Story Arc in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio
Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio represents and exemplifies the concept and application of the story arc. In Winesburg, Ohio the story arc agent is George Willard: Will he change, be able to escape Wineburg, be able to survive his exposure to the “grotesques”? The continuing story of George Willard is part of what keeps us and the overall story going. But Anderson also uses several writing techniques as a way to sustain tension and gain continuity and cohesiveness throughout a series of episodes, stories, and characters.
One of the techniques Anderson uses for continuity and cohesiveness is the recurring images throughout and within multiple stories. A recurring and supporting image that contributes to the story arc is the town of Winesburg itself. Another supporting image and even symbol that supports the story arc continuity is the recurring mention of the train and/or train station (symbolic for its “journey” and archetypical elements therein) in many if not most of the stories. Yet another recurring image, pointed out by Anderson himself, are the “truths” held by the grotesques. What truth will this grotesque tell George? Do the truths really become falsehoods once the grotesque recognizes it as a truth, or does the truth continue?
Compared to many writers, and especially those of his “time,” Anderson used what I would call a simple writing style of short and direct sentences, not many adjectives, adverbs or descriptors, with a straight-forward approach. Others might call his use of description and adjectives “sparse.” I disagree. This choice of writing style was conscious on Anderson’s part. It was used to support his realistic view of the world and his characters, and it was also used as a writing technique that held his story arc together in Winesburg, Ohio. At his best he uses dialogue and “stories within the story” in several stories as a technique to both move his tales along and to support the story arc. He also shows us what is happening rather than tells us what is happening.
Take this passage from Hands as an example:
For twenty years Adolph Meyers had lived alone in Winesburg. He was … forty but looked sixty-five. The name of Biddlebaum he got from a box of goods seen at a freight station as he hurried through an eastern Ohio town. He had an aunt in Winesburg, a black-toothed old woman who raised chickens, and with her he lived til she died. He had been ill for a year after the experience in Pennsylvania, and after his recovery worked as a day laborer in the fields, going timidly about and trying to conceal his hands. Although he did not understand what had happened he felt that the hands must be to blame. Again and again the fathers of the boys had talked on the hands. “Keep your hands to yourself,” the saloon keeper had roared, dancing, with fury in the schoolyard. (p. 33)
In a little over 100 words, we get not just 20 years of a person’s life but his history, family, circumstance, journey after the “experience in Pennsylvania,” analysis and explanation of his situation (not just his but his accusers’, too), and the condemnation by his “society.” Not bad – good, very believable, credible – worth emulating. And this writing style is used several times in several different stories to both help move the story along and to add cohesiveness and continuity.
I was struck too by the rhythm of Anderson’s writing – in the sample above, the rhythm is created by shorter sentences, prepositional phrases as descriptors versus an abundance of adjectives and adverbs and punctuation that would have slowed the reader down. There is a sense of urgency in this writing sample that reflects the character’s sense of urgency and anxiety –which of course is tension, which of course is the stuff of short stories. Anderson maintains this style throughout Winesburg, Ohio, and style becomes as much a cohesive element for the story arc as George Willard’s constant presence as narrator.
The opposite result of such simple writing, I might add, is that when the writer DOES describe a scene or character or item in detail, you as a reader should pay attention. As a writer of course, if you write in a simple and sparse manner 95% of the time, make sure the 5% you choose to highlight deserves the attention. In Anderson, these things are the twitch in someone’s eye, the redness of their hands, the quickness of their hands or walk, the importance a mother places on her appearance before stabbing her husband with the scissors…. This phenomenon, ie separating the significant few from the trivial many (also known in statistics as the Pareto Principle, ie 80/20 Rule) is reality. One cannot pay attention to everything at once — you can only pay attention to one thing at a time, and you go through your life doing a great many things on “automatic.”
To point, one of my favorite recurring/parallel descriptions and images/symbols were found in “Paper Pills.” Note the knuckles on Dr. Reefy’s hands, the parallels Anderson drew to the sweet “knarled, twisted apples” that lay on the ground that few bother to pick up or even see, the divisions he pointed out between the city dwellers and the apple growers, and the differences between Dr. Reefy and other suitors of the “tall dark girl.” Anderson made interesting and important things happen on three or four different levels, still within his realistic style, perhaps a little because of his realistic writing style.
One of the things Anderson did that I can’t relate strongly to story arc was the first story, The Book of the Grotesque.
In his bed the writer rolled over on his side and lay quite still. For years he had been best by notions concerning his heart. He was a hard smoker and his heart fluttered. The idea had got into his mind that he would sometime die unexpectedly and always when he got into bed he would think about that. It did not alarm him. The effect in fact was quite a special thing and not easily explained. It made him more alive, there in bed, than at any other time. Perfectly still he lay and his body was old and not of much use anymore, but something inside him was altogether young. He was like a pregnant woman, only that the thing inside him was not a baby but a youth. No, it wasn’t a youth, it was a woman, young, and wearing a coat of mail like a knight. It is absurd, you see, to try to tell what was in the old writer as he lay in his high bed and listened to the fluttering of his heart. The thing to get at is what the writer, or the thing within the writer, was thinking about. (p. 24)
At best this passage creates tension; for me, this tension was not all positive. At worst, this passage, especially in the context of story arc and the other stories within Winesburg Ohio, creates confusion. I get the “higher” view from the bed, evenness with the window and light symbolism, and the inherent contrast and tension between young and old – but why a woman, why wearing mail, why tell me the reader that it is absurd to tell me what you just told me? If it was so absurd, why did you waste my time and tell me? By the way, who are: the writer, the thing within, the carpenter, and the narrator (“I”) in this chapter? Is the writer supposed to be an old George Willard? Are we already/still in Winesburg? If the writer is George, who is the narrator (“I”) in this opening passage, someone distinctly different than George/the writer? To me the first book in Winesburg, Ohio comes across as trying to be ambivalent and mysterious but ends up being vague, trying to be coy but ending up stupid. As a reader, I needed more hooks, better continuity here like Anderson provided throughout the rest of the book.
A closing question is whether or not I would ever use the story arc technique? I am a writer of short stories, and short stories tend to be published in “collections” – so what Anderson did (perhaps first among us) is certainly relevant. There are other examples of great short story writers that have used story arc to some degree – I’m thinking of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, his first short story collection, although I don’t remember if there was a final resolution at the end of the stories for Nick (more reading to do)? However, I’m also thinking of Hemingway’s later Complete Collection, where he simply drops in very short images of Spain, of the Spanish civil war, of bull fighting, of moments in unconnected people’s lives. My conclusion at this time is that using story arc for a series of short stories is something that should be considered long and hard, and is a great undertaking. However, in this day and age, it might appeal to marketers and playwrights, and help you get your book made into a TV documentary or series…. Hmmmmm. I think if you DO use story arc, you have to purposely begin with that unifying structure and style and characters in mind, and stick with it. To date, my stories are diverse enough not to qualify.
But never say never….
Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. Introduction by Irving Howe. Putnam: New York, New York. 1990.