This post is part of a series dedicated to Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories, from The Library of America. “Surrender (Part III)” comes from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. For an introduction to this series and for links to the other posts, please click here.
If you recall, the last post in this series dealt with “Godliness (Parts I and II).” In those parts we met Jesse Bentley, the farmer who fancied himself an Old Testament patriarch, and his desire to have a son named David. In Part II, a David comes, but it is his grandson. Jesse’s only child was a daughter named Louise. All we knew about Louise at that point was that, as a mother, she was cold and distant, and her husband and son were desperately unhappy. There is one moment when she appears to have transformed into a different person, one who comforts her young child, but that transformation does not last. She’s resigned to her failed life.
In “Surrender (Part III)” we step back a few years to Louise’s childhood, and Anderson introduces this story as “a story of misunderstanding.” By the end, there is one clear misunderstanding: the devastating misunderstanding between Louise and her husband John Hardy. But there are others throughout the story. Moreover, Anderson suggests that Louise and women like her are misunderstood all the time and that progress to rectify this has and will be slow:
Before such women as Louise can be understood and their lives made livable, much will have to be done.
We can guess from what we already know of Jesse Bentley that Louise’s childhood was terrible. Jesse is a cruel and arrogant man who wanted — felt entitled to — a male heir. Louise’s mother died in childbirth, so there was no one on her side. She ended up growing into an adolescent “wanting love more than anything else in the world and not getting it.”
When Louise turns fifteen, so she can easily attend school in Winesburg, she goes into town to live at the home of Albert Hardy. There live Albert, the father; his two daughters, Mary and Harriet; and his son, John. Louise spends the weekdays at the Hardy’s home and then, on Friday evening, her father’s field hand comes to pick her up and take her back to the farm for the weekend.
This must have been an exciting prospect for Louise. Not only can she now get out from under her father’s thumb but she can also satisfy some of her natural curiosity. She is an excellent student, curious and naturally excited by learning. Her attempts to rise up, though, are stomped on immediately. Albert Hardy recognizes that Louise is a remarkable student and he praises her at the dinner table. This seems innocuous, but as you can imagine this didn’t go over well with Mary and Harriet, the two girls Louise looked to for friendship, the first girls in her life. Instead, Albert’s praise is also meant as chastisement to his own daughters. He’s disappointed in them; why, just look at how good Louise is.
I don’t need to explain what this did to the relationship between Louise and the two Hardy girls.
Sadly, Louise now finds herself in another terrible situation. Always unloved, now she is also hated. But there is John, the young man who brings her firewood but otherwise does not talk to her. Desperate, Louise writes him a note: “I want someone to love me and I want to love someone.” She tells John that, if he’s interested, he should go outside her window and call to her. John doesn’t show up for two or three weeks, and when he does show up, she’s not sure what to do. See, in the interim, she tried to get some affection from the farm hand on Friday evening while he was driving her back to the farm for the weekend. That led to a misunderstanding in and of itself, and Louise realized that deep down she hated everyone. And, now, here’s John Hardy calling to her, just like she asked.
As you can imagine, Louise is not looking for a lover but rather for some affection. John didn’t understand the distinction and she, “so anxious to achieve something else,” made no resistance. There’s fear a baby is on the way, so they quickly and quietly marry.
But perhaps there was still hope. Louise did not yet hate John. He just was not giving her what she needed and deserved: genuine affection.
All during the first year Louise tried to make her husband understand the vague and intangible hunger that had led to the writing of the note and that was still unsatisfied. Again and again she crept into his arms and tried to talk of it, but always without success. Filled with his own notions of love between men and women, he did not listen but began to kiss her upon the lips. That confused her so that in the end she did not want to be kissed. She did not know what she wanted.
This is a terribly sad paragraph. In it, we can witness the misunderstanding that led, at least in part, to the terrible household David will soon grow up in, a home where Louise is reproached by her husband for treating David so cruelly.
“It is a man child and will get what it wants anyway,” she said sharply. “Had it been a woman child there is nothing in the world I would not have done for it.”
Louise Bentley Hardy joins Louise Trunnion as two misunderstood women who simply yearn for some real affection. The two men they meet, George Willard and John Hardy, want sex, indeed, think sex is affection. I’m not sure we’ve come a long way since Anderson’s day.