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The sum of the parts the vignettes of townsfolk of Winesburg, Ohio is greater than the whole novel. Winesburg, too, is only one town in all of Ohio, which is one of a host of states in the U.S. This magnification is at the heart of the novel, in which synecdoche is the main lens through which Sherwood Anderson allows us to regard the grotesques. This narrow aperture of perception does not compromise full characterization, but instead forces the reader into searching for subtle connections within and across the sketches. The opening story, “Hands,” launches the titular synecdochic motif whose pairings Anderson systematically and symmetrically deploys. Discounting the final brief story, “Departure,” and the prologue-like “The Book of the Grotesque,” the opening story complements the final story. Within this diptych and throughout the other pieces, Anderson feeds the epitomized symbol of human connection, the hand, into a matrix of binaries and hidden connections. He outlines the hand’s numerous antithetical uses (for instance, as both a formal farewell handshake and a lover’s caress) and reveals the gesticulative associations between ostensibly disparate characters. Though we may glimpse only a character’s hand, by tracing its antitheses and parallels we can blow up that portion into a full-sized portrait, just as we come to understand a town by all its citizens, a state by all its towns, and a country by all its states. And just as the U.S. is comprised of neither solely Ohio nor solely Oregon, but of the whole union, so does the hand embody neither exclusively intimacy nor exclusively alienation, but the entire spectrum of human contact.
I will begin by examining what I find the crux of the novel’s conflict, the paradoxical deployments of hands within the stories. The paradox features an impossible or illogical state of being for the hand, but one that exists nonetheless. Anderson cues us to the paradox’s importance by showing Wing Biddlebaum “rubbing his hands together and looking up and down the road” (5). The gesture has little to do with his vision at the moment, but suggests that the reader similarly look both ways when reading through the book and exercise his depth perception. We take note of the perplexing admixture of human emotion under the surface of a simple handshake: “He put out his hand as though to greet the younger man and then awkwardly drew it back again” (141). The relationship between the two men that of a doctor greeting a dead patient’s son is summed up by the handshake, a formalized mode of greeting in a situation that requires the tact of more informal tactility. The ambivalence that meets a person when thrust into society, of desiring intimacy but fearing the proximity, is the central motivation of the grotesques, as voiced by an eighteen-year-old George Willard, who later recants his vows with angry, forced aloofness: “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 “He wants, most of all, understanding” (145).
But such an understanding is difficult when the paradoxes reveal their irreconcilable and incomprehensible origins. Insecure about his baldness, Wing’s hands futilely play about his “bare white forehead as though arranging a mass of tangled locks” (5). The anxiety over the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” is indicative of Wing’s attempts to create connections or proclaim presence where none exists. Similarly confounding is his means of articulation: “The slender expressive fingers, forever active, forever striving to conceal themselves in his pockets or behind his back, came forth and became the piston rods of his machinery of expression” (6). Though his words are emphasized through gesticulation, the hands visually divert attention from the verbal meaning. His humanity may be revealed more clearly through his gestures, but it is also reduced by the robotic associations of “piston rods.”
Moving beyond the paradox, contradictions play a key role in defining strictly alternative operations of the hand. Created through juxtaposition of two opposing uses of the hand, they showcase the multidimensionality of the hand that might evade notice if viewed as isolated instances. Wing, as schoolmaster Adolph Myers, touches his students with communicative love:
In a way the voice and the hands, the stroking of the shoulders and the touching of the hair was a part of the schoolmaster’s efforts to carry a dream into the young minds. By the caress that was in his fingers he expressed himself. He was one of those men in whom the force that creates life is diffused, not centralized. (8)
Three paragraphs later, the father of one of the students inverts Myers’s soft touch with his “hard knuckles” as he beats him. While his force is also one of diffusion, it is a dissipation of destruction: “Screaming with dismay, the children ran here and there like disturbed insects” (8). The violent is again paired with the nurturant in the modifying operations of utilitarian objects. An angry mob of men with “lanterns in their hands” carries the banal objects with venom, as does the man with a “rope in his hands” (9). Back in present time, Wing uses a knife, not even named in the passage, to “cut slices of bread and spread honey upon them” (9). Lanterns and rope as instruments of death and a knife as an aid for sustenance, each made so by the intent of the controlling hands, encapsulates the contradictory range of the hand as inevitably seeking both life and death, contact and alienation.
