Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12
Curriculum Unit

Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio”: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small-Town Life (3 Lessons)

Created November 3, 2015



The Unit


Portrait of Sherwood Anderson

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.

Guiding Questions

  • How does Anderson’s use of the grotesque affect the reader’s understanding of character development and other literary elements in the short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio?
  • How does the central character, George, deepen our understanding of Anderson’s use of the grotesque in Winesburg, Ohio?  How does George contrast to/emphasize the grotesque characters surrounding him?

College and Career Readiness Standards

Common Core State Standards


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.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy RL11-12.3

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).

CCSS.ELA-Literacy RL11-12.1

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.

Highlights of Anderson’s life can be found in EDSITEment-reviewed Ohiana Authors.

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.

Extending the Unit

  • Read one or more of the selections in Sherwood Anderson’s collection The Egg and Other Stories and have students write an essay in which they discuss how that narrative voice resembles the one in Winesburg, Ohio.
  • Read a short story that uses the device of the grotesque, such as Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” or Bret Harte’s “Outcasts of Poker Flat.” Have students write an essay in which they evaluate that author’s use of the grotesque against Sherwood Anderson’s model in Winesburg, Ohio.
  • Review examples of the grotesque, such as aspect of fairytale figures, found in visual art and/or in film and determine how the artists/directors depict these characters and their impact on the viewer. Have students compare these depictions with Anderson’s grotesques in Winesburg, Ohio.   
  • Examine Sherwood Anderson’s influence on one or more modern American authors, such as Hemingway or Faulkner. Read stories by these authors to identify their use of the grotesque and/or draw other connections with Anderson’s work. Have students write an essay discussing how the story and the author benefited from Anderson’s influence.  (Refer to the Extended Background essay, “Sherwood Anderson’s Influence on Modern America Literature.”)

Additional Resources

Suggestions for historical newspaper and archival resources for Pre-lesson Activity Lesson 1. 

The Lessons

  • Lesson 1. Introducing “Winesburg, Ohio”

    Created November 4, 2015
    Portrait of Sherwood Anderson

    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.

  • Lesson 2. George Willard’s Development

    Created November 5, 2015
    Portrait of Sherwood Anderson

    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.

  • Lesson 3. A Gallery of Grotesque Characters

    Created November 5, 2015
    Portrait of Sherwood Anderson

    This lesson undertakes an analysis of the story, "Adventure,” which depicts the character Alice Hindman, and her progress (or regression) from “normal” to grotesque. Students then work independently through other stories in the cycle to analyze examples of the grotesque among Anderson’s more minor characters.

The Basics

Grade Level


Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Common Core
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > AP Literature
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > Modern World
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Novels
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Short Stories
  • Creative writing
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Cultural analysis
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Expository writing
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Summarizing