Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3. A Gallery of Grotesque Characters

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 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 first story in Winesburg, Ohio, “The Book of the Grotesque,” prepares readers for the story cycle’s emphasis on the literary element of the grotesque. Student’s initial reading of the book is likely to lead to questions: How could one little town be peopled with so many oddly twisted characters? Isn’t this perspective totally unrealistic? Older readers, on the other hand, often experience a strong sense of having met people much like those in the stories in the course of their lives.

This lesson culminates the unit on Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and builds on the work completed in the first two lessons. It begins with a return to the general concept of the grotesque introduced in Lesson 1. It picks up on ways the term applies to the character George Willard (the main focus of Lesson 2) and his relationships with family members and townspeople. Lesson 3 has teachers model an analysis of the chapter entitled “Adventure,” which depicts the character Alice Hindman, and her progress (or regression) from “normal” to grotesque. Students can then be encouraged to work independently analyzing other examples of the grotesque among Anderson’s more minor characters.

Lesson 3 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 3 aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.1.

Learning Objectives

  • To analyze Sherwood Anderson’s portrayals of grotesque with the major and minor characters in the Winesburg, OH short story cycle
  • To speculate why an author, such as Anderson, would include the grotesque in the short story cycle

Preparation and Resources

In preparation for the lesson, it may be helpful to access information available in Lesson 1 and 2.

If you used the first lesson in this unit, your students have already done some preliminary work with the concept of the grotesque. (Note: If not, you may want to access Lesson 1, Worksheet 1 and have students complete it before the beginning of this lesson.)

Teachers may want to require a complete reading of the text—that is the remaining stories not covered in Lesson 1 and 2. It is also possible to use a jigsaw approach as students share information.

The Library of America essay on this story “Adventure” may provide useful contextual and critical background and can be read or shared with students as you begin Activity 1.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Grotesque Analysis in “Adventure”

Read aloud or refer students to the third-to-last paragraph in “The Book of the Grotesque”:

It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.

Have students consider the sentence: “It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man.”

Ask them to journal for a few minutes as they reflect on and unpack the significance of these Anderson’s statements.

Have the class read the story “Adventure” in literature circles or independently. Use Worksheet 1 as a basis for modeling an analysis of the grotesque and launching a whole class discussion. (A teacher version provides sample responses.)

Follow up with a discussion with the class on how Anderson’s conception of youth as a condition of wholeness and balance. Engage students in considering how, in many people’s lives, time and experiences can lead to distortions of personalities as some facets of truth are abandoned and others over-stressed.

Have students to apply this concept and make observation about each member of the Willard family:

Suggested observations

George: Though young and, although not perfect, he is not at all grotesque.

George’s mother: As a young woman, Mrs. Willard was lively and flamboyant; her loveless marriage and dull life in the rundown hotel have turned her into a wraith.

George’s father: Mr. Willard, is almost a cartoonish figure—an amateur politician who gives unwanted advice to his son and seems unaware of his wife’s unhappiness.

Activity 2. Further Analysis of the Grotesque

Divide the class into small groups, have them work in literature circles, or have them work independently on one of the following stories: “Hands;” “The Philosopher;” “A Man of Ideas;” the four tales in “Godliness;” “The Thinker;” “The Teacher;” “Loneliness;” “Queer;” “The Untold Lie;” and “Drink”.

Have students read and/or review the stories and complete Worksheet 2 in preparation for class presentations on the ways the stories present Sherwood Anderson’s views on and perceptions about the grotesque. (A teacher resource for this worksheet provides sample ideas.)

Follow-up questions for whole group wrap-up discussion:

What attitudes does the book evoke in readers toward weird and distorted individuals in and around Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio?

(Suggested answers: empathy, amazement, and regret, more than distaste, scorn, and criticism)

How do the grotesque characters offer meaning for 21st-century readers?

(Suggested answers:

  • Though much of the late 19th-century setting seems removed from how many of us live in the technocratic 21st century, the grotesque traits of these characters transcend space and time. The forces in life that alter and distort people are no different today than they were during that time period.
  • When we come upon people who seem somehow bizarre or distorted, this close reading of Winesburg reminds us to hold off judgement till we know whole story that led them to become that way. Then, instead of standing in judgement and feeling repulsed or critical, we may be more likely to respond with kindness and empathy.
  • The book also suggests that as one ages, it is best to maintain characteristics of youth such as wonder, hope, and optimism. Those attributes and attitudes will help a person avoid becoming twisted by the “slings and arrows” that life throws at us.)


Have students select one of the more minor characters in Winesburg, Ohio they have studied and discuss how the reader comes to know that character’s grotesqueness. Have them consider why Anderson may have included the character(s) in the story cycle.

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


Activity Worksheets