Reverend Curtis Hartman, the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Winesburg, is well-liked and respected by the townspeople. He takes his role as a minister seriously and spends every week from Wednesday morning until Saturday night consumed by his two Sunday sermons. Despite this, people are not very inspired by his church services. Hartman yearns for “a strong sweet new current of power” to possess him so that people will see the spirit of God manifested in him.
Although Reverend Hartman’s job should seemingly bring him a sense of purpose, the disconnect he feels between himself and God leaves him unfulfilled. Hartman is established as a man who seeks truth from external sources rather than finding a consistent sense of meaning within himself.
Reverend Hartman spends his Sunday mornings praying in the room in the bell tower of the church. One day, he looks out the window of this room and is shocked to see the local schoolteacher Kate Swift in the upstairs of the house next door smoking a cigarette while reading in bed. He is horrified by the sight and guilty that he was reading the Bible just before he saw Kate’s bare neck and shoulders. Hartman hopes that the she will attend his Sunday sermons and that his words will lead her away from sin.
The shame Hartman feels over merely seeing Kate Swift’s bare neck and shoulders suggests that he is a deeply pious man who takes his faith seriously. He feels guilty on behalf of Kate, whom he believes is engaging in sinful behavior by smoking cigarettes and appearing scantily clad in view of her bedroom window.
Kate Swift has a “sharp tongue” and an unladylike reputation around town. She reminds Reverend Hartman of women in the novels he read in college, and he assumes that her time visiting Europe and living in New York City has corrupted her morals. Hartman reflects on his limited experience with women, having married his wife after an extensive courtship and avoided thinking of other women throughout the years.
Kate’s questionable reputation and coarse demeanor cause her to be isolated from most other people in town. Her persona confuses Hartman, whose sheltered life as a religious young man led him to forgo gaining experience with women in favor of staying faithful to his wife.
Reverend Hartman is quickly thrown into a dilemma over Kate. At first, he only wants to reach her troubled soul with his sermons, but he soon becomes obsessed with the image of her lying in bed. He sits in the bell tower with his Bible, waiting for Kate to appear in the room across from him. Despite being possessed by “the carnal desire to peep,” Hartman’s sermons encourage his parishioners that God will raise them up and save them from temptation.
While Hartman’s interest in Kate began out of concern for her potentially corrupted behavior, his growing sexual fixation on her reflects his fallibility as a man in contrast with his piety as a minister. His sermons amidst this obsession are somewhat hypocritical, as he urges his parish to resist temptation while he is incapable of doing so himself.
Although Reverend Hartman is confident that God will intercede on his behalf and free him from his obsession with Kate, he watches her read through her bedroom window several times over the course of a few months. Hartman is plagued by thoughts of kissing her shoulders and throat and pleads with God to empower him to fix the hole in the window that allows him to see into Kate’s room.
Rather than accepting his sinful nature as a human being, Hartman is convinced that he must receive divine intervention in order to be freed from his obsession with Kate. He believes that the solution must be divine rather than something he finds intrinsically within himself.
After months of deliberation, Reverend Hartman decides that he will give himself over to sin because otherwise he would be a hypocrite preaching God’s word but secretly lusting after Kate. He nearly freezes to death in the bell tower waiting for Kate on a winter night. Finally, Kate appears, and Hartman is shocked to see her completely naked, weeping, and praying in her bedroom. This sight inspires a spiritual epiphany for Hartman, who breaks the glass window in the bell tower with his bare fist. Hartman deliriously runs out of the church and into the Winesburg Eagle office to tell George Willard that Kate Swift is an instrument of God and that he has been delivered from sin.
Hartman’s resolution to finally give into temptation marks a conscious decision to accept his inherently fallible human nature. When he sees Kate in her most vulnerable form, he is struck by her ability to engage in holy worship even in a traditionally sexualized state of nudity. This encounter allows Hartman to see Kate for who she is and value her as a person rather than a sexual object, a revelation which convinces him that Kate is a divine instrument. His exclamation of this discovery to George Willard only confuses the impressionable boy who is trying to gain a firm understanding of the world and its complexities.