Whereas small, rural towns are commonly associated with a strong religious foundation, there is a distinct lack of faith in the community of Winesburg. The novel begins with a cautionary tale about becoming possessed and corrupted by singular beliefs, a fate that ironically befalls many characters throughout the novel. Rather than trusting in God or destiny, several characters obsessively search for truth and try in vain to take fate into their own hands or create contrived purpose in their lives. By contrast, those who actually succeed in finding meaning stumble upon it when they least expect it. By making this distinction, Anderson emphasizes the detriments of blindly searching for truth and meaning and shows the importance of trust in a higher power and acceptance of humanity’s limited capacity for knowledge and control.
Winesburg, Ohio begins with the story of an elderly writer who has a dreamlike vision that he goes on to write about in “The Book of the Grotesque.” He warns his readers that truth is beautiful and universal, but that people can become grotesque when they narrowly fixate on a single principle for guiding their lives. This warning proves apt for Doctor Reefy, Wing Biddlebaum, and Jesse Bentley, whose attempts to seek meaning and build themselves up as prophetic figures result in self-sabotage.
Doctor Reefy is a clear example of this, as he constantly constructs and deconstructs “pyramids” of truth that he compulsively scribbles onto scraps of paper. Despite this obsession with intellectual self-development, he is unable to move past the deaths of his wife and later of Elizabeth Willard to find lasting happiness. Reefy describes himself as having “invented gods and prayed to them” amidst his grief, but his man-made deities lack any real substance or grounding in a higher power. Reefy’s fixation on these beliefs of his own creation ultimately doom him to an unfulfilling life. Wing Biddlebaum is another character who is similarly possessed by his own perceptions of truth, envisioning himself as a wise figure whose purpose is to enlighten the minds of young men. Blindly focusing on this singular purpose results in Wing crossing inappropriate boundaries with his male students and soiling his reputation. His fanatical devotion, first to his own intellectual vision and subsequently to his shame, leaves him imitating “a priest engaged in some service of his church,” worshipping the miniscule pleasures of his isolated life in lieu of a meaningful belief system.
Anderson further develops his critique of self-possessed ideology as the narrative shifts back several generations to the story of Jesse Bentley, the owner of a prosperous farm near Winesburg. While people in this era were generally more religiously devout, Jesse fids it increasingly difficult to “get back to the old feeling of a close and personal God” as he becomes obsessed with wealth and productivity. Jesse’s devotion to God is perverted by greed and an aggrandized vision of himself as an Old Testament figure, a perspective that ultimately leads to pain, disappointment, and loss for himself and his loved one and highlights the importance of relinquishing control and accepting fate.
In contrast to these examples of blind devotion to empty principles, the story of Tandy Hard’s name exemplifies the random, arbitrary nature of fate, while Reverend Curtis Hartman’s fixation on the beautiful schoolteacher Kate Swift culminates in a surrendering of control that leads to a meaningful epiphany. Through these experiences, Anderson reinforces the importance of faith in a higher power and accepting the limitations that humans face in controlling their own destinies. Tandy, the young daughter of the devout atheist Tom Hardy, is approached by a drunk stranger who kisses her hands and delivers his prophecy of a woman named Tandy who will be “something more than man or woman.” The stranger encourages her to become this woman and to dare to embody bravery, strength, and openness to love. Though seemingly nonsensical, this encounter has a profound impact on the little girl, who from then on rejects her given name and insists on being called Tandy. The event creates a sense of purpose that allows Tandy to transcend the death of her mother and her father’s neglectful treatment of her. By trusting in a higher power rather than succumbing to the narrow, apathetic mindset that her father sets forth, Tandy is able to find lasting meaning.
Reverend Hartman has a similarly random yet impactful experience when his sexually-fueled obsession with Kate Swift culminates in him deciding that he will give into sin and stop his temptation to peer into the woman’s bedroom window. He is shocked when he sees Kate naked and praying in her bedroom. Hartman has been tortured into a lengthy crisis of faith by the temptation he feels for the young woman, and seeing her in her most raw, vulnerable form delivers an epiphany to him that Kate is “an instrument of God, bearing the message of truth.” The minister is thusly able to free himself from sinful obsession and comes to value Kate as a spiritual being rather than a physical object. Rather than attempting to force himself into the hypocritical duality of preaching purity but yearning for Kate, Hartman’s decision to accept his human flaws and trust in God leads to true enlightenment.
The deeply meaningful experiences of Tandy and Hartman are a stark contrast to the stories of Reefy, Wing, and Jesse who fall into the tragic archetype laid out by the writer in “The Book of the Grotesque.” By showing the pitfalls of becoming too intellectually or materially possessed, Anderson highlights the importance of accepting one’s limits and finding purpose internally rather than searching for external meaning.
Faith, Fate, and Meaning ThemeTracker
Faith, Fate, and Meaning Quotes in Winesburg, Ohio
It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.
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.
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.
As time passed and he grew to know people better, he began to think of himself as an extraordinary man, one set apart from his fellows. He wanted terribly to make his life a thing of great importance, and as he looked about at his fellow men and saw how like clod they lived it seemed to him that he could not bear to become also such a clod.
In our day a farmer standing by the stove in the store in his village has his mind filled to overflowing with the words of other men. The newspapers and the magazines have pumped him full. Much of the old brutal ignorance that had in it also a kind of beautiful childlike ignorance is gone forever. The farmer by the stove is brother to the men of the cities, and if you listen you will find him talking as glibly and as senselessly as the best city man of us all.
The beginning of the most materialistic age in the history of the world…when men would forget God and only pay attention to moral standards, when the will to power would replace the will to serve and beauty would well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions, was telling its story to Jesse the man of God as it was to the men about him.
The stranger arose and stood before Tom Hard. His body rocked back and forth and he seemed about to fall, but instead he dropped to his knees on the sidewalk and raise the hands of the little girl to his drunken lips. He kissed them ecstatically. “Be Tandy, little one,” he pleaded. “Dare to be strong and courageous. That is the road. Venture anything. Be brave enough to dare to be loved. Be something more than man or woman. Be Tandy.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.