Anderson is well known to have been a rolling stone in both his personal and professional life. He changed jobs frequently, taking on roles such as soldier, paint factory manager, advertising agent and dedicated writer. One role he never quite mastered was the role of father. He abandoned his family and job in Ohio to pursue writing in Chicago. In his best-known work, entitled Winesburg, Ohio (1919), a craftily interwoven collection of stories, he explores the loneliness and frustration of small-town life (Columbia Encyclopedia 1). Two well-known works entitled Hands and Death in the Woods desperately manifest Anderson’s life experiences via character types. Anderson’s “revolt from the village” and “make it new” ideology carries a sobering realism to the pristine village setting.
In both stories Anderson sculpts characters whose best defenses against internal turmoil is silence. Anderson molds fated loners whose inactions climax to consequences of personal doom. His central characters are reclusive, tragically victimized, communication challenged, fighting to survive and highly characterized as nurturers that are ironically experiencing starvation in a significant sense. His characters escape from their personal struggles by relocating and busying themselves; surely this is directly influenced by his personal life and the strategies he implemented to cope. Both stories also explore his prevalent theme of loneliness and expose the annoyance of small-town life.
In the tale of Hands we are acquainted with Wing Biddlebaum. Anderson laboriously describes the nervous and erratic motions of Biddlebaum’s hands. Very late in the tale it is revealed that Biddlebaum is actually Adolph Myers. Myers use to teach at a schoolhouse in Pennsylvania where his nurturing caresses of the youth, which he believed conveyed acceptance, were interpreted as perversion. A young schoolboy who had developed a crush on Myers accused him of touching him inappropriately. The numerous accusations that thereafter erupted along with the threats and violence of the angered parents forced Myers to take on a new identity in the new town of Winesburg, far isolated from his past. It is there that he adopts a new life under the name of Wing Biddlebaum; in Winesburg, his hands are free of stigmatization, but only outside his own mind.
Since the accusations, Myers has felt incapable of reaching out to others without a degree of self-consciousness; it is in his new environment that the erratic hand motions take precedence. During communication he fidgets uncontrollably and fights the urge to make human contact, since he believes it was his hands that got him into trouble in the first place. The piece closes with Myers escaping to his home after an awkward conversation where he is fidgeting with his hands and grappling at his past in the darkness of the night.
In the piece entitled Death in the Woods we are introduced to a reclusive old woman who sustains her entire farm without the help of her self-absorbed and neglectful husband and son. The woman is slight, haggard and has been a victim of physical and emotional abuse her entire life. She treks into town by herself to pick up basic materials for the sustenance of her farm and selfish family. She must struggle in the winter and find a means to barter for necessary goods.
It is then that the tragedy of the story is revealed. A pack of family owned dogs follow her in and out of town; after she has attained the necessary supplies and meats she places them in a sack and ties them upon her back. On the way back home she becomes extremely fatigued and stops to take a rest. When she finally awakens to continue her journey she finds herself overcome by exhaustion and unable to continue. It is then that she passes away and the dogs ravage the satchel on her back for the edible goods within. The town is subsequently horrified by the discovery of her body and her story soon becomes a part of the small-town’s history.
Both of these stories captivate readers by developing a vulnerable type of character whose life experiences have shaped him/her into a starving nurturer. The first thing Anderson does to develop the vulnerable character type is to reveal their best defense to be silence. Anderson molds fated loners whose propensity for silence or inaction climaxes to consequences of personal doom. The characters do not fight the status quo; they are peaceful people that accept the cold shoulder life constantly gives them.
In Hands this occurs whenthe readers meet Myers’s one confidant named George Willard early on: “Biddlebaum the silent began to talk, striving to put words into ideas that had accumulated by his mind during long years of silence” (“Hands” 1142). This same characteristic is attributed to the old woman in Death in the Woods: “She never visited with anyone and as soon as she got what she wanted she lit out for home” (“Death in the Woods” 1146).
This inability to communicate is further detailed in both stories via tragic conflict. Both of the characters are tragically victimized physically and emotionally. For instance, in Hands Myers is accused of violating young males and it is then that he becomes a town target. He becomes incapable of using his voice and his hands as part of his schoolmaster effort to “carry a dream into the young minds” (“Hands” 1144). Directly after that a throng of the accusatory students’ fathers arrive at his home with intentions of hanging him. The erratic motions of his hands thereafter seem to manifest the trembling voice he can no longer use to connect with others, for fear of being misinterpreted.
Death in the Woods describes a similar experience for the old woman in the course of her youth. She is explained to have been physically victimized by the old German Farmer her owned her. After she is married off, when there is nothing to eat, it is said of her husband that, “the old man gave his old woman a cut in the head” (“Death in the Woods” 1148). Of her relationship with her son, while his father was away, it is said that:
The son and his woman ordered the old woman about like a servant. She didn’t mind much; she was used to it. Whatever happened she never said anything. That was her way of getting along. She had managed that way when she was a young girl at the German’s and ever since she had married Jake” (“Death in the Woods” 1149).
However, throughout these struggles, the characters’ touching vulnerability preserves them it seems. The piece entitled Hands says of Myers, when the throng rushes to his door with rope in hand, “They had intended to hang the schoolmaster, but something in his figure, so small, white, and pitiful, touched their hearts and they let him escape” (“Hands” 1145). Upon the final onset of fatigue on the old woman in Death in the Woods, though the dogs have been starving and the food is strapped upon her back, it is said that, “The dress had had been torn from her body clear to the hips, but the dogs had not touched her body” (“Death in the Woods” 1151).
