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

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?