The townspeople of Winesburg are plagued by death, tragedy, and failure, all of which lend themselves to the community’s pervasive melancholic atmosphere and sense of hopelessness. Anderson uses Winesburg, Ohio’s extensive cast of characters to explore the toll that loss can take on the human psyche. Whereas some of Winesburg’s inhabitants become passive and stagnate in the wake of grief, others react with resentment, revenge, and escapism. Anderson portrays these varying methods of coping with loss in order to demonstrate the significant psychological impact of trauma and the complexity and fluidity of human emotions.
After losing their respective partners, Doctor Reefy and Alice Hindman are paralyzed by their bereavement. Reefy, whose young wife dies soon after they are married, retreats to a life of solitude in her absence. He is able to find solace and understanding only in the company of Elizabeth Willard, who also dies before they are able to begin a romantic relationship. This debilitating isolation indicates the profound and lasting toll that loss can take on a loved one’s life. Although Alice’s former lover Ned Currie did not die, but rather left of his own volition, she is similarly affected by grief after he abandons her. After Ned leaves Winesburg to pursue a new life in Chicago, Alice remains fixated on him and cannot imagine a future with anyone else. She attempts to “force herself to face the fact that many people must live and die alone,” suggesting that her life is irrevocably damaged by the loss of Ned. The experiences of Reefy and Alice reflect the tendency of grief to persist and damage the lives of those affect long after the person is gone.
Unlike those who process their grief passively, characters like Doctor Parcival and Wash Williams react to the tragedies and failures of their lives outwardly. Parcival and Wash allow bitterness and resentment to overtake them and manifest onto others as they seek revenge on humanity itself for their suffering, suggesting loss’s ability to corrupt and shift the moral fabric of those affected. Before coming to live in Winesburg, Parcival has endured the loss of his father along with a chaotic past rife with mistakes and personal failures. He is embittered to the point that he does not want patients at his medical practice and refuses to help the other doctors in town when a little girl is killed in a buggy accident. Parcival’s negative life experiences have affected him to the point of debasing his worldview wherein he views himself and everyone else as hopeless victims, telling George Willard that “everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified.” Wash Williams is another character whose personal loss manifests outwardly in his attitudes and behavior. After the dissolution of his marriage, Wash adopts a misogynistic attitude that escalates from anger at his ex-wife who cheated on him to feeling sickened and even homicidal toward women in general. This resentment reflects the powerful emotional hold that grief can exert over its sufferers and the tendency for people to be embittered by romantic betrayal and marital loss.
Whereas most characters in Winesburg, Ohio are negatively affected by loss, the death of Elizabeth Willard near the end of the novel acts as a positive catalyst effect in her son George’s life. Motivated to create a better life for himself than Elizabeth had, the complex emotions that George feels in the wake of his mother’s death culminate in maturation and self-development that facilitate George’s decision to leave Winesburg. Immediately after Elizabeth passes, George has “but little sense of the meaning of her death” and feels empty and numb in her absence. He soon passes through several different stages of grief and is thrown into a tumult of emotions ranging from nostalgia, to uncertainty of the future, to fear of his own mortality. George’s rapidly shifting reactions to his mother’s death are a testament to the mysterious complexity of grief. The shock of Elizabeth’s death, however, does not debilitate nor embitter George. Rather, it serves as a pivotal moment of closure that allows him to fully dissociate from his childhood as he reaches his eighteenth birthday. Experiencing the loss of his mother creates a sense that “death is calling” and gives George the final push he needs to leave Winesburg and begin his adult life on his own. Through his exploration of these different reactions and coping mechanisms in response to loss, Anderson vividly portrays the long-lasting effects of trauma and the ramifications of allowing negative life events to overtake one’s thoughts and actions. The novel’s conclusion of George leaving Winesburg offers an alternative message of optimistic healing as the young man is able to remain positive in the wake of his mother’s death, ultimately showing the widely variable effects of grief on the human psyche.
Grief Quotes in Winesburg, Ohio
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.