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Through “Paper Pills,” Sherwood Anderson illustrates the importance appearances play in society when measuring success. The opening paragraphs introduce the two main characters, the doctor and his wife, not by name or even personality, but predominantly by appearance. The narrator recalls the physician as “an old man with a white beard and huge nose and hands” (Anderson 293). Again, as if preoccupied with physical characteristics, the narrator later comments, “the knuckles of the doctor’s hands were extraordinarily large. When the hands were closed they looked like clusters of unpainted wooden balls as large as walnuts fastened together by steel rods” (294). The reference to the sheer size of the doctor’s nose, hands, and knuckles insinuates physical deformity. The word “unpainted” implies the knuckles are unpolished blemishes, the hands rendered hard and unyielding by the metaphorical “steel rods.” The comparison of the doctor’s knuckles to the “gnarled apples” (294) in the orchards of Winesburg, the town in which he lives, suggests that his physical imperfections could, like the substandard apples, lead to repudiation. “On the trees are only a few gnarled apples that the pickers have rejected. They look like the knuckles of Doctor Reefy’s hands” (294). It appeared an anomaly therefore, to the residents of Winesburg, when so unattractive a man should secure a wife of such a pleasing presence. “The girl was quiet, tall and dark, and to many people she seemed very beautiful. Everyone in Winesburg wondered why she married the doctor” (294). The impressions cast by the couple imply different levels of success: the girl seems perfect, the doctor less so.
In “Paper Pills,” the metaphor of the unblemished apples symbolizes perfection. The apples, like the doctor and his wife, have been assessed on their outward façade rather than the quality of what lies within: “The apples have been taken from the trees by the pickers. They have been put in barrels and shipped to the cities where they will be eaten in apartments that are filled with books, magazines, furniture, and people” (294). The placement of the word “people” at the end of the sentence signifies that material possessions seem of greater importance than the people themselves. The possessions embody their success, rendering it unnecessary to identify the people. As a doctor, the main character of the story also had the potential to lead a successful life in terms of material comforts: “Winesburg had forgotten the old man, but in Doctor Reefy there were the seeds of something very fine” (294). The character only receives an identity through his role as a doctor. Without it he seems anonymous, almost irrelevant to society.
Left “a large fertile farm” (293) on the death of her father, the girl the doctor will marry also had the potential for a successful life. The agricultural image of “seeds” and fertility encapsulates the idea of potential growth and a successful yield. The girl’s inheritance attracts numerous suitors eager to share her wealth and the accompanying feeling of success: “The death of her father and mother and the rich acres of land that had come down to her had set a train of suitors on her heels” (295). The word “train,” whether it refers to the vehicle or a long attachment, emphasizes the quantity of the suitors, and together with the phrase “on her heels” implies their dogged pursuit much like hounds in search of a kill. The image of hungry beasts continues. The girl dreams that one suitor has “bitten” (295) into her body, his jaws “dripping” (295). Another suitor, in his moment of passion, does actually bite her leaving “the marks of his teeth (295)” in her shoulder. The violent imagery emphasizes not just physical lost for the girl but an almost inhuman appetite to own her and her wealth.
In contrast, the doctor does not desire the material symbols of success. Although he had the financial means to dress well, the doctor chose to wear the same suit for ten years, indifferent to its shabbiness or the negative opinions it drew from others. Aspiring to live not in a city apartment but “alone in his musty office (294),” even after he inherits his wife’s wealth, Doctor Reefy does not share his society’s greed for these hallmarks of success. The description of his removal of a patient’s tooth reminds the reader of the teeth marks left on the girl’s shoulder by the greedy suitor. By removing the tooth, Doctor Reefy symbolically counters the insatiable appetite of society to possess and own. When the doctor and the girl marry, they do so willingly with genuine affection and respect for each other. In choosing to marry, the doctor becomes her “twisted apple” (294) and she his (her loss of virginity renders her incomplete and therefore imperfect). Each looks past the imperfections of the other and acknowledges those virtues that have gone undetected by others: “Only a few know the sweetness of the twisted apples” (294). They achieve fulfillment in the beauty of genuine affection.
Rejecting the shallow values of society, the doctor looks elsewhere for a sense of fulfillment. Prior to his marriage, he had already begun the routine of jotting down thoughts on scraps of paper. “The habit had been formed as he sat in his buggy behind the jaded white horse and went slowly along country roads. On the papers were written thoughts, ends of thoughts, beginnings of thoughts” (294). The description of Doctor Reefy traveling “slowly” behind his “jaded” horse to conduct house calls suggests a weariness or disinterest in his job as a medical doctor. He distracts himself by writing scraps of thoughts onto pieces of paper as he travels. The syntax of the line, “on the papers were written thoughts, ends of thoughts, beginnings of thoughts,” suggests that the ideas as yet lack clear formation. When the scraps of paper form “hard balls” (294) in his pocket, they literally resemble paper pills. Yet the title of the story works on a deeper level as well. The description “Paper Pills” refers not just to the round appearance of the scrunched up paper, but infers that the thoughts themselves serve as medicine to benefit others.
Doctor Reefy, dissatisfied with the mindset of his world, struggles to form and communicate new ideas to improve its well-being. He “worked ceaselessly, building up something that he himself destroyed. Little pyramids of truth he erected and after erecting knocked then down again that he might have the truths to erect other pyramids” (294). The triangular shape of a pyramid suggests that the doctor’s search for an absolute truth symbolizes a search the meaning of life. The fact that he keeps destroying and rebuilding the pyramids implies either a lack of success or rather that the truth, too dynamic or potent, intensifies his disillusionment of the world and its need for change. The passing of Reefy’s wife supports this notion – the doctor had shared his ideas with her and her unexplained death implies that the thoughts themselves destroyed her. Doctor Reefy’s ideas result in his own isolation. The narrator describes how “he smoked a cob pipe and after his wife’s death sat all day in his empty office close by a window that was covered in cobwebs. He never opened the window” (294). The fire from the “cob pipe” symbolizes the doctor’s desire for truth and the smoke his swirling thoughts. The cobwebbed window blocks his vision, literally and metaphorically, while the locked window separates Reefy from the rest of his world. Alone and unable to communicate, his perception of success cannot be realized.
Anderson presents opposing perceptions of success in his text “Paper Pills.” For the majority, appearances alone signify success or failure. Doctor Reefy’s physical abnormalities deem him less than perfect, irrespective of the virtues that may lie within. Personal assets, in the form of material possessions, indicate achievement for some, like the residents of the city apartments. Through their pursuit of the girl’s wealth, the greedy suitors demonstrate that the pursuit of success exhibits selfishness at the expense of others. The Doctor rejects materialism and seeks his own fulfillment through thought and the quest for truth. Perceiving his society as unhealthy, the doctor does not want to cure people’s physical ailments but heal their misguided beliefs. At the end of his life, Doctor Reefy stands alone, imprisoned in a cell, both literally and metaphorically. Trapped with his own irrepressible ideas, he remains unable or unwilling to be part of a society whose values he cannot share.
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