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The final sentence of Winesburg, Ohio imprints the image of the town fading away as George Willard departs for the city. In fact, to view the novel in larger units, the final chapter is conspicuously named “Departure,” and for any reader who bothers to take in the table of contents page before starting the book it is fairly easy to deduce how Winesburg, Ohio will end before it even begins. The notion of escape from the town of Winesburg is common throughout the book, and the intended destination for escape is usually some undefined “city.” As a recurring element, however, it fits into a broader theme of the novel, that of a need for change in general. The two means through which change can occur can be classified as outburst and escape, with each occupying slightly different niches in the novel. Escape, being the culminating event of the novel, is clearly given prominence. But examination reveals that flight to the city is a largely flawed notion which is idealized by many but yields results which are actually embittering and not much better, empirically, than life in Winesburg. Outburst actually serves as a slightly more successful outlet for the anxieties of Winesburg’s citizens.
Outburst in Winesburg, Ohio can be defined as any of the many actions which happen suddenly and often rather spontaneously, undertaken by the adults of Winesburg. Prime examples include Alice Hindman running naked through the streets in “Adventure,” Kate Swift passionately embracing George Willard and then bursting out of the room in “The Teacher,” and the explosive series of events on the final night in “The Strength of God.”
Escape needs little explanation flight from Winesburg occurs at the end of the novel, at the end of the “Godliness” stories, and it occurs or is discussed in many of the other stories in Winesburg, Ohio. The notion of escape also carries with it a unique pairing with the related element of entry into Winesburg. Doctor Parcival in “The Philosopher” and Wing Biddlebaum in “Hands” are two characters who have come to Winesburg from other places. A third idea that is related to escape and entry is the idea of what transpires outside of Winesburg. These three ideas are linked in that they represent the three states of being in relation to the city that is so frequently referred to movement to the city, away from the city, and life inside the city. All three figure prominently in Winesburg, Ohio.
The importance of the return from the city and the events which transpire in the city would not seem very important in analyzing escape to the city if not for the cult-like or mythical status that the city is given in the book. The final story in the book illuminates this, as George Willard leaves “to meet the adventure of life” (153). It is left ambiguous which city Willard is leaving for. This nonspecific terming of “the city” (or “some city”) appears frequently. Seth Richmond in “The Thinker,” Curtis Hartman in “The Strength of God,” and Alice Hindman in “Adventure” all use these vague words in their fairly vague plans to leave Winesburg.
While this failure to name any specific cities as destinations might be attributed to the vagueness of their plans or their ambivalence, it seems rather to be a literary tool. First, it is unlikely that George Willard is without any formal destination, yet none is formally named in “Departure.” Second, the consistency with which Winesburg residents hoping to leave for a city neglect to name any actual city suggests that a deliberate decision in Anderson’s mind. This decision can probably be grouped with Anderson’s general tone of emphasizing the small-town bucolic worldview of Winesburg’s residents.
Given this elevation of the concept of city, it is therefore necessary to examine the evidence that Anderson has provided regarding what actually happens in cities, and how much of that is known by the very people in Winesburg, Ohio who yearn to leave for them. There is actually a surprising amount of material here. Despite the alleged concept of the entire book as a chronicle of lives in Winesburg, many of the stories deal partially or entirely with events lived out in cities. “Loneliness” is one story which is framed in Winesburg but otherwise takes place in the city, as is “Hands,” to a lesser extent.
Outside of Winesburg is actually where some of the worst actual events happen. The accusations of molestation and the threat of mob violence in “Hands” are two events that outpace anything within the limits of Winesburg in terms of sheer significance beyond the personal, psychological level. The city is where alcoholics live (“Tandy”), where affairs live to fruition (“Respectability”) as opposed to the adultery which blossoms but is never realized in Winesburg (“Death”), and where murder is a real event rather than a news item (“The Philosopher”).
It seems, then, that Anderson utilizes the city for two distinct purposes. The first is as a means of writing about sensational or disastrous events that mar the lives of people without having to disrupt the superficial calm of little Winesburg. The second use of the city is as a somewhat undefined, hazy location that can nicely serve as an idealized “other place” for certain unfulfilled Winesburg residents.
The aforementioned negatives that the city possesses should make it a less appealing and even unfavorable destination for the “thousand George Willards” who leave Winesburg for the city (152). The city is not completely written off, though, for two reasons. The first is that the people leaving Winesburg are not necessarily looking for a great, or even better, life. Their main desires are simply for change and freedom. When the Reverend Curtis Hartman muses about leaving for the city to “get into business,'” it is clear that he is only choosing such an alternative because of the concern that he will not be able to continue his preferred career and lifestyle (90). Similarly, Seth Richmond, in “The Thinker,” tells himself he will go “?to some city and go to work'” only because he is “depressed by the thought that he was not a part of the life in his own town” (78). The city is not seen with any certainty as an paradise.
