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Small Town, Big City, Same Old Story

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Following the Industrial Revolution and urbanization in the United States and Europe, places such as Dublin, Ireland and Winesburg, Ohio would lie on opposite sides of the spectrum as far as geographic size, population, and industrial production. However, Sherwood Anderson and James Joyce share many similar techniques in painting a gloomy picture of life in their respective works of Winesburg, Ohio, and Dubliners. The titles of both works are very misleading in the fact that they boldly suggest that the book is a portrait of the life of people residing in Dublin and Winesburg in the 1910s. True, they do both depict certain aspects of life that apply only to small towns or big cities or something more specific such as Irish nationalism, but they are irrelevant when comparing what is without a doubt the most fascinating feature in both the collections, which is the psychology of the characters. Though any and all claims made about small town life and city life are valid, because they come from the life of the author, neither work is written with the sole intent of depicting a specific region of the world or certain kind of town. The point in both books is that the authors are transcribing the feelings and emotions of the characters when they are placed in these bizarre and often tragic and downright disturbing scenarios. They present life as it exists, not at all diluted because of some fear of presenting a poor image. Aside from the shock value of the books, they share some other similarities in form, style, and themes. As collections of stories go, they both are both extremely significant for their stylistic innovation and rebellion against conventional forms of short stories.

One of these new features was to create characters in their stories that seem to go against the grain of society, so to speak. In Winesburg, Anderson calls them grotesques in the prologue, although he gives a very vague description as to what they actually are. Joyce does not label these characters, but he places characters similar to Anderson’s grotesques in the stories of Dubliners, and they are always the focus of the story or have a profound effect on the main character. It is important to note that as Anderson says, “the grotesques were not all horrible” (Anderson 5), and what he means is that they often lead what seems to be perfectly normal lives, and yet on the inside they have some burning passion for something that will inevitably go unsatisfied. Others, because of some traumatic or effectual event in their past, are controlled by emotions that cause them to exhibit behavior that is conceived by the reader as outrageous by all moral and social standards. In both cases the character demonstrates some fascinating psychology. They seem to be motivated by a fixation on an idea, either something from the past they cannot get out of their mind, or a desire in life that will inevitably go unfulfilled. Occasionally in Dubliners, much will go unknown about these grotesques, if I may now apply the term to certain characters in Dubliners, which epitomize the former. Sometimes Joyce does not give as much of a background of these characters, while Anderson usually manages to give a full description of what makes these characters what they are.

But enough generalizing; let us now look at some specific examples and see what makes these grotesques so unique, what motivates them psychologically, and what it is about their behaviors that is so disturbing.

Anderson and Joyce both present very early on one of the more alarming taboos of society, still a major issue today especially with recent scandals in the priesthood, which is pedophilia. Authors from the early Romantic period and before would be reluctant to even mention such a twisted and controversial topic, but after Freudian psychology and a renewed interest in sexual desires, Modernist writers were anxious to portray the taboo side of sex. Anderson writes, in “Hands,” of his first grotesque, Wing Biddlebaum. Accused of molesting a “half-witted boy,” Wing, then known as Adolph Myers, was driven from town after other students told of how Myers would run his fingers through their hair. It is a depressing first tale, in that Myers appeared to have been a perfectly good teacher, though rather affectionate, but because of the paranoia of others becomes a recluse for the rest of his days, “forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts” (Anderson 9). Even though he never did the deed he was accused of, everyone from his past views him as a sex offender and a homosexual. Even though it has been years since the incident, Wing does not associate with anyone, most likely from fear they will know or even want to know about his past. Because Wing never actually committed any act of pedophilia, Anderson is making more of a statement about the overt concern “with homosexual panic and with the privilege of self-assured heterosexual men to mark and brutalize those who differ in appearance, speech, and behavior” (Yingling 115). So Wing is conceived as a grotesque in this case because he appears to be different (sexually) from others. He is a grotesque within Winesburg because of his inability to function socially within the town. Ray Lewis White attributes this to the fact that “self-ignorance and public stupidity have destroyed the good that Wing Biddlebaum could have given to a world already starved for intellect and inspiration” (White 58). Likewise, the second story of Dubliners presents a nameless character obviously twisted with a desire for young children. “An Encounter” climaxes with the narrator of the story and his friend Mahoney sitting in a field having a seemingly normal conversation with a strange, old, man. The man excuses himself, and they observe him as Mahoney says, “I say! Look what he’s doing!” and “I say…He’s a queer old josser!” (Joyce 20). Joyce leaves it up to us as to what he actually does, but from what Mahoney says and the conversation that ensues regarding the old man’s love for whipping children, one would assume he is gratifying himself in front of these youngsters. Though Joyce gives us little information about the man, he is the grotesque of this story as he is obviously a sexual anomaly. Though most everyone would agree that what the characters desire (or appear to desire) is very wrong, these characters show sexual repression, and this theme is important in many other stories as well.

Similarities in other grotesques of each book will be discussed again, but let us now move on to some major themes of psychological motivation that can often be applied to these grotesques.

