This lesson focuses entirely on the central character of George Willard, who can be seen as the protagonist of Winesburg, Ohio, as a whole. Six stories are read and analyzed to see what they nuances they reveal about George’s personality and his relationships with Winesburg’s inhabitants.
The first lesson provides an introduction to the concept of “the grotesque” and to Anderson’s understanding of this concept in his prologue story. One short story in the Winesburg, Ohio story cycle, “Respectability,” is examined.
Portrait of Sherwood Anderson
Credit: Photo, Carol Van Vechten, 1933. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
The book is, of course, in no sense a burlesque, but it is an effort to treat the lives of simple ordinary people in an American Middle Western town with sympathy and understanding…. Certainly, I did not write to make fun of these people or to make them ridiculous or ugly, but instead to show by their example what happens to simple, ordinary people—particularly the unsuccessful ones—what life does to us here in America in our times—and on the whole how decent and real we nevertheless are.—Sherwood Anderson
Winesburg, Ohio presents a galaxy of strange and distorted characters in a small town in Sandusky County, not far from Cleveland, well over one hundred years ago. Even a casual glance through a few of the stories leads inevitably to the question: Why are these people all so weird—so grotesque? By contrast, the central character of this short story cycle, George Willard, seems a perfectly normal young man on the brink of maturity and poised to make the life-changing decision to leave Winesburg behind.
This curriculum unit includes three lessons. The first lesson introduces students to the concept of the grotesque, central to the Winesburg, Ohio story cycle, through a close reading of two stories: “The Book of the Grotesque” and “Respectability.”
The second lesson focuses on character development within the short story sequence to analyze the experiences of the character, George Willard. While George is not mentioned in a few of the stories and figures only fleetingly in others, he dominates much of the action across the story cycle and serves as the central thread running throughout the text. This lesson has students focus on the evolution that George undergoes in the course of the following stories: “Mother;” “Nobody Knows;” “An Awakening;” “Death;” “Sophistication;” and “Departure.”
The third lesson returns to the concept of the grotesque and with teachers modeling an analysis of this literary element in the story, “Adventure.” Students are then given the opportunity to independently investigate additional stories in the cycle for applications of this literary element. Extending the lesson activities provide a host of additional research, creative writing, and project opportunities.
Winesburg, Ohio demonstrates Anderson’s belief that people are neither simple nor easily classified. Often distorted by life experiences, his grotesques nevertheless possess a “sweetness of the twisted apples” that evokes our understanding and empathy rather than distaste.
Analyze how and why individuals, events, or ideas develop and interact over the course of a text.
Grade level Standards
Analyze how an author's choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin a story) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.
Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).
Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.
Since its publication in 1919, the name “Winesburg” has become synonymous with small town life in the American Heartland. The stories in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio depict a variety of residents, past and present, and center on George Willard, a young newspaper writer, coming of age in the first decade of the 20th century. The scenes and people in the short story cycle were drawn from Anderson’s formative years in Clyde, Ohio. His experiences there left an indelible mark on his consciousness—only to re-emerge many years later in this fictional narrative.
Sherwood was born in 1876 into a family that was less than prosperous. His family moved frequently around the state of Ohio, settling in 1884 in Clyde, a frontier town where he lived for twelve formative years. As a boy, he was a voracious reader known for accessing books through his school library, as there was no public library in the town at that time. He had a reputation as a hard worker and was nicknamed "Jobby" for taking on a variety of odd jobs around town which occupied him upon dropping out of high school at the age of 14.
After a short stint in Chicago as a laborer, Anderson enlisted with a Clyde unit and served in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Upon discharge, he attended Wittenberg Academy in Springfield, Ohio, and then moved back to Chicago, where he soon gained some success as an advertising writer. He took a wife and began to raise a family, while running a business in Elyria, Ohio. Anderson continued on that track until the fateful day, November 28, 1912, when at the age of thirty-six, he walked out of his office as president of the Anderson Manufacturing Company in Elyria, Ohio, and threw off the accoutrements of middle class success to embark on an uncertain career as a writer. This event, the stuff of literary legend, is chronicled in an autobiographical essay entitled, “When I Left Business for Literature.”
Viewed from the outside, Anderson’s personal life appears to have been tumultuous. Three of his marriages failed and he rarely saw his children and grandchildren. He did find happiness in his fourth marriage, though, and during that later phase of his life, he also achieved financial security, and set up a homestead in Virginia. He purchased the Marion Published Company, and became editor and publisher of two regional weekly newspapers. His life was cut short while on a vacation trip with his wife to South America. The inscription on Anderson’s grave reads, “Life, Not Death, Is The Great Adventure,” suggesting he had acquired insight into and made peace with the choices that had shaped his life.
Information on Sherwood Anderson’s Influence on Modern America Literature can be found here.
Write an essay providing a vivid explication of the nature of the grotesque that Anderson develops in his short story cycle, Winesburg, Ohio.
In your response, discuss Anderson’s use of story elements—setting, plot structure, and character development. Be sure to use at least five of the characters from the short story cycle, including George Willard. Use evidence from the text in your response.
Worksheet 7 provides a rubric that may assist teachers in developing, revising, and assessing student essays.
Tennessee Williams at 20th anniversary of The Glass Menagerie opening.
