Wing Biddlebaum paces on the porch of his dilapidated house, watching a wagon of his fellow berry pickers return from a day of work in the fields. One of the young girls in the group yells across the field to mock Wing, telling him to comb the hair falling into his eyes even though he is an old, bald man.
Wing Biddlebaum is introduced as a character who is isolated from the rest of Winesburg. Although he works in the fields berry picker, he is socially isolated from the other workers who mock him on their way back into town.
Wing, who is haunted by self-doubt, does not feel like he fits in with the other townspeople who live in Winesburg. His only friend is George Willard, a young man who works as a reporter for the local newspaper, the Winesburg Eagle. George sometimes walks along the highway to spend the evening with Wing, and his company allows Wing to come out of his shell and face the world with less timidity and fear. When talking with George, Wing’s hands are noticeably expressive.
Wing is drawn to the blank slate of George Willard’s young mind, seeking him out as his sole conversational partner. George is the only solace that Wing experiences from his social isolation and the young man’s presence allows Wing to express himself comfortably without his usual trepidations.
The narrator states that Wing’s story is “a story of hands.” Their constant erratic movement is similar to that of a caged bird, which is how Wing got his name. Wing is ashamed of his restless hands, trying to keep them hidden and envying men who are able to keep their hands still while they work and go about their day. Wing finds it easier to hold a conversation with George while beating his fists on the nearest surface.
Wing’s habit of relentlessly moving his hands, combined with his solitary nature, further alienate him from the townspeople. This leads Wing to feel resentful of other people who are able to function normally without this disruptive habit. George is the only person in Winesburg who is willing to befriend Wing and converse with him, letting him be himself.
When Wing arrived in Winesburg, his hands attracted attention because their constant motion allowed him to pick high volumes of strawberries as a field laborer. The narrator notes that Wing’s hands made him grotesque yet somewhat endearing to the townspeople. George is curious about the hands, sensing that there must be a hidden reason for their “strange activity.”
Wing’s hands are a concrete example of the grotesque archetype outlined by the elderly writer in the novel’s previous chapter. Their restless movement is a source of both shame and endearment as they ostracize him socially but make him a more productive worker. Despite George’s young age, his natural intuition allows him to perceive a deeper, more painful significance to Wing’s hands.
George had almost reached the point of asking Wing about his hands once before. The two were walking in the fields when Wing began beating on a fence and yelling at George that he isolated himself too much and was too worried about other people’s opinions. Wing then became inspired by a vision of a “pastoral golden age” where young men gathered to listen at the feet of an old man in a countryside garden. Wing encourages George to forget what he has learned and ignore outside influences, caressing George’s shoulders as he speaks. Realizing he has touched George, Wing is horrified and abruptly leaves. George decides not to ask him about his hands, sensing that they have something to do with why Wing is afraid of everyone.
Like the writer in the previous chapter, Wing holds a sense of prophetic wisdom that influences his thoughts and perceptions. He is convinced that the status quo of society is misguided and that young boys are meant to learn from the teachings of wise older men and to think for themselves. Wing becomes so possessed by this singular vision of truth that he loses control of his actions and absentmindedly reaches out to touch George and is immediately horrified at what he has done. Witnessing Wing’s strong reaction confuses George and leads him to conclude that the mysterious backstory behind his friend’s hands is what causes him to fear other people.
The narrator shifts to tell the story of Wing’s hands. Twenty years ago, Wing had been a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania where he was known as Adolph Myers. Wing cared for his students on an inappropriate level, often fondling the boys’ shoulders and heads as he delivered impassioned lectures that he hoped would “carry a dream” into their young minds. One of Wing’s students became enamored with him and accused him of molestation, which the other boys corroborated. The small town was scandalized, and Wing was beaten up and driven out of Pennsylvania to Winesburg, Ohio.
Before Wing’s lonely, unfulfilling life in Winesburg, he was a young man whose role as a schoolteacher gave him a deep sense of purpose. His misstep with George is revealed to be a behavioral pattern, as many years prior his preoccupation with spreading philosophical truths led him to cross boundaries with his male students. Wing’s true intentions are unknown, as the novel does not imply guilt or innocence in regard to his student’s accusation. This scandal is the underlying source of shame for Wing that causes him to abandon his old life and retreat into solitude.
Twenty years later, in the present, Wing is still living in Winesburg. After pacing on his porch, Wing goes back into the house and eats slices of bread spread with honey. He is lonely and still longs for the presence of George, who is “the medium through which he expressed his love of man.” After his meal, Wing ravenously eats the bread crumbs left on his kitchen floor. In this position, Wing looks like a priest knelt in devotion, his nervous hands resembling a rosary prayer.
This scene further emphasizes just how broken and defeated Wing has become in the aftermath of losing his reputation. Though he longs for social connection and an outlet to express himself intellectually, he is relegated to a solitary life in which eating takes on a perverse sort of pleasure. The image of Wing eating crumbs on the floor as a priest might kneel in prayer highlights the degradation of Wing’s spirit as he has become a grotesque, distorted version of his former self.