The Synecdochic Motif In Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio

1928 words - 8 pages

The Synecdochic Motif in Winesburg, Ohio

    The sum of the parts of 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:...

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