that “The Book of the Grotesque” was never published, but that it left a significant impression upon him the one time he saw it. The narrator believes that the book allowed him to understand people and things in a new way.
The writer is the first of many characters throughout the novel who are guided by a mysterious prophecy. This is the sole instance in the book when the narrator breaks into a first-person point of view, telling the reader that they were personally impacted by “The Book of the Grotesque” in which the writer records his strange vision of the grotesque figures.
The narrator distills “The Book of the Grotesque” into its main idea: that human truths are manmade composites of different thoughts, and that those truths are all-encompassing and beautiful. Each figure in the book dedicates themselves totally to a truth, becomes possessed by it to the point of becoming a grotesque, and each truth thus becomes a falsehood. The narrator points out the irony of the writer’s dedication to writing hundreds of pages on this idea, the subject possessing the writer’s mind to the point that he risked becoming a grotesque himself. The narrator concludes by commenting that he only mentioned the carpenter in the story of the writer to embody “very common people” and the qualities that make the grotesques in the writer’s book “understandable and lovable.”
The writer’s conviction that truth is entirely man-made reflects the crisis of faith that society experienced after World War I. The collective principles and values of the West lost their significance in the wake of the most violent conflict the world had ever seen. As a result, society struggled to find a meaningful belief system and generally came to view lofty values (such as truth, beauty, and morality) as man-made rather than divinely ordained. The narrative of “The Book of the Grotesque” asserts that people are destroyed rather than strengthened when they commit themselves to singular truths, a fate that prophetically befalls many characters throughout Winesburg, Ohio.