Ray Pearson and Hal Winters are laborers on the Wills farm outside of Winesburg who come into town to socialize on the weekends. Ray is a quiet, serious, and nervous man with a wife and six children, while Hal is young and irresponsible. Hal’s father was killed in a dramatic train accident that was the envy of young boys in Winesburg who romanticized living and dying gloriously. Hal was the worst behaved of his brothers growing up, often getting into mischief like stealing and getting drunk. A known womanizer, he goes to work on the Wills farm because he is interested a country schoolteacher who lives nearby.
Ray Pearson and Hal Winters are foils of one another, embodying contrasting potentialities of manhood. Whereas Ray is a stable, mature father figure, Hal represents a resistance toward becoming this classical archetype.
One October day, Ray and Hal are joking with each other as they husk corn in a field. Ray, who is more sensitive than Hal, is in a bad mood and becomes emotional at the beautiful autumnal scenery that surrounds them. As a young man, he had enjoyed wandering around introspectively in the woods. Ray suddenly realizes that the entire course of his life had been influenced by asking a girl (who would become his wife) to join him on a walk. He becomes indignant at this realization, believing that God trapped him in his role as a husband and father.
Although he leads a simple life and seems to be content, Ray’s epiphany throws him into an existential crisis. The beauty of the surrounding fall foliage represents youth and freedom for Ray, as his time in nature used to be spent on leisure rather than work. As a result, he suddenly resents his wife and questions his identity, sure that there must be a more meaningful life path that he could be pursuing.
Hal questions whether or not marriage has been worthwhile for Ray and reveals that he has gotten a girl named Nell Gunther pregnant. Hal asks for the older man’s advice, wondering if he should “harness” himself to the girl and risk being “worn out like an old horse.” Ray knows that (based on his personal values and those of his community) he should tell Hal to marry Nell but he cannot manage to say so. Looking at the gorgeous countryside, Ray has an inexplicable desire to scream or hit his wife and cannot make sense of what has come over him.
Unaware of the internal conflict that has just come over Ray, Hal ironically comes to him for marriage advice. As an older, married man, Ray is somewhat of a de facto father figure for Hal. While Hal questions whether becoming tied down to a relationship will bring him satisfaction in life, Ray is so distraught over his perceived lost youth that he feels inclined to lash out with words or violence.
After a day’s work, Ray’s wife good-naturedly scolds him for puttering around the house and asks him to get some groceries for supper. Walking toward town at sunset, Ray becomes overwhelmed by the natural beauty, throws off his coat, and runs through a field. He cries out, asking why he or any other man should owe anything to women who willingly enter relationships with them. Ray decides that he will find Hal before he gets to town and tell him not to marry Nell.
Though the nagging between Ray and his wife seems playful, his current troubled mindset makes the teasing overwhelming. As Ray runs through the field, he is again overcome by a sense of meaninglessness and entrapment, questioning why any man should resign himself to the type of life he leads. In resolving to warn Hal not to marry Nell, he is trying to free the younger man from what he views as the inescapable confines of marriage and family life.
Running to catch Hal, Ray reflects upon the traveling and life goals that he sacrificed when he married his wife. He imagines his own children clutching at Hal and is desperate to warn the younger man that children are accidents which men have “nothing to do with.” By the time he reaches Hal, Ray has lost sense of these thoughts altogether. Hal tells him that Nell does not want to marry him after all, and Ray laughs with him before turning back. On the walk home, Ray recalls pleasant evenings spent with his children and realizes that telling Hal not to marry Nell “would have been a lie,” anyway.
Again, Ray mourns all of the past experiences on which he has missed out. Though his life is centered around supporting his children, he cannot make sense of his own motivations for taking on this responsibility. But Ray’s conversation with Hal creates a shift in this pessimistic mindset, as he realizes that while he no longer has the choice to forgo family life, Hal is worse off, as the younger man does not have the opportunity to experience the joy and satisfaction that fatherhood can bring. Ray is ultimately able to find purpose in the life he has.