One major theme that cannot easily be missed in either collection is that of escape. The feeling of being trapped, whether geographically or emotionally while in a relationship, comes up time and time again, and is often the cause of the twisted persona of the grotesque. Early on in Winesburg, Anderson tells about George Willard’s mother, Elizabeth, daughter of the owner an obvious grotesque, made that way partially from physical illness, and also from some deep-rooted emotional frustrations. She is obsessed with death, mostly her own, as if she can feel it approaching. More importantly, as a younger woman Elizabeth had a dream of escaping Winesburg to join a touring theater company and see the world. This, of course, never happened, but Anderson suggests that she would sleep with travelers in order and share her fantasies with them, and they would only tell her that their life “[is] as dull and uninteresting as this here,” referring to her life in Winesburg (Anderson 31). She hates her husband, Tom, who has “defeated” her by marrying and taking over the hotel, leaving her wishes unfulfilled. Her grotesque really shows through when she becomes obsessed with not letting George fail like she did, enamored with his idea of leaving home as she feels she will be able to live through him. The way Anderson describes this, it seems she wants George to succeed more out of spite for Tom than anything else. This need for geographic escape is apparent in Dubliners as well. The aforementioned boys from “An Encounter” have a youthful sense of adventure and long for an escape from school as the year comes to a close. In “Eveline,” Eveline wrestles with the idea of escape, as it will mean giving up caring for her aging father. Escape is used differently here than with Elizabeth Willard, in that Eveline is torn between her need to escape Dublin with her new husband, Frank, and her devotion to her father. It is clear throughout the narration that she is struggling with what is the right thing to do. In the end, she becomes grotesque as the struggle in her mind proves too strong to be able to behave with such finality, and she stays. There is a simile used here: “She set her face to him, passive, like a helpless animal” (Joyce 36). She is like a helpless animal because from her own thoughts she is overcome by fear so severely that it paralyzes her and leaves here unable to do anything (Riquelme 76).

Escape is used in both of these works in a more metaphorical sense as well, as in wanting to escape the reality of the past and what has come to be. Alice Hindman presents an interesting case in “Adventure.” She shows incredible faith towards her lost lover, Ned Currie, even though she knows he will never return. She is fixated on her past relationship, yet she desperately wants to escape from it. Since it is too late to leave Ned, her need for escape results in her bizarre behavior. Her stripping naked makes her seem reborn, as if having escaped her old life to start anew. By calling to any man around to “go with” her, she is finally escaping her relationship with Ned. Seth Richmond, “The Thinker,” is trapped in a world of his own isolation, unable to ever express himself adequately. Even when he opens up to Helen White, she still rejects him. We leave him convinced that “when it comes to loving someone, it won’t never be me. It’ll be someone else some fool someone who talks a lot…” (Anderson 137). “A Little Cloud” in Dubliners presents the character of Little Chandler, who is frustrated with every aspect of his life, desperately wanting an escape. Meeting a childhood friend, Gallagher, for drinks, who is on business from London, Little Chandler cannot help but compare the two’s lives. Even though Little Chandler is superior to Gallagher in education and upbringing, clearly Gallagher has had more success. The idea of physical escape is mentioned as Chandler informs his friend that he has never traveled beyond the Island of Man. However, as the story comes to a close, it appears that Chandler feels most trapped by his marriage and family life. He refers to marriage as putting “your head in the sack,” and appears to regret having done so himself (Joyce 79). Everything comes crashing down when Chandler comes home to his usual domestic problems; he has forgotten his wife’s coffee, and now his infant will not stop crying. In a moment filled with frustration and clarity, Chandler screams at the baby; the child stops for a moment, then cries even more. When his wife picks up the baby and calms him, Little Chandler begins to cry himself. In this story Little Chandler longs for escape because he hates his life. His dream of being a famous poet will go unfulfilled while Gallagher is now a famous journalist, due to the fact that he left Dublin. Chandler never escaped, but now he longs to escape the life that has become his. He regrets having married, and longs to escape that relationship as well; eventually he lets it all out on the innocent child.

Many other examples of escape recur in both works, but for sake of space, let us move on to the theme of mortality, or more specifically finding life in death. Although at times in Dubliners and Winesburg it can seem as though time seems to be standing still, the characters remind us that time inevitably progresses toward with their fixation on death. Often, it is death that will be the sole escape from the characters’ alienation, hence finding life in death. Elizabeth Willard, as we have already seen, knows she will die soon with her dreams unfulfilled. Even though she has one taste of a new romance with Doctor Reefy, she embraces death, as she passes with “her lovers Death and Doctor Reefy held in her arms. Jesse Bentley, in “Godliness,” has a fixation on finding life in death in a more biblical sense. Definitely a grotesque, he was prepared to sacrifice his grandson, David Hardy, in order to fulfill some religious passion within himself, thus finding life in death. David, having looked death in the face in the form of his own grandfather, flees, never to return. Finally, Enoch Robinson has a twisted run-in with death when he gives up his world of imaginary friends in order to get married because “he began to get lonely and to touch actual flesh-and-bone people with his hands” (Anderson 169). This virtually obliterates his imaginary world to live a more conformist life with a wife and children. His longing for his past world proves too much eventually, and motivated by this Enoch banishes his family, only to find that his old friends are gone for good as well.

