Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of loosely interconnected short stories that focus on the troubled inhabitants of a small midwestern town. Although each of the 25 stories focuses on a different character, the novel’s central plot arc is protagonist George Willard’s gradual coming-of-age.
In “The Book of the Grotesque,” an elderly writer in town has a dreamlike vision of a grotesque figure, which he records in a book. The writer believes that truth is man-made and that becoming possessed by any one singular principle will lead to the corruption and destruction of the individual, a revelation he incorporates into a book of “grotesques” (or people who are deformed by obsession).
In “Hands,” Wing Biddlebaum is alienated from the Winesburg community due to his strange habit of relentlessly moving his hands. After absentmindedly reaching out to touch George Willard during one of their conversations, Wing is horrified, as many years ago he was driven out of his old life as a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania after he was accused of molesting a student. Wing now leads a broken, lonely existence after losing his reputation.
In “Paper Pills,” Doctor Reefy is possessed by a search for intellectual truth, constantly scribbling down his thoughts onto scraps of paper that he then rejects and leaves crumpled in his pockets or strewn around his office. Reefy courts a much younger woman who comes to his medical practice because she has accidentally become pregnant. The woman miscarries and she and Reefy are soon married. Reefy spends that winter happily sharing his philosophical musings with his new wife, but she tragically dies the following spring. After her death, he isolates himself and spends his days grieving alone in his office.
In “Mother,” George Willard’s parents, who have a dysfunctional marriage, own the New Willard House hotel in town. His mother Elizabeth is chronically ill and largely bedbound, while his father Tom resents his wife and their deteriorating life. Elizabeth’s isolation and resentment over her lost youth leads her to become extremely possessive over George, and she plots to stab Tom when he suggests that their son should get serious about his life and possibly move away from Winesburg.
In “The Philosopher,” Doctor Parcival has become embittered by his wild life full of loss, failures, and mistakes. He attempts to mentor George Willard by imparting the same sense of hatred that he feels toward life. After a little girl is killed in a buggy accident, Parcival refuses to help other doctors in town and fears that this will cause him to be hanged. He pleads with George to write the book that he may never get to write, asking him to remember that “everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified.”
In “Nobody Knows,” George has sex with Louise Trunnion, a local teenage girl. After the act, George is ashamed, but he reassures himself that no one knows about their encounter.
In “Godliness, a Tale in Four Parts,” a four-part saga shifts the narrative back several generations to tell the story of Jesse Bentley, the owner of a farm outside of Winesburg. Jesse has a greedy motivation for wealth, but is also possessed by a prophetic vison of himself as an Old Testament figure who must serve God, to the detriment of his family. His daughter Louise has a troubled childhood and feels trapped in her role as a wife and mother, resulting in her son David going to live on the Bentley farm with his grandfather. Jesse views David as the son he never had and hopes that he will help him fulfill his prophecy, but his attempts to forge a righteous path for his grandson ultimately result in David fleeing the Bentley farm.
In “A Man of Ideas,” Joe Welling is a source of annoyance for many people in Winesburg, as he has an irritating habit of cornering people and going on long, philosophical diatribes. Joe starts a baseball team and begins a relationship with Sarah King in hopes of gaining more respect from the townsmen. Although Sarah comes from a sinister, potentially dangerous family, Joe is able to win over her father and brother through his outgoing nature.
In “Adventure,” after Alice Hindman is abandoned by her teenage lover Ned Currie, she spends the next decade deteriorating mentally and becoming completely isolated. When joining a local church does not give Alice the meaning she craves, she decides that she needs a spontaneous adventure. Alice decides to strip off her clothes and run outside into the rain, but quickly regrets her actions, resigning herself to being one of the many people who are destined to “live and die alone.”
In “Respectability,” Wash Williams has become deeply misogynistic since his wife cheated on him. When he sees George Willard kissing Belle Carpenter, he takes it upon himself to warn George about the dangers of trusting women. Though he hopes to inspire the same hatred in George, the young man is only left feeling sickened and disturbed by Wash’s ranting.
In “The Thinker,” after the death of his father, Seth Richmond’s behavior becomes erratic and his mother struggles to rein in her teenage son. Seth feels alienated from his peers and wants to get out of Winesburg to start a new life. When George Willard tells him that he wants to fall in love with Helen White, Seth becomes jealous and goes to see Helen himself. Seth is disappointed when Helen encourages him to leave Winesburg instead of urging him to stay. Seth reflects that while George will likely find love, he is fated to be alone forever.
