Winesburg, Ohio follows the inhabitants of a small midwestern town through a series of interconnected stories about their daily lives. Throughout these vignettes of rural American life, Anderson subverts the stereotype that small towns are idyllic, close-knit communities built on strong relationships. There is a distinct lack of human connection in Winesburg despite the townspeople’s close proximity to one another, with nearly every major character spending their days alone and feeling isolated from their neighbors. This alienation challenges the traditional perception of quaint agrarian communities and acts as an eroding force in the lives of Winesburg’s citizenry, resulting in widespread dissatisfaction and even mental instability.
Throughout the novel, alienation tends to come about as the result of tragedy, failure, and other unforeseen life events—particularly for Wing Biddlebaum and Doctor Reefy. This persistent and often self-imposed loneliness creates a sense of paralysis and prevents characters from moving on from their difficult pasts. Wing, who was once a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania, was run out of town and fled to Winesburg after a student accused him of molestation. Twenty years later, the shame Wing now feels about his controversial past and infamously restless hands leads him to isolate himself from the townspeople. This lack of integration with the community causes Wing to feel as though he is not “in any way a part of the life of the town where he had lived for twenty years,” suggesting the deep and lasting effects that alienation can create. Doctor Reefy similarly isolates himself after the death of his young wife, neglecting his medical practice to spend his days alone in a stuffy, cobweb-filled office above the Paris Dry Goods Company store. Although many years have passed since his wife died, his choice to lead a solitary existence causes him to stagnate and stay fixated on his grief rather than moving past it in a healthy, constructive manner.
While the majority of Winesburg, Ohio’s characters are trapped in a collective plight of alienation, younger people in town pick up on this seemingly contagious meaninglessness and ennui of their elders. The widespread loneliness that the young reporter George Willard witnesses throughout Winesburg creates a desire to escape and ultimately drives him away from his hometown. Raised by his mother Elizabeth who is chronically ill and wholly isolated from the rest of the town, George has a clear example of the lonely, ghostly presence he could become if he does not branch out and form relationships. After George’s father Tom encourages him to “wake up” and get serious about his career and life trajectory, he has his mind set on lofty dreams of getting out of Winesburg, falling in love, and reinventing himself. George’s innocence and impressionability make him a confidante for many older men in town, who often come to him with stories of their mistakes and the subsequent loneliness they have suffered. These encounters, in combination with witnessing his mother’s lifelong alienation, expose the dark reality of small-town life and solidify George’s aspiration to escape the stagnation that would await him if he were to stay in Winesburg.
Beyond fostering passive misery and causing people to flee, isolation also has the ability to foster madness in the minds of the chronically lonely. Elizabeth Willard and Enoch Robinson, two characters who are detached from the people around them, are driven to episodes of insanity by the alienation they experience. Elizabeth is largely bedridden by both physical illness and the shame that she carries over her broken dreams and “shabby” appearance. As a result of being left alone to fester in depression and obsessive thoughts, Elizabeth develops and unhealthy possession over her son George to the extent that she plots to stab her husband Tom when he encourages George to grow up and move away from Winesburg. In the story aptly titled “Loneliness,” Robinson experiences a similar isolation-induced mental breakdown. Enoch returns to his hometown of Winesburg after moving away to New York City and recounts his dismal life story to George. Immaturity and lost love have driven Enoch to perpetual loneliness and madness as he hallucinates imaginary “people of his fancy.” Elizabeth and Enoch’s descents into insanity reflect the ability of social alienation to degrade the human mind to the point of violence and self-destruction. By interweaving these diverse portraits of alienation throughout the novel, Anderson examines the wide-reaching and destructive effects of loneliness and creates a melancholic backdrop that disrupts romanticized stereotypes of life in early 20th century rural America.
Alienation Quotes in Winesburg, Ohio
In Winesburg the hands had attracted attention merely because of their activity. With them Wing Biddlebaum had picked as high as a hundred and forty quarts of strawberries in a day. They became his distinguishing feature, the source of his fame. And they made more grotesque an already grotesque and elusive individuality.
“You must try to forget all you have learned,” said the old man. “You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices.”
In the dense blotch of light beneath the table, the kneeling figure looked like a priest engaged in some service of his church. The nervous expressive fingers, flashing in and out of the light, might well have been mistaken for the fingers of the devotee going swiftly through decade after decade of his rosary.
Little pyramids of truth he erected and after erecting knocked them down again that he might have the truths to erect other pyramids.
On the trees are only a few gnarled apples that the pickers have rejected. They look like the knuckles of Doctor Reefy’s hands…Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apples.
The hotel was continually losing patronage because of its shabbiness and she thought of herself as also shabby. Her own room was in an obscure corner and when she felt able to work she voluntarily worked among the beds, preferring the labor that could be done when the guests were abroad seeking trade among the merchants of Winesburg.
George Willard had a habit of talking aloud to himself and to hear him doing so had always given his mother a peculiar pleasure. The habit in him, she felt, strengthened the secret bond that existed between them. A thousand times she had whispered to herself of the matter. “He is groping about, trying to find himself,” she thought. “He is not a dull clod, all words and smartness. Within him there is a secret something that is striving to grow. It is the thing I let be killed in myself.”
It seemed to her that between herself and all the other people in the world, a wall had been built up and that she was living just on the edge of some warm inner circle of life that must be quite open and understandable to others. She became obsessed with the thought that it wanted but a courageous act on her part to make all of her association with people something quite different, and that it was possible by such an act to pass into a new life as one opens a door and goes into a room.
“Let’s take decay. Now what is decay? It’s fire. It burns up wood and other things…This sidewalk here and this feed store, the trees down the street there—they’re all on fire. They’re burning up. Decay you see is always going on…The world is on fire. Start your pieces in the paper that way. Just say in big letters ‘The World is On Fire.’ That will make ‘em look up.”
“What is the matter with me? I will do something dreadful if I am not careful,” she thought, and turning her face to the wall, began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.
His room began to be inhabited by the spirits of men and women among whom he went, in turn saying words. It was as though everyone Enoch Robinson had ever seen had left with him some essence of himself, something he could mould and change to suit his own fancy, something that understood all about such things as the wounded woman behind the elders in the pictures.
“I had come to the time in my life when prayer became necessary and so I invented gods and prayed to them…Then I found that this woman Elizabeth knew, that she worshipped also the same gods. I have a notion that she came to the office because she thought the gods would be there but she was happy to find herself not alone just the same.”
“Love is like a wind stirring the grass beneath trees on a black night,” he had said. “You must not try to make love definite. It is the divine accident of life. If you try to be definite and sure about it and to live beneath the trees, where soft night winds blow, the long hot day of disappointment comes swiftly and the gritty dust from passing wagons gathers upon lips inflamed and made tender by kisses.”
The eighteen years he has lived seem but a moment, a breathing space in the long march of humanity. Already he hears death calling. With all his heart he wants to come close to some other human, touch someone with his hands, be touched by the hand of another. If he prefers that the other be a woman, that is because he believes a woman will be gentle, that she will understand. He wants, most of all, understanding.
There is something memorable in the experience to be had by going to a fair ground that stands at the edge of a Middle Western town on a night after the annual fair has been held. The sensation is one never to be forgotten. On all side are ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people…One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes.
He began to think of the people in the town where he had always lived with something like reverence. He had reverence for Helen. He wanted to love and be loved by her, but he did not want at the moment to be confused by her womanhood…In that high place in the darkness the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same though. “I have come to this lonely place and here is the other,” was the substance of the thing felt.