In Dubliners, mortality is an issue from the very first story, “The Sisters.” The deceased priest was a friend to the youthful narrator, and it shows the indelible impression death makes on young people. The story demonstrates life in death in two ways. First, there is an unmistakable transition from old to young as the narrator is a child and Father Flynn was an old man. His death is superceded by the youthfulness of the narrator. Additionally, the way the sisters speak of the bizarre behavior of Father Flynn after his death gives him new life in that the narrator will never remember him the same after hearing about him “sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession-box…laughing-like softly to himself” (Joyce 11).

Another fine example of life in death is in the story “The Dead” the final tale in Dubliners, which will tie into yet another similarity, which is the ending of both books. At the end of “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy is wrestling with a number of feelings, mostly the way The Lass of Aughrim affected his wife, Gretta, and the reason behind it. He was at first angry with her wife for being so passionate about a past relationship, until he learns that her lover died years ago. He is relieved, but sentimentalizes with her. He weeps as he realizes how much he loves Gretta, and as the snow falls outside he considers his “journey westward” (Joyce 236). This can be interpreted as death, or as the continuation of life, just as when Michael Furey died, it allowed Gretta to find Gabriel. In Winesburg, George Willard is leaving on a westbound train to start his life in a big city. He had been planning his departure for a long time, yet it is questionable as to whether or not he would leave before his mother’s death. As he leaves Winesburg behind, George thinks not of profound thoughts like death or love, but random images of Winesburgian life invade his thoughts. Although these two endings differ in plot, Anderson and Joyce get inside George and Gabriel’s heads and describe their thoughts like no other time in the stories. “The Dead” switches from action to Gabriel’s thoughts after Gretta falls asleep, leaving him alone to contemplate while the snow falls “upon the living and the dead” (Joyce 236). Likewise, when George gets on the train, for the first time in the book we get to read George’s exact thoughts, how his hope for the future is bright, and how his hometown has “become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood” (Anderson 252).

It is so imperative for both Winesburg and Dubliners to be read as entire works, not just as separate stories. When this is done, one will notice that there are some stylistic similarities. As aforementioned, Anderson finally transcribes George Willard’s thoughts at the end of the book, something that would seem out of place in earlier stories. Throughout the course of Winesburg, Anderson shifts from simply stating the facts about characters, to actually describing their feelings and emotions, making their existence as grotesques easier to understand. The storytelling more or less stays the same, but as the book progresses, Anderson shows off the objectivity of a character’s self. Dubliner’s stories are so different from the beginning to the end that we can actually place them into categories. The first three stories are from the point of view of a child, and hence they are merely sketches (O’Connor 305). The characters are underdeveloped, as if it were a child describing them. One could see these stories as being in the first two chapters of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (O’Connor 310). Starting with Eveline, however, the main characters become older, and Joyce uses a more descriptive style. By the time Joyce reaches “The Dead,” he has spent the last few stories toiling with the complex emotions of aging people, and this will continue through the conclusion. “The Dead” is a more complete story than most of the others in that there is a long drawn out story that serves merely as an introduction to the climax of the story in Gabriel’s room. It is safe to say that “The Dead” marks the end of Joyce’s story writing because he found that when he really started to get into the characters minds, it lost the conciseness of a short story, as “The Dead” nearly does (O’Connor 312-313).

Perhaps simply mentioning objectivity of the self will not suffice. Writers like Joyce were obsessed with aesthetic theory, and for Joyce it meant that art exists solely as an object of creation, a composite sum made up of consonant parts. This carries over into the literature; when a narrator projects his or her own thoughts onto the characters, such as Anderson with George in “Departure” or Gabriel in “The Dead,” the self exists as an object unique from the author or the character. It seems to hang in space, somewhere between the author and character.

The thing to walk away from Winesburg, Ohio and Dubliners with is that the eclectic group of personalities portrayed in the stories could and do emerge from all societies all over the world. The mind, as separate as it may be from the body, still relies on the physical organ of the brain. The brain can malfunction and the results can be terrifying; Anderson and Joyce portray this with chilling effects. It is important to keep in mind that these cerebral imperfections are not typical of small town life, or big city life. It happens to people everywhere, of every ethnic group and every social class.

Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. New York, NY: Penguin Books Ltd., 1993.

Joyce, James. Dubliners. New York, NY: Penguin Books Ltd., 1991.

O’Connor, Frank. “Work in Progress.” Dubliners: Text, Criticism, and Notes. Ed. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz. New York, NY: Penguin Books Ltd., 1986. pp. 304-315.

Riquelme, John Paul. “Metaphors in the Narration: “Eveline.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Dubliners. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York, NY: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

White, Ray Lewis. Winesburg, Ohio: An Exploration. Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1990

Yingling, Thomas. “Winesburg, Ohio and the End of the Collective Experience.” New Essays on Winesburg Ohio. Ed. John W. Crowley. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1990. pp. 99-125.

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