How does the hand figure as an agent of these conflicting aims between characters “We are told that “[T]he story of Wing Biddlebaum’s hands is worth a book in itself” and, indeed, comparable details of supposedly unique gestures abound throughout Winesburg, Ohio. The laying of a hand upon a shoulder recurs among the characters, but with different intentions. In “The Thinker,” Helen puts “her hand upon Seth’s shoulder” in an “act of pure affection and cutting regret” (82). In “Sophistication,” George takes the touch of Helen’s shoulder as an advanced state of hand-holding: “In the darkness he took hold of her hand and when she crept close put a hand on her shoulder” (149). But his and Helen’s affection is borne not from pure affection, but from an insecurity of anonymous alienation, where neither lover nor the emotion is named: “‘I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,’ was the substance of the thing felt” (149). Wing is the progenitor of the shoulder motif, “caressing the shoulders of the boys” as schoolmaster in his “effort to carry a dream into the young minds” (9). In a moment of blissful oblivion from his manual torment, he repeats the verbal and accompanying physical lesson with George: “For once he forgot the hands. Slowly they stole forth and lay upon George Willard’s shoulders ‘You must try to forget all you have learned,’ said the old man. “You must begin to dream'” (8).
Though Wing is a pariah by any account, his shared tendencies with others implies that either he is not as alone as he believes, or that other, more socially fluent members of Winesburg are equally alone. He recoils from touching George, remembering his past: “With a convulsive movement of his body, Wing Biddlebaum sprang to his feet and thrust his hands deep into his trousers pockets” (7). In “The Thinker,” Seth Richmond fantasizes about an idyllic summer scene with Helen White, “her hand lying in his hand” (81). Then, when he returns to the somewhat starker reality with her, he echoes Wing’s actions nearly to the word: “Releasing the hand of the girl, he thrust his hands into the trouser pockets” (81). Wing’s closest ties remain with George, his only friend, and the unofficial bookends of “Hands” and “Sophistication” unveil their links of loneliness through the closeness of events. In “Hands,” we are told that “Winesburg was proud of the hands of Wing Biddlebaum in the same spirit in which it was proud of Banker White’s new stone house and Wesley Moyer’s bay stallion, Tony Tip, that had won the two-fifteen trot at the fall races in Cleveland” (6). In “Sophistication,” George feels “so utterly lonely and dejected” after the Winesburg Country Fair, but is spurred on by pride, “swinging his arms” much as Wing would (147). This is nothing extraordinary, but the gathering he happens upon is too similar to the communal pride described in “Hands”: “He came to Westley Moyer’s livery barn and stopped in the shadows to listen to a group of men who talked of a race Westley’s stallion, Tony Tip, had won at the Fair during the afternoon” (147). Though different horse races (the discrepancy in the spelling of Moyer’s first name seems to be a printing or authorial error), the related set of circumstances and the resulting emotion desolate isolation within a communal celebration (if we infer that Wing does not share the same pride with the town over his hands) bonds Wing and George in ways neither comprehends on his own. While Wing beats his fists in frustration on the “walls of his house,” George puts his “hand against the wall to support himself” after seeing his dead mother (6, 142). The image of walls is not coincidental; the physical and invisible structures of the community keep its members apart, but Wing and George try, perhaps in vain, to break through those boundaries in their shared movements.
The distanced endpoints of holding and touch extend towards the infinitudes of origin and end for Elizabeth Willard in “Death,” in the two “moments when her lovers Death and Doctor Reefy held her in her arms” (143). The touch of the doctor, preserver of life, is equated with that of death, which “like a living thing put out his hand” to Elizabeth (140). The hand, then, is the possessor of every possible form of contact, and it is fitting that the novel’s final moment of contact serves as a synecdochic farewell from the town to George: “Getrude Wilmote had never before paid any attention to George. Now she stopped and put out her hand. In two words she voiced what everyone felt” (152).
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