As the protagonist of Winesburg, Ohio, George Willard is the common link among the novel’s interconnected stories. George, full of youth and potential, is continually confused by the mixed impressions he receives from his loved ones and acquaintances about what it truly means to be a grown man. Though several older men in town feel compelled to mentor George, confide in him, and impart their notions of life onto his impressionable mind, George is only able to mature and gain the confidence to leave Winesburg through his own personal experiences and introspection. Through George’s journey from a young boy to an adult departing his hometown and beginning his life, Anderson suggests that breaking free from small-minded circumstances and establishing independence are essential to manhood.
As George serves as an endearing confidante for many of the older men in Winesburg, the sense of youthful energy and possibility that he exudes contrasts the downtrodden, cynical attitude that seems to plague these men and envelop their hometown. Doctor Parcival, a former reporter and minister who is now a careless doctor with a dwindling medical practice, takes a liking to George and shares life lessons stemming from his dysfunctional family and questionable past. He befriends George in hopes that the young man will not become “just such another fool” and make the same mistakes in his life. Parcival’s jaded, self-victimized outlook is a blatant contrast to George’s naivete and open-mindedness. Wash Williams is another example of the many older men who try to take George under their wing. When he sees George kissing Belle Carpenter, Wash (who was cheated on and jilted by his wife), warns George about the manipulation and betrayal that “bitches” inflict upon men. Wash’s bitterness and misogyny is so aggressive that George feels “ill and weak” during their conversation, suggesting that the epidemic of disillusionment in Winesburg has the potential to corrupt George’s relatively innocent mindset.
In addition to the men who see their young selves reflected in George, other people in Winesburg resent him for the imminent success they see in his future and attempt to influence his notions of manhood by discouraging or sabotaging his plans. The envy that George’s mother Elizabeth Willard, as well as his peers Seth Richmond and Elmer Cowley, exhibit toward George highlights the hopelessness of life in Winesburg and the necessity of George’s maturation and independence in order to live a meaningful life. George’s mother Elizabeth is one of the most influential sources of confusion and discouragement that he faces as a young man on the cusp of independence. While Elizabeth wants her son to achieve his dreams (as she did not achieve hers), she is also furious with her husband Tom for encouraging George to grow up and leave Winesburg. Elizabeth’s open mockery of George’s desire to move on from his childhood home reflects her fear of being left behind and forgotten as her son fulfills his potential.
Seth Richmond and Elmer Cowley, two teenagers in Winesburg, are also envious of the promise that George’s future holds and insecure that they do not measure up in comparison. While Seth is jealous of George’s budding relationship with Helen White, Elmer resents George as a symbol of the ostracization he feels as a newcomer in the community. The indignation and mixed messages that George receives from his family and friends leave him confused, challenging his ability to think for himself and reaffirming the necessity of escaping his small-minded hometown to become an independent man.
Despite the external influences and opposition that George faces, he ultimately prevails and set out to fulfill his dreams at the end of Winesburg, Ohio. Through George’s introspective maturation at the end of the novel and subsequent departure from his hometown, Anderson demonstrates the importance of thinking independently and taking control of one’s own destiny in order to make the transition from boy to man. Just before leaving Winesburg, George attends the county fair with Helen. Looking out over the town, he “shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life” that would await him if he stayed. At the same time, George feels endearment for the neighbors he has grown up alongside, leaving him conflicted and guilty. This moment is the culmination of the mixed signals about his future that George has received from his peers and elders. He ultimately decides to leave town and relegates his childhood memories to “but a background on which to paint the dreams of manhood.” Wanting more from his life, George refuses to be influenced by the failure and bitterness around him, rejecting the mediocre fate that has befallen his parents and many other elders in Winesburg. By ending the novel with George’s coming-of-age and departure from Winesburg to “meet the adventure of life,” Anderson emphasizes the importance of overcoming external influences and developing an independent, mature sense of intuition and wisdom in order to make the transition from childhood into manhood.
Coming of Age, Independence, and Manhood ThemeTracker
Coming of Age, Independence, and Manhood Quotes in Winesburg, Ohio
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.”
“If something happens perhaps you will be able to write the book that I may never get written. The idea is very simple, so simple that if you are not careful you will forget it. It is this—that everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified. That’s what I want to say. Don’t you forget that. Whatever happens, don’t you dare let yourself forget.”
“If you are to become a writer you’ll have to stop fooling with words,” she explained. “It would be better to give up the notion of writing until you are better prepared. Now it’s time to be living. I don’t want to frighten you, but I would like to make you understand the import of what you think of attempting. You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say.”
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.
“There is a law for armies and for men too,” he muttered, lost in reflection. “The law begins with little things and spreads out until it covers everything. In every little thing there must be order…I must myself be orderly. I must learn that law. I must get myself into touch with something orderly and big that swings through the night like a star. In my little way I must begin to learn something, to give and swing and work with life, with the law.”
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.
The young man’s mind was carried away by his growing passion for dreams. One looking at him would not have thought him particularly sharp. With the recollection of little things occupying his mind he closed his eyes and leaned back in the car seat. He stayed that way for a long time and when he aroused himself and again looked out of the car window the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.