Belle Carpenter is a young woman who, when visited by “black thoughts,” wishes that she were a man and could take out her frustrations physically. Her father, Henry, a bookkeeper in Winesburg, is a man of fastidious habits who bullies Belle but is afraid of her and gradually loses control of his daughter as she grows up. Belle occasionally goes out walking with George Willard but is secretly in love with Ed Hanby, a local bartender. She continues to see George because he is a more socially acceptable mate and kissing him allows her to relieve sexual tension.
Like George Willard, Belle Carpenter is a teenager who is struggling with the expectations placed upon her as she matures. Though Belle wishes that she could openly express herself the way men do, social conventions limit what is and is not appropriate for her. Although George has genuine feelings for Belle, her attraction for him is superficial and self-serving.
Several years before, Ed Hanby had inherited a large farm from a dead uncle, which he sold for $8,000. Ed spent all of the money within six months on frivolous expenses like carriages, wine, and gambling. Though thirty years old, he is unsuccessful at courting the much younger Belle Carpenter. On their only date thus far, Ed’s simple nature had prevented him from properly expressing his strong feelings for her. Ed believes that George is the sole obstacle standing in the way of his courtship of Belle.
Though Ed Hanby’s age should theoretically make him more mature than Belle, he is irresponsible and frivolous with his money. His inability to regulate his behavior or to eloquently express his feelings for Belle suggests that he is still somewhat of an adolescent himself, despite being nearly twice her age.
The story pivots to George, who one night goes out with Seth Richmond and Art Wilson to the town pool hall where young men in Winesburg talk about women. George, wanting attention, tells Seth that women should “look out for themselves” because men cannot be held responsible for what happens on dates. Art tells the boys a story of when he went to a brothel with two other townsmen and charmed one of the prostitutes working there.
As a teenage boy, George is concerned with impressing his male friends. Although he is relatively inexperienced with women and often confused in by his romantic encounters, he tries to appear more masculine and mature by feigning a sense of dominance. This attempt to gain attention is ultimately overshadowed by Art’s story.
George leaves his friends in the pool hall and walks around town under the night sky, playing and talking to himself as he walks. Pretending that he is a soldier, George suddenly has an epiphany that law and order manifest at all levels of existence. He realizes that he must align himself with those principles to have a meaningful life and that his friends would not fully understand this. George comes upon an alleyway behind a farm shed and spends half an hour there in the dark, observing his surroundings and feeling that he is “oddly detached and apart from all life.” He is overwhelmed by a deep sense of renewal, personal significance, and connection with humanity.
George’s realization that law and order manifest at every level of the universe is a significant epiphany in his journey toward adulthood. This realization gives him a sense of direction, as he concludes that becoming a man means he must find his own place within the natural order. George feels alienated from his friends, whom he believes are too immature to understand his profound thoughts, yet deeply connected to the world around him.
Still reeling with deep emotions, George goes to Belle Carpenter’s house and she agrees to go on a walk with him in hopes of making Ed Hanby jealous. Ed had visited her earlier that night and threatened that if Belle didn’t stay away from George, he would break both of their bones. On their walk, George is “full of big words” and emphasizes to Belle that he is a changed man who is no longer weak. Newly empowered with masculine confidence, he kisses Belle and she does not resist him.
George’s newfound sense of purpose awards him confidence that he did not previously have. Perceiving himself as a changed, newly matured man, George decides to more assertively pursue Belle. Again, Belle does not share George’s genuine feelings and only agrees to go out with him because she is sexually attracted to him and wants to make Ed jealous.
Suddenly, Ed Hanby appears and attacks George, believing that he is trying to steal Belle away. George tries to fight back but is overpowered by the older man. He is disoriented by the humiliation that has eclipsed his profound thoughts from earlier that night. Back in his bedroom, George weeps and rages with anger at Belle, whom he vows to hate for the rest of his life.
Ed’s immaturity manifests again as he is overcome with jealousy and lashes out at George. The profound epiphanies and sense of manhood that George had experienced earlier in the night are usurped by the humiliation and anger he feels after Ed attacks him.