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.
Rockwell Kent, Moby Dick: Volume I, page 273, 1930. linecut on paper.
Credit: Bequest of Sally Kent Gorton to Plattsburgh State University.
The novel is an encyclopedia of forms, a narrative chowder that combines dictionary, whaling manual, comedy, tragedy, epic, prophecy, sermon, soliloquy, drama, bawdy humor, and tales within tales. … Melville looks at the whale, with relish, from an exuberant assortment of literary angles, encompassing them all into one mighty compendium and in so doing breaking the boundaries of what it means to be a book. —Elizabeth Renker, Introduction to Moby-Dick
Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, is widely recognized as one of the centerpieces of the American Renaissance. This text is more than a chronicle of Ahab’s quest for the great white whale, the novel offers insight into the whaling industry that shaped the New England seacoast in the 19th century. Melville himself spent time at sea and fashioned many of the details in Moby-Dick after his own experiences traveling aboard a whaling vessel in the South Pacific. Though seldom praised during Melville’s lifetime, Moby-Dick remains relevant today, as it helps builds our perceptions of America’s unique literary culture.
This unit is a study of the shifts in narrative voice and literary genres that Melville makes throughout Moby-Dick. It serves to introduce students to several unique features of the novel without demanding as much class time as would reading the entire text. The lessons comprise a series of close readings of passages from the novel.
Lesson 1 has students explore Melville’s development of his first person narrator Ishmael through a close reading of chapter 1. Students will consider Ishmael’s positioning of the Fates in the novel and the extent to which this positioning makes a narrative shift necessary to understand the perspective of other characters.
The next two lessons serve to orient students to several of the genres in this novel. Lesson 2 has students perform a close reading dramatic script as it surfaces in chapter 37 to examine Melville’s characterizations of Ahab as a foil to Ishmael. Students then analyze the shifting perspectives on character that this chapter elicits within the novel, and delve deeply into Melville’s complex protagonist—the multifarious character of Captain Ahab.
Lesson 3 guides students through examples of Melville’s seamless integration of several literary genres—hymn, sermon, scientific writing, and drama into the novel. It moves into an analytical discussion of Moby-Dick as a masterwork that goes above and beyond the appeal of its fictional genre.
Moby-Dick stands as a testament to Melville’s ingenuity and timelessness. The text remains relevant today, both in its characterization and its form. Melville brings us into the world of New England whaling, but he has us navigate more than just the high seas. Melville leads us through different literary genres in the same way as the Pequod chases the whale, bringing us on a literary journey to parallel the physical and psychological ones of his characters. This unit explores these characters and literary genres using several key excerpts from Moby-Dick selected to expose the variety and life of the text.
The two main characters of the novel, Ishmael and Ahab, represent different facets of Melville’s belief in the importance of freedom in American society. As Ishmael sets out to sea, and he joins up with a band of men to ease his land-bound troubles. Ahab sets out on a quest for revenge against the whale that stole his leg, which Ahab symbolically replaced with an ivory prosthesis. Ishmael is the democratic everyman foil to Ahab’s elite and dictatorial captaincy. The story of Moby-Dick—of Ahab’s hunt for the elusive whale—remains primarily Ishmael’s story because of his first-person narration. The shifts in point of view—a preacher’s sermon, scientific notes on whales, soliloquies, dramatic script—allow Melville to transcend the limitations of the novel, and even perhaps fiction.
Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, believes in the power of the sea and is drawn to it whenever his life on land depresses him. He believes in the power of the common man and does not want to be in an authoritative role. Melville creates a character with whom contemporary readers could easily relate: a humble man who does not position himself above the reader or as better than any man within the text. Melville’s references to Christianity and the Romans, the universal call to the sea, and a penchant for adventure combine to make Ishmael seem both educated and relatable to the reader. Ishmael also describes the sea as a panacea for his troubles as he idealizes its power. Though it would be dangerous to assume Ishmael is a mouthpiece of Melville, the narrator conveys aspects of the story that must have been personal to Melville, a common sailor in his day.
This unit introduces students to the expansiveness of the novel’s scope through the eyes of Melville’s most relatable sailor. They will also discover the ingenuity of his masterful narration and sample the variety of perspectives to be found throughout this maritime journey and hunt for whales.
The extended background provides additional context on topics covered in this unit: Melville’s Whaling World, Allusions and Literary Genres.
Have students write a short piece using the narrative voice of either Ahab or Ishmael. “Call Me Ahab” would be written from the perspective of the character Captain Ahab. “I, Ishmael” would be written from the perspective of the crew member Ishmael.
While students include the content about their character gleaned from one chapter, they should write in the style of the other chapter. Students will use evidence drawn from “Loomings,” chapter 1 or “Sunset,” chapter 37 as appropriate.
The “Call me Ahab” piece will draw on the content about Captain Ahab found in “Sunset,” chapter 37, but will be written in the style of “Loomings,”chapter 1 as a first-person narrative. The account will be narrated by Ahab.
The “I, Ishmael” scene will draw on the content about crew member Ishmael found in “Looming,” chapter 1, but will be written in the style of “Sunset,” chapter 37 as a dramatic soliloquy. The scene will be expressed from Ishmael’s perspective.
In a follow-up paragraph, students will then defend the choices they made regarding character traits in an explication using evidence from the text.
Have students take a different chapter in Moby-Dick, one not discussed in class, and analyze how well it operates as a literary genre. You may have students use genres already researched and discussed in Lesson 3 of this unit, or you may challenge them to tackle a chapter where Melville uses a literary genre you did not cover in class.
Have them use the questions posed in Worksheet 5 from Lesson 3 to build an understanding about their chapter and genre. Be sure to have them include what function the shift to a new literary genre has on the novel. Also have them discuss what impact it will have on the reader. Students must defend their choices in a follow-up explanation using evidence from the text.
A student assessment sheet and rubric has been provided to introduce students to the options for composition and offer self-evaluation opportunities using the assessment criteria. (A teacher version of the rubric is available for your own assessment of the students’ work.)
Lesson 3 guides students through Melville’s seamless integration of several literary genres—sermon, scientific writing, drama, and hymn—and moves into an analytical discussion of "Moby-Dick" as a masterwork that goes above and beyond the appeal of its fictional genre.
Lesson 2 has students perform a close reading of one genre, dramatic script, in Chapter 37, to examine Melville’s characterizations of Ahab as a foil to Ishmael. Students then analyze the shifting perspectives that this chapter provokes within the novel, and delve deeply into Melville’s complex protagonist – the multifarious character of Captain Ahab. Finally, this lesson addresses the impact this drastic shift has on the reader.
Lesson 1 has students explore Melville’s development of his first person narrator Ishmael through a close reading of Chapter 1. Students will consider Ishmael’s positioning of the Fates in the novel and the extent to which this positioning makes a narrative shift necessary to understanding the perspective of other characters.