Credit: Fernandez, Orlando, photographer, 1965. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC.
Everyone should know nowadays the unimportance of the photographic in art: that truth, life, or reality is an organic thing which the poetic imagination can represent or suggest, in essence, only through transformation, through changing into other forms than those which were merely present in appearance.
—Tennessee Williams’ production notes to The Glass Menagerie
Tennessee Williams’ classic play, The Glass Menagerie, was an extension of the expressionism that came out of Europe in the early 20th century. In essence, Expressionism interprets the world through the artist’s internal, subjective lens, not as an objective reflection of reality.
The expressionist movement was marked by certain characteristics: a rejection of realism in favor of dreamlike states; non-linear, often disjointed structures; a utilization of imagery and symbolism in the place of naturalism; a focus on abstract concepts and ideas. Artists in this movement paid witness to the alienation of the individual which they saw as a main characteristic of modern life. Expressionism conveys angst in the knowledge that our spiritual needs will not be met through modern societal constructs. It rails against the dehumanization of man in the modern, urban landscape.
In The Glass Menagerie, Williams used expressionistic techniques to develop several of the play’s themes:
In Lesson 1, students identify what Expressionism in theatre is and explicate Williams’ application of expressionist techniques in The Glass Menagerie. In Lesson 2, they analyze how those techniques create meaning in the play, i.e., how they help develop the play’s themes. And in Lesson 3, they express their evolving comprehension through a thesis-driven essay. In the summative assessment, students write and annotate an expressionist scene of their own based on the play.
Common Core State Standards English Language Arts and Literacy lists The Glass Menagerieas a Grades 9–10 Text Exemplar for Drama. (See Appendix B.)
The expressionist movement in literature had its roots in Germany in the 1910s and in the work of Swedish playwright August Strindberg. Unifying features included rebellion against artistic and social conventions of the day, and bold innovation. The overall aim of expressionism was to offer a total spiritual renewal by confronting the darkest aspects of reality. The movement influenced a number of artists, writers, and poets around the world, including James Joyce and T.S. Eliot. Among them were 20th-century American writers who questioned widely-accepted beliefs. They opened new psychological and emotional dimensions within their works. In the 1920s, expressionism found an outlet on the American stage through experimentalists from the Theatre Guild and Provincetown Players such as Susan Glaspell and Eugene O’Neill. Starting in the 1940s Tennessee Williams adopted expressionist techniques and incorporated them through dialogue, action, sound, setting, stage design, and lighting into his dramatic works such as The Glass Menagerie (1944), A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), and Camino Real (1953).
The Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on Production Aspects for Expressionist Theatre provides background context on the movement related to theatre.
Certain theatrical techniques can be classified as expressionist. See Modern Theatre in Context: Expressionism from Canada Research Chair in Performance and Culture for a detailed description. A synopsis is noted below:
Tennessee Williams adopted such expressionistic techniques and integrated them into The Glass Menagerie as a way to present several of his themes. He used them to highlight reality as subjective, expose the dehumanization and grotesqueness effected by modern urban culture, and express the resulting angst over that condition. This drama is characterized by dreamlike states rather than realism, and imagery and symbolism rather than naturalism.
For more information on the Expressionist techniques of Tennessee Williams, click here (PDF).
Tennessee Williams’ oeuvre has always been difficult for critics to categorize. In the seven decades since The Glass Menagerie premiered on Broadway, this play has been diversely classified as idealist, naturalist, symbolic, poetic, and romantic, among others. Indeed, in this and other plays Williams often combines different elements in pursuit of what critic John Gassner calls “a fusion of naturalistic detail with symbolism and poetic sensibility.” According to drama critic Kenneth Tynan, Williams achieves a new kind of romanticism “not pale or scented but earthy and robust, the product of a mind vitally infected with the rhythms of human speech.” His subject is the often “terrifyingly ambiguous” human nature as he observed it—brilliantly rendered into dramatic form. Nancy Tischler sums it up:
This play, unique among Williams’ dramas, combines poetic and unrealistic techniques with grim naturalism to achieve a gossamer effect of compassion, fragility, and frustration typical of Tennessee Williams at his most sensitive and natural best.
A detailed biography of this author’s life and work is available from the EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation, which offers myriad assessments of Tennessee Williams’s dramatic techniques by lead scholars and critics.
Students compose and annotate an original, additional scene for The Glass Menagerie using expressionist techniques to advance one of the play’s themes. They will treat a theme from the play that they have traced through the unit’s activities. Students should annotate their work to clarify their intentions and illustrate their understanding of this theatrical technique and the rich themes Williams infuses into his drama.
Distribute and review the Summative Assessment Rubric document with students before they begin their compositions, as a guide to ensure that they understand the criteria and as a tool to assess their work.
Reviews of original productions:
The New York Times review of the play’s original 1944 production in Chicago;
The New York Times review of the play’s subsequent 1945 debut on Broadway.
Reviews of contemporary productions:
The review “Wounded by Broken Memories” of the 2013 Broadway production at the Booth Theater;
The review “The Shape of Memory, Both Fragile and Fierce” of the 2013 production at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Curriculum unit of three lessons explores Williams’s use of expressionism to more fully comprehend the theatrical devices and themes in The Glass Menagerie. In Lesson 3, they express their evolving comprehension through a thesis-driven essay.