Tom Willard, George Willard’s father, is the proprietor of the New Willard House hotel that had originally belonged to his wife Elizabeth Willard’s father. Elizabeth Willard is often ill and spends her days drifting around the hotel, and Tom is embarrassed of his sickly wife and the shabby building. He spends his time getting involved with Winesburg’s politics, stirring up conflict as a Democrat in the majority Republican small town.
George Willard’s parents are both deeply unsatisfied with their lives and feel resentful of each other. Elizabeth’s chronic illness leaves her largely bedbound and she is more of a burden for the family than a traditional maternal figure. Unable to confront the painful reality of his ailing wife and floundering business, Tom finds his sense of purpose in local politics.
Elizabeth believes that she and her son George share a deep bond, and she wants to see her lost dreams re-created through him. Elizabeth is conflicted in her wishes for George, praying that he leads a meaningful life yet not wanting him to become “smart and successful.” George often visits Elizabeth in her bedroom during her bouts of illness and they people-watch out the window together. One night when Elizabeth is alone, she watches a fight between the baker and a cat out her window and weeps because she feels that the conflict “seemed like a rehearsal of her own life.”
Elizabeth’s deep, prolonged alienation leads her to become extremely possessive over George. Although Elizabeth loves her son and wants him to be happy, he is her only companion and she is terrified that he will abandon her. In likening herself to the cat who is attacked by the baker, Elizabeth establishes a perception of herself as an oppressed figure who has been victimized by life.
Elizabeth, who has been ill for several days, is worried that George hasn’t visited her. She sneaks out of her room, afraid that the hotel guests will be turned off by her shabby appearance. Elizabeth listens under George’s door and hears him engaged in his usual tendency of talking to himself. She feels that this habit strengthens the bond between them because it gives her insight to the intelligence and potential George has that she let die in herself.
The deep bond that Elizabeth perceives between herself and George is somewhat of a delusion, as a great deal of Elizabeth’s connection with her son takes place in her own mind. In reality, George’s relationship with his mother is a source of confusion for the young man. Elizabeth’s recognition of George’s potential highlights her own failures and disappointments that have led her to becoming sad, lonely, and resentful over the years.
On the way back to her bedroom, Elizabeth realizes that George had not been speaking to himself, but to Tom. She overhears a conversation in which Tom, who wants George to succeed in life, lectures their son to “wake up” and take responsibility for himself. This enrages Elizabeth, who perceives Tom as an evil threat to George. In a fit of jealous rage, she decides she will stab Tom with a pair of scissors.
Hearing Tom encourage George to grow up and become independent causes Elizabeth to project the resentment she feels toward her life onto her husband. Her resolution to stab Tom reflects the profound effects that disappointment and alienation have had on her psyche, as she is driven to madness at the thought of George leaving home.
Before she married Tom, Elizabeth was a restless young girl who longed to join one of the theater companies that often passed through Winesburg. She spent time with the traveling men who stayed at her father’s hotel and once scandalized the town by riding a bicycle down Main Street while dressed in men’s clothing.
Elizabeth’s backstory as a free-spirited young girl further emphasizes her lost youth and current state of stagnation. The motivations for her resentment of Tom become clearer as it is revealed that she had other love affairs and interactions with men that were more fulfilling than her current partnership.
After deciding that she is going to stab Tom, Elizabeth imagines a theatrical vision of the murder and decides that she must look beautiful when she confronts him. She applies old stage makeup and resolves to attack Tom “as a tigress whose cub has been threatened.” Her plan is interrupted when she suddenly loses the strength from her body, collapsing on the floor. George then enters Elizabeth’s bedroom to tell her that he will be leaving home within a year or two at his father’s encouragement. Elizabeth is inwardly joyful but outwardly mocking of her son’s aspirations.
Elizabeth’s need to look attractive while attacking her husband is an absurd conviction that highlights the deep-seated sense of loss she feels over her squandered potential as a beautiful young woman. The grief she feels over her lost potential translates into resentment, which she expresses outwardly to George when he confirms that he will be leaving home. In this moment, Elizabeth’s greatest fear of being abandoned by her son has come to fruition.