Wash Williams, the telegraph operator of Winesburg, is described by the narrator as a “beast in a cage” who is ugly, obese, and unclean. Wash hates life, refusing to associate with other men in Winesburg and decrying women as “bitches.” People generally ignore him, but a few men in town respect him because he openly conveys the same misogynistic resentment that they feel but are too afraid to express.
Wash Williams is one of many residents in Winesburg whose external appearance mimics his inward emotional and moral decay. As a result, Wash receives the isolation he desires, as he is perceived by the narrator and the townspeople to be beastly and unapproachable.
One evening, Wash spots George Willard out walking with Belle Carpenter. After seeing the two teenagers kissing, he decides to take George out and tell him his “story of hate” in order to prevent the young man from repeating Wash’s same mistakes. As an attractive young man, Wash had married a woman in Dayton, Ohio. Completely absorbed with his love for his wife, Wash was crushed when she cheated on him. This betrayal convinced Wash that all women are merely tricks who stand in the way of men’s happiness.
Although Wash generally does not want to associate with other men, his hatred toward women takes priority. When he sees George and Belle kissing, Wash perceives his younger, more vulnerable self in George. Consumed by the bitterness that has overtaken him in the aftermath of his wife’s betrayal, Wash does not want the young man to be similarly slighted by future romantic partners.
Wash continues on with his tale, telling George about his early days of marriage in Columbus, Ohio when he and his wife were happy. After the affair, he said nothing, gave his wife the last of his money, and sent her away. Wash was sad rather than angry and wanted his wife back. But when his mother-in-law attempted to reunite the couple by presenting his naked wife to him, he struck her with a chair. George is both frightened and fascinated by Wash’s story, feeling a chill as if an illness has come over him.
While Wash wishes to impart the same sense of resentment that he feels toward women, George is left feeling disturbed and sickened by Wash’s story rather than inspired. This reaction reflects George’s innocence and untainted sense of morality relative to Wash and the many other men in town who have been embittered by loss.