Though the characters must face various adversities spawned by their vulnerabilities and reluctance to communicate, that same vulnerability doubles as their saving force. The townspeople remembered the nurturing competence of Myers as a schoolmaster, and the dogs recalled the nurturing role of the old woman on the farm; she’s the only one who fed any of the animal life. Thus because they are vulnerable, they are saved; they do not meet their worst ends possible because they are truly good people trapped in bad situations.
The next poignant commonality amongst the two tales is that fact that the central character is fighting to survive and is highly characterized as a nurturer that is ironically experiencing starvation in a significant sense. The tale of Hands shares that Myers is fighting his loneliness to survive; this is further explained via description, “Although he still hungered for the presence of the boy, who was the medium through which he expressed his love of man, the hunger became again a part of his loneliness and waiting” (“Hands” 1145). Myers is intrinsically a nurturer by nature and the irony in his situation is that he is experiencing starvation because he can no longer nurture the ideas and sentiments of students.
The story entitled Death in the Woods implicates that the character’s fight is far more literal; the old woman is fighting poverty, the cold, and starvation to survive. However she quite literally takes on the role of nurturer in this tale; she goes to great lengths to feed all the livestock and her selfish family, neglecting only herself and her needs. The old woman’s starvation is also emotional. She does not have healthy relationships with her son or husband, and does not know how or desire to communicate with strangers. However she gains her personal fulfillment by acting as the driving force behind her farm. It is said that, “The old woman died softly and quietly” (“Death in the Woods” 1151). The reason she is able to die peacefully and without struggle is because she died doing what she starved during life to do- nurture life.
Anderson is also careful to characterize his central characters utilizing influence from his personal life. He abandoned his job and family in one swift stroke to pursue writing. Some element in his personal life inspired a need to escape. In both tales, this need to escape is explored. In Hands, Biddlebaum is giving an inspiring speech to George Willard, and after being caught in the moment and wanting to convey acceptance he raises his hands to caress the boy; however, recalling his past he becomes extremely uncomfortable and leaves. This episode is described below:
With a convulsive movement of his body, Wing Biddlebaum sprang to his feet and thrust his hands deep into his trouser pockets. Tears came into his eyes. “I must be getting along home. I can talk no more with you,” he said nervously (“Hands” 1144).
Death in the Woods is far more direct in creating an atmosphere molded by a preeminent need to escape. When the old woman’s body is discovered it is stated that:
In a woods, in the late afternoon, when the trees are all bare and there is white snow on the ground, when all is silent, something creepy steals over the mind and body. If something strange or uncanny has happened in the neighborhood all you can think about is getting away from there as fast as you can (“Death in the Woods” 1152).
Death in the Woods also reveals the old woman’s busying herself as a form of escape. Before her feelings ever get the best of her, she buries herself in tasks around the farm that preoccupy her physically and distract her mentally and emotionally. In Hands, Wing Biddlebaum’s finds mental escape via physical distraction; his hands flutter in a perpetual and useless migration to nowhere, to solitude.
The last most important semblance between the pieces is Anderson’s stylistic “revolt from the village”. This simply means that Anderson exposed rural life to be as plagued with scandal and corruption as life in any other environment. Both of these stories take conflict and scandal to the pristine setting of the country side. Episodes of theorized molestation and mysterious death were certainly enough to shake the social mores of the time. The fact that Anderson did this brought a new ambiance of realism to his writing since it is common knowledge that good and bad people exist everywhere- even in the countryside!
Resentment for the annoyance of small-town life reveals itself via dialogue or description. Our central characters seem stifled by its sanctions and the routines of it. Biddlebaum tells Willard in Hands, regarding the influences of those around him:
You are destroying yourself. You have the inclination to be alone and to dream and you are afraid of dreams. You want to be like the others in town here. You hear them all talk and you try to imitate them (“Hands” 1143).
Death in the Woods simply paints a bleak small town image with, “It made quite a load for an old body. No one gave her a lift. People drive right down a road and never notice an old woman like that “(“Death in the Woods” 1146).
This description seems to imply that there are no advantages to small town life. Even a small town has its forsaken few that have been cast a difficult lot beyond the concern of others. This is again is consistent with Anderson’s “revolt from the village” ideology.
In summation, Anderson constructs central characters who are nurtured via the act of nurturing but are never-the-less starving emotionally. They are made vulnerable enough to struggle, but strong enough to put up a fight. Clever dialogue and description work in tandem to create a central character that is a fated loner, doomed by his/her own inaction through an inability to communicate and a propensity for silence. Tragic victimization places the central character in the favor of the readers and engages them on a personal level via emotional appeal. Anderson’s character type finds personal escape by relocating and immersing his or herself in routine tasks.
This onslaught of writing strategies creates a humanistic connection between the readers and Anderson’s starving nurturers. The moral significance of both tales seems to be that though you may not get what you give, no one can take away what you’ve given. The desire to nurture life is the sustaining life force for our central characters in both tales, and doubles as their mode of survival against physical and emotional forces of adversity.
Anderson, S. “Death in the Woods.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol II. Fourth ed. Ed. P. Lauter. Boston: Houghton, 2002. 1142-1153.
_____. “Hands.” The Heath Anthology of American Literature. Vol II. Fourth th ed. Ed. P. Lauter. Boston: Houghton, 2002. 1142-1153.
Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth ed. 2001. http://www.bartleby.com/65/an/AndrsonSh.html> 10-28-04