Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2. George Willard’s Development

Created November 5, 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 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.

Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of short stories bound together by a central character, George Willard, a young newspaper reporter who lives in the town. George does not figure prominently in all of the pieces. In some stories he plays a minor role as listener and observer, in others; however, the focus of the story is exclusively on him and on his family. The story cycle depicts George’s maturation from immature boy to self-aware young man, making the work as a whole a Bildungsroman.

It is clear the townspeople of Winesburg are fond of young George and tend to tell him things kept secret from most others, as he is a good listener. George appears to be a kind of tabula rasa, a character near the beginning of the process of becoming himself. Unlike other characters in the work, George seems curiously undamaged by his family background. He knows very little about love, but he demonstrates a willingness to learn about people and a capacity for self-growth.

In this lesson students first consider George as he is depicted in several stories. They then focus on the more in-depth profiles of George presented in six stories in the cycle.

Part of a three lesson unit on Winesburg, Ohio, this lesson 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 2 aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3.

Learning Objectives

  • To analyze Sherwood Anderson’s portrayal of George Willard by gathering details and description of this main character throughout the Winesburg, Ohio story cycle
  • To use textual evidence to consider the perspective of the central character George in his evolving relationships with others in the town.

Preparation and Resources

Students should focus on the character of George and his relationships with others as presented in the following: “Mother;” “Nobody Knows;” “Awakening;” “Death;” “Sophistication;” and “Departure.” Students should have read these six stories prior to beginning Lesson 2.

Due to the expectation that students will independently read six short stories in anticipation of Lesson 2, teachers may want to create some kind of reading scaffold to support this process (chapter summaries, interactive bookmarks, text dependent questions that strictly focus on comprehension). If necessary, curtail the quantity of stories and encourage learners to focus on a lighter volume of reading.

Prior to Activity 2, teachers may want to create a graphic organizer to accompany Worksheet 2 by scaffolding one story to create more pointed text-dependent questions. This may help students elicit a more robust body of evidence.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Introduction to George in “Winesburg, Ohio”

Lessons preparation: Have students examine the text and stories they have been assigned by focusing on the central character of George Willard and the traits he displays in his encounters with other residents of Winesburg, including his family members.

Open the lesson with a discussion of how Winesburg, Ohio is a collection of short stories, rather than a traditional novel. It is referred to as a short story cycle because of the recurring figure of George Willard throughout the collection.

[Alternate opening: As an introduction to the complex character of George Willard, teachers may want to open the lesson with a discussion. Pose the idea that choices and experiences in people’s life can lead them to become grotesque. Consider how being youthful and curious (like George) and finding a way to retain those traits can be an antidote to becoming grotesque in later years. Teachers may ask students to consider this question: Does aging make one grotesque?]

Point out that in some of the stories, George plays a minor role. Distribute Worksheet 1, and ask students to complete it. The teacher version provides suggested responses.

Follow with whole class discussion:

Ask students to consider how George differs from most of the other characters in the book.

(Suggestion answers: His personality has not been twisted into a grotesque configuration. He is young, not yet twenty; the stories suggest that becoming strange and distorted is often a product of age, experience, and disappointment.)

Point out that some of the stories focus quite directly on George’s experiences. Ask students to brainstorm George’s perceptions about his parents, aspects of his personality, and indications of his attitudes toward people.

(Suggested perceptions: George’s mother is wasting away both physically and psychologically. His father lacks emotional depth. George himself is more prone to observation than to action. He wants to be a writer and knows that will require experiences he has not yet encountered. He is somewhat self-centered, but often is motivated by curiosity and interest in others experience of life.)

Activity 2. George’s Relationships

Distribute Worksheet 2, and ask students to complete it. A teacher version provides sample responses. Explicitly prompt students to include passages from the text to support their responses.

Follow with whole-class discussion to deepen students understanding of the nuances of Anderson’s character George and his relationships with his family and town folk. (Teachers may want to have students write out the answers to these questions, as classwork or homework, before the discussion.)

  • How do the residents of Winesburg feel about George Willard? Why?
    (Suggested answers: People find him attractive, receptive, and willing to listen without judgment. Some seem to want to protect him from becoming as grotesque as they are.)
  • A romantic story would conclude with a “happily-ever-after” promise. A naturalistic one would suggest ruin in the city. What does this book’s conclusion suggest?
    (Suggested answers: Sherwood Anderson presents a future that cannot be charted in advance; on the other hand, it is clear that leaving Winesburg presents George with more possibility for hope than staying there.)
  • If Sherwood Anderson had followed “Departure” with another story about George Willard, what do you think it would have included? Give reasons for your views.
    (Possible answers: a return to Winesburg and marriage to Helen White; a successful career as a reporter in the city; a vision of George as elderly man, now himself a grotesque, etc.)


Have students imagine that the character George Willard keeps a journal about his observations of and encounters with Winesburg’s inhabitants including grotesques.

Have them compose individual entries about three of those characters from George’s point of view. As they write, have students put themselves in his place and record the observations and encounters with those characters. Be sure to have them include characteristic behaviors, attitudes, and ways of talking that reflect their grotesque features or not. Be sure have them include textual information in their journal entry.

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
  • Expository writing
  • Literary analysis
  • Summarizing
  • Textual analysis
  • Writing skills
  • Mary Anne Kovacs


Activity Worksheets