The narrative shifts backward to a few years prior when George Willard is around thirteen years old. Doctor Reefy has an office above the Paris Dry Goods Company store that is spacious but full of miscellaneous clutter. Around this time, George’s mother Elizabeth Willard begins to go see Reefy. While the visits usually concern her poor health, occasionally the two simply have conversations about their lives. The hours they spend together are important to both Reefy and Elizabeth, who share the same alienation and yearning for release. Many years later when Reefy has married a young wife, he tells her that he had “invented gods and prayed to them” in his loneliness, and that Elizabeth worshipped those same gods.
Doctor Reefy and Elizabeth Willard are both characters who have experienced a deep sense of loss and subsequent alienation from those around them. Whereas Reefy has stagnated in mourning the death of his wife, Elizabeth’s chronic illness and the tragedy of her lost youth have worn her down into a ghost of her former self. Reefy perceives the same sense of grief in Elizabeth that he feels within himself, reflecting that she has a similar tendency to compensate for unhappiness by searching for meaning in external, arbitrary sources.
Elizabeth opens up more and more each time she comes to see Doctor Reefy, and his company serves as a solace from her dull days spent sick in bed. Back in her bedroom, Elizabeth’s thoughts often wander to nostalgic memories of her adolescent adventures and love affairs. Reefy is her only friend, and his encouragements to let love be indefinite and to embrace the “divine accident of life” echo in her mind. Elizabeth also recalls her unhappy childhood, her mother having died when she was five and her father often consumed by his own chronic illness and depressive demeanor.
Elizabeth and Reefy are both intensely comforted by each other’s presence, believing that they have finally found companionship and understanding after years of loneliness. Reefy, who has become a wise, poetic soul in his old age, encourages Elizabeth to embrace life’s unpredictability rather than engaging in the self-destruction of attempting to take control of her fate.
Before Elizabeth married George’s father Tom Willard, she was a free spirit who had many adventures and “half a dozen lovers.” Beneath this sense of adventure, Elizabeth yearned for true love and lasting companionship. She was indifferent toward her affair with Tom, viewing their impending marriage purely as a matter of convenience. On the night before the marriage, Elizabeth visited her father on his sick bed. He confided in her that he had lived an unfulfilling life despite working hard and he pleaded with her not to marry Tom. Elizabeth’s father then gave her $800 and made her promise to never tell Tom about the money if they did get married.
Elizabeth’s marriage to Tom is revealed to be a major source of the regret that she feels toward her life. While she longed for deep connection, she was never truly in love with Tom and only married him for a sense of security and stability. Elizabeth’s memory of her father pleading with her not to marry Tom suggests that he, too, saw the great potential she held and wanted more for his daughter.
At forty-one years old, Elizabeth sits in Doctor Reefy’s office discussing her marriage with an impersonal detachment. She regrets not heeding her father’s advice to back out of the wedding. Elizabeth reflects that although she wanted a husband, she did not want Tom, and only married him because she was already the subject of town gossip and did not want to be a “bad woman.”
As she has grown older, Elizabeth has come to regret her marriage and mourn the adventures she never got to have. Her decision to marry Tom was influenced by the town’s opinion of her, suggesting that she has always felt like a social outcast in Winesburg.
Elizabeth tells Doctor Reefy about an incident that happened soon after her marriage when she desperately ran away in a horse and buggy, beating the horse to go faster until it could not continue. She got out of the buggy and ran, wanting to escape all aspects of her life. As Elizabeth tells Reefy this story, she kneels at his feet and he embraces and kisses her. It seems to Reefy that the beautiful, innocent girl Elizabeth used to be is projecting herself out of “the husk of the body of the tired-out woman.”
Elizabeth’s dramatic episode of running away from home further reflects the deep-seated grief she feels over her lost youth, as she was nearly driven to the point of a mental breakdown. Reefy does not judge Elizabeth for this—whereas most people view her as downtrodden and pathetic, Reefy is able to perceive her inner beauty instead.
This moment of passion is the last meeting between Elizabeth and Doctor Reefy. A few months later, Elizabeth succumbs to her ongoing illness and dies before she can tell George about the $800 she has kept hidden from Tom behind the drywall in her bedroom. George, now eighteen, at first feels annoyed and unable to make sense of Elizabeth’s death. The event solidifies his conviction he will definitely leave Winesburg for a new life. He begins to fantasize about Helen White as he sits beside his mother’s dead body and breaks down in shame. George is suddenly thrown into denial that Elizabeth is dead and leaves the room, unable to bring himself to look at her body under the bedsheet.
Elizabeth’s death takes on an especially tragic note because she was not able to fulfill her deepest wish of passing on the $800 to her son. The timing of her death is also particularly troubling for George, who is quickly reaching the point in his life when he must make the decision of whether or not to stay in Winesburg. George’s chaotic mix of emotions suggests the profundity and complexity of grief as he has lost his mother during the most pivotal time in his life.