Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 1. Introducing “Winesburg, Ohio”

Created November 4, 2015


The Lesson


Portrait of Sherwood Anderson

Portrait of Sherwood Anderson

Credit: Photo, Carol Van Vechten, 1933. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

This curriculum unit introduces students to Sherwood Anderson and his use of the grotesque in Winesburg, Ohio, while focusing their analysis on the central character George and his relationships with family members and town residents.

The opening vignette of Winesburg Ohio, “The Book of the Grotesque,” was the original title Anderson gave to the book. His first story serves as a prologue and lays out Anderson’s central insight concerning human relationship where each man or woman lives according to his or her own “truth.” As they proceed through the text, students will encounter a multitude of “grotesque” characters distorted by their chosen life path, maimed by the effects others’ choices has had on them.

The lesson serves as an introduction to the literary element, “grotesque,” a concept Anderson opens with and amplifies throughout this story cycle with vivid examples. Students read the opening story, then apply their initial understanding of the grotesque to the story entitled “Respectability.”

Part of a three lesson unit on Winesburg, Ohio, Lesson 1 may be taught in sequence or stand on its own. Teachers may link to the full unit with Guiding Questions, Background and summative Assessment. Lesson 1 aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.5.

Learning Objectives

  • To examine the literary element “grotesque” through the context of Winesburg, Ohio’s opening story to arrive at a working definition of the term
  • To analyze some implications of the grotesque for Anderson’s short story cycle

Preparation and Resources

Students should be assigned the two stories, The Book of the Grotesque” and “Respectability” as homework prior to the class session.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Introduction to Sherwood Anderson’s “Grotesques”

Pre-lesson activity (optional):

Teachers may want to point out that Winesburg, Ohio was first published in 1919 and takes place in a setting based on Sherwood Anderson’s small-town boyhood in Clyde, Ohio at the turn-of-the-century.

As an optional preliminary research activity, teachers may want to underline the importance of examining the cultural and historical context of a literary work and then provide students with time for some preliminary research into life in the American Heartland at the turn of the 20th century. Primary and secondary source documents from the time period may be used to evaluate what they reveal about small-town life in Ohio in this era.

Suggestions for historical newspapers and other archival resources to use for research can be found here.  

Handout 1 offers teachers a reference page with general background information on life at the turn of the 20th century.

Optional follow-up questions for discussion:

  • What major changes confronted people during this time period? Do you think people generally welcomed or resisted the changes?
  • In what ways does daily life then seem to have been simpler than life today?

Analysis of “The Book of the Grotesque”

Have students work together in groups or literature circles to read and analyze the opening story in Winesburg, Ohio, “The Book of the Grotesque.”

Distribute Worksheet 1, and ask small groups to use it a vehicle to assist them in their analysis. (The teacher version of the worksheet suggests responses.)

In their initial reading, have students jot down descriptions and terminology from the story to develop their own definition. Share this with the class in a whole group discussion, synthesizing the information gathered to arrive at a class definition of the term. (EDSITEment’s literary glossary offers a definition of “grotesque”.)

Follow Up

Given the content offered in the opening vignette, have students lead a discussion on what sorts of characters would a reader expect to find in Winesburg, Ohio. Have students consider this question: In real life, do people ever demonstrate characteristics of the grotesque?


Activity 2. Grotesque in “Respectability”

Have students work together in groups or their literature circles to read the short story in Winesburg, Ohio entitled, “Respectability”. Use the class definition of “grotesque” to focus on the following:

  • Elements of the grotesque in this story
  • Character traits that exemplify the grotesque   

[Note: Teachers may want to incorporate a preliminary mini-lesson on how to have a text-based discussion. The more students can orally cite evidence and excerpts from the text, the more they will be able to do it in their written assignments.]

Then, have them conduct a discussion in their literature circle (or hold a whole class discussion) based on the following questions:

[Note: Teachers may want to work through this story as a whole class activity and model this analysis an example. This will give student practice on the applications they will make as they continue reading through the rest of the text.]

1. What elements of the grotesque do you see in the story?

(Suggested answer: The story’s opening paragraph describes a grotesquely fascinating monkey. Wash Williams has a grotesque appearance—dirty, hugely fat, with a skinny neck and legs. As he tells his story to George Willard, we see that his character and personality have become twisted as a result of his disappointment in his marriage which has evolved into a love/hate attitude toward his wife.)

2. How do readers’ attitudes toward Wash Williams change as the story do unfolds?

(Suggested answer: At first he seems a repulsively ugly man; then we feel a kind of sympathy and pity for him, as a wounded man unable to recover from the slam to his vulnerability.)

3. Based on this story, what do you think Sherwood Anderson was trying to do with the concept of the grotesque? Is there a theme emerging?

(Suggested answer: Sometimes people get twisted and distorted because of the things that happen to them; once we understand their stories, we do not find them repulsive so much as deserving of empathy.)


Assign students an independent reading of the story in the cycle, “Paper Pills,” then have them complete one or more of the following activities:

  1. Have students identify one or more elements of the grotesque in this story and write a paragraph on if/how the class definition arrived at in Activity 2 applies to this manifestation of the grotesque.
  2. Have students write a paragraph discussing the following metaphor in this story:

“The story of Doctor Reefy and his courtship of the tall girl who became his wife is a very curious story. It is delicious, like the twisted little apple that grow in the orchards in the fall…”

Do they agree or disagree that this is a “delicious’ as well as a “very curious” story? If so, have them explain how it is appealing. Do they think there is “the sweetness of the twisted apples”? Explain the implications for the grotesque in Anderson’s metaphor.  

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1-2 class periods

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
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Expository writing
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Summarizing
  • Mary Anne Kovacs


Activity Worksheets