In “Tandy,” the young daughter of an atheist is given a prophecy by a drunken stranger who wanders into town. He tells the little girl that she could grow up to be the great woman he has foreseen and he encourages her to be Tandy, the name by which he refers to the qualities of bravery, strength, and openness to love. The stranger’s vision gives the young girl a newfound sense of purpose amidst her nihilistic environment and she demands to be called “Tandy” thereafter.
In “The Strength of God,” Reverend Curtis Hartman experiences a crisis of faith after he sees the schoolteacher Kate Swift reading and smoking a cigarette in her bedroom. He is thrown into a sexual obsession with Kate that culminates in him surrendering to sin and waiting for a glimpse of her in the church bell tower across from her bedroom window. Hartman is shocked to see Kate naked and praying, a sight that leads Hartman to a spiritual epiphany. He runs out of the church, exclaiming to George Willard that Kate is an instrument of God.
“The Teacher” retells “The Strength of God” from an alternative point of view, focusing on the events of George Willard’s life leading up to Reverend Hartman’s proclamation. George has entered into a relationship with his former schoolteacher Kate Swift that leaves both of them confused over their gap in maturity. George has just had a fight with Kate when Hartman bursts into the Winesburg Eagle office and tells George that she is a divine instrument, a proclamation that leaves George even more confused.
In “Loneliness,” Enoch Robinson moves away from Winesburg to New York City in order to attend art school. His egocentric, childlike nature prevents him from fully connecting with others and he creates imaginary friends to talk to in lieu of stable relationships. Enoch eventually leaves his wife and children and has a mental breakdown at the loss of his imaginary “shadow people.” Enoch, left distraught and alone, returns to Winesburg and shares his life story with George Willard.
In “An Awakening,” George Willard is casually dating Belle Carpenter, a young woman who is only interested in George because it makes her suitor Ed Hanby jealous. One night, George goes out walking and has the profound revelation that the same laws exist at all levels of the universe, and that becoming a man means incorporating himself into this natural order. George’s newfound confidence inspires him to pursue Belle more assertively, which works in his favor until Ed spots them together and attacks him. George is left humiliated and vows that he will hate Belle for the rest of his life.
In “Queer,” Elmer Cowley is the son of a family that is alienated from the Winesburg community due to their peculiar nature and the equally peculiar store that they own. As a newcomer, Elmer has failed to make any friends and feels a deep sense of alienation. He arbitrarily blames his loneliness on George Willard, who he believes epitomizes the town that ostracizes him. In an act of rebellion, Elmer robs his father’s store, beats up George, and flees Winesburg on a train, reassuring himself that he “ain’t so queer.”
In “The Untold Lie,” Ray Peterson and Hal Winters, laborers on a farm outside of Winesburg, are both conflicted about what their paths in life should be. While Ray is in the midst of an existential crisis about the opportunities he missed out on to get married and have children, Hal comes to the older man for advice about what he should do after accidentally getting a girl pregnant. Ray initially wants to warn Hal that getting married and having a family will trap him in a life he does not want. Ray realizes, however, that this would be a lie as he is truly fulfilled by the love he feels for his wife and children.
In “Drink,” a young man named Tom Foster moves with his grandmother to Winesburg after his parents die. Although his upbringing in Cincinnati was fairly troubled, he is a sweet (albeit irresponsible) boy who keeps to himself and is well-liked by the townspeople. Tom comes to view his innocence as a detriment to his growth and decides that he must get drunk in order to gain a better understanding of other people and the sorrows they face. After a drunken night in which he is looked after by George Willard, Tom believes that the experience has taught him a valuable lesson.
In “Death,” Elizabeth Willard begins to see Doctor Reefy for her chronic illness, and the two become fast friends. Elizabeth and Reefy bond over the fact that they are both alienated, misunderstood souls who are similarly paralyzed by the losses they have experienced in life. Reefy encourages Elizabeth to be open to the “divine accident” of love, but Elizabeth dies before the two can fully begin a romantic relationship.
In “Sophistication,” after Elizabeth Willard’s death, George is thrown into a crisis wherein he becomes acutely aware of his own mortality and feels that he must move on from his childhood in order to truly cross “the line into manhood.” Feeling a deep desire for connection and understanding, he seeks out Helen White, whom he has dated off and on throughout his adolescence. George and Helen spend a meaningful night together looking out over the empty grounds after the town fair, each coming to terms with their maturation and gaining a better understanding of their complementary roles as a man and a woman.
In “Departure,” George’s mother’s death and his meaningful last night with Helen White allow George Willard to fully move on from his childhood and embrace his newfound independence. George departs from Winesburg on an early morning train in hopes of starting a new life and finding a job on a city newspaper. While George is initially nostalgic, his ambivalence fades away as he feels ready to “paint the dreams of his manhood” on the distant background of his hometown.