The second reason why the city manages to exist as a destination of choice is because of the severe breach in communication in the town. Quite simply, it is possible that nobody knows about the bad things that happen in the city. The stories of Wash Williams, Wing Biddlebaum, Enoch Robinson, and other refugees from the city are untold. There is a distinct gap of contact between many groups, including the old and the young. And it is the young who want to leave for the city and the old who return from it. The only person who knows all of the stories of the city is George Willard, but the stories can be seen as an incentive for him, as a journalist, to go out to where they happened in search of more.
Notable also is the fact that these stories are always specific in naming the exact city in which things happen. Clearly, the city loses its mystique once it has been reached. But not only is the city without a mystique, it is also fairly unreceptive to newcomers. Nobody who lives in the city either before or after living in Winesburg enjoys prosperity or much contentment at all. Ned Currie is one character who seems to carve a niche for himself in Chicago, but only as a reporter and only after a long spell of loneliness. The most financially successful character in Winesburg, Ohio is Jesse Bentley, who actually makes his fortune after coming to Winesburg from elsewhere.
The pieces of evidence that reveal the city as a fairly inhospitable, non-ideal destination for those feeling stifled in Winesburg amount to an almost-moot point in any case, because few people leave for the city anyway. It is expensive. Based on the few cases when people who consider it actually do move to the city, the change is costly if it is intended to be permanent. Age also seems to be slightly prohibitive, as only the younger characters seem to consider it. Gender can also be assumed as a factor, with Helen White being the only female who leaves during the timeframe of the book.
What remains, then, for the stifled citizens of Winesburg, Ohio (who amount to almost everybody)? What remains is the other type of drastic action that is taken by the characters in the novel outburst of some sort, ranging from smashing a window (The Strength of God”) to running naked through the street (“Adventure”) to getting drunk and making up stories (“Drink”).
Empirically, better results seem to be had with outburst than with escape. This is partly due to the encapsulated nature of an outburst as opposed to the open-endedness of escape. A specific outburst like running naked has a predetermined end, and is seen as one event that begins and ends. Moving to the city, however, is an action with an uncertain future. While this is its appeal to George Willard, wonder and discovery do not seem to be part of the motivation for the other people who move to the city. They move distinctly for a better life or a new job or because they feel they have to. So it can be said that outbursts often yield a better end result because the results are known from the beginning. There is a feeling in the book that once these actions of outburst take place, the pressure has been released from within the person and things have become better for a time. The city, in its open-ended vagueness and lack of a definitive goal, suggests an endlessness that is a few steps away from hopelessness.
This is supported if specific events of outburst are examined. Tom Foster, in “Drink,” is “glad'” to have gotten drunk, and he views it as a successful experiment in his life (134). Alice Hindman’s adventure, in which she runs naked in the rain, is by no means an unequivocal success. But during the episode, she feels “full of youth and courage” (67). Afterwards, she weeps in her bedroom, but a critical realization has been reached “the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg” (67). This is a kernel of wisdom that results directly from Alice’s drastic but short-lived outburst. Such wisdom is not seen in the young people who leave for the city. They are much more doe-eyed, as if they are naïvely leaving and that same naïveté will make rare the acquisition of wisdom. The awakening that happens to George Willard at the very end of “An Awakening” is similarly the result of a moment of outburst, a release of emotion that flares up and dies down quickly, of which he is the victim in this case. The impression given of Windpeter Winters’ wild and extraordinary death in “The Untold Lie” is that it is viewed with a sort of awe or at least respect by “most boys” who would prefer it to “humdrum lives” (124). While it resulted in Winters’ death, it also fulfills the implicit requirement of being a drastic, memorable, unique event in a town where staying static is the thing most dreaded. On the contrary, people who leave seem to be generally forgotten or simply lose touch.
Certainly, the general impression given to a reader of Winesburg, Ohio is one of entrapment regardless of how one chooses to act upon his or her stifling situation. Things are never portrayed optimistically. But for the level with which the city is a quasi-mythical place, it is striking that Anderson gives it such a damning portrayal through the stories of those who have lived there. Outburst within the limits of Winesburg is not better by much, but it does possess certain superior qualities as a release than escape, and these advantages are, in fact, borne out for the characters in the book.
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