This post is part of a series dedicated to Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories, from The Library of America. “Adventure” comes from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. For an introduction to this series and for links to the other posts, please click here.
In almost every Winesburg, Ohio story so far, the central character has had an “adventure,” or, in other words, a moment when the story slows down and we see an emotional climax of some sort. Finally, we get a story that is actually called “Adventure,” and it deals with a life that most would look at and think was anything but adventurous. We are back, then, to the small life, the hidden tragedy, of someone most would assume is simply passing the days in complacency. Here we meet Alice Hindman.
When the story begins, we learn that Alice is 27 years old (though George Willard is a “mere boy” so this story is some time before many of the other stories here), and we learn she has lived in Winesburg all her life with her mother, a widow who has recently remarried. Alice herself is single and seems destined to remain so. Some criticize “Adventure” as being predictable, that Alice is a stereotypical old maid. I kind of see where they are coming from, but Alice is a real person to me, and this is one of my favorite stories in the bunch. Apparently I can read all kinds of stories about people of whom it can be said: “beneath a placid exterior a continual ferment went on.” I find Alice’s continual ferment believable and devastating, even though were I to meet her and get to know her I would have no idea anything was even amiss, let alone why.
Anderson takes us back over a decade, to when Alice was just sixteen. That year, she began seeing Ned Currie. It’s a typical relationship. He seems to genuinely like Alice, and she see seems to like him. However, we get an idea that there might be other things at play when Ned decides he needs to move away from Winesburg to get some success in Cleveland. Alice can barely contain her desperation, and she goes completely outside what her society considers acceptable when she offers herself to Ned:
With a trembling voice she told him what was in her mind. “I will work and you can work,” she said,. “I do not want to harness you to a needless expense that will prevent your making progress. Don’t marry me now. We will get along without that and we can be together. Even though we live in the same house no one will say anything. In the city we will be unknown and people will pay no attention to us.”
Ned wants this, too, but some element of pride makes him tell her no. We can assume he’s just being a proper gentleman, but I think there’s enough to see that Ned, still a child himself, likes to think of himself as the noble one, the one who sacrifices. He’s embarking on this trip to Cleveland, he surely tells himself, so he can come back and provide a good life. And maybe he even believes that. Perhaps I’m being harsh on Ned when I don’t believe it myself.
The evening before he leaves for Cleveland, he’s emotional and she’s emotional, and he “forgot the resolution he had made regarding his conduct with the girl.” They “became lovers.” It may have already been too late for Alice, but this certainly cemented her commitment to Ned. She’s his now, she thinks, and she’s never going to give herself to anyone else.
As we might suspect, Ned misses Alice for a while but soon his thoughts move away from Winesburg to where his body is, first in Cleveland, later Chicago, and then who-knows-where. Sometimes he thinks of “Alice in Winesburg,” which is what she’s become to him: another girl in one of the places he once lived, perhaps even just another Alice.
Meanwhile, Alice continues to wait in Winesburg. She suspects where her life is going, but she doesn’t feel she can do anything about it, and she “did not blame Ned Currie for what happened in the moonlight in the field.”
Years go by. Anderson indicates the passage of time simply, by noting “one fall” or “a few years later” etc. Whatever adventure Ned is living, Alice is just drifting with the seasons. She clerks for the dry goods store and joins a church. By all outward appearances, she’s simply living life, albeit a bit of a lonely life. However, she still feels a vital intensity, if not toward Ned himself then to some conception of him. He pervades her prayers:
When at night she went upstairs into her room she knelt on the floor to pray and in her prayers whispered things she wanted to say to her lover.
More years pass, and she finally starts to feel “cheated.” And yet, still, “She did not blame Ned Currie and did not know what to blame.”
This is such a sad passage for me. She’s helpless. She cannot bring herself to blame Ned, Ned to whom she prays each night, and she cannot for the life of her fathom what’s gone wrong. When she gets suitors, she hesitates to push them away, not because she wants them but because she recognizes that she’s teetering on the edge of some abyss. She’s afraid that if she doesn’t go with them, she’ll forget how to be with people. She is not altogether wrong in her fears.
After all of this loneliness, the “adventure” happens in the last few paragraphs (no, the adventure is not her one and only sexual encounter at the age of sixteen). It is a scene I remember through the years. All of Alice’s sadness and desperation and sexual repression bursts out at once in a fantastic moment of liberation. Sadly, it ends with a terrible moment — though a moment is too short — of humiliation. Perhaps worse, the only witness has no idea what he’s just seen. And worst of all, this burst of freedom leads her to further slouch in repression and loneliness; she is absolutely shocked at what she finds herself capable of doing. Afterwards, she lies in her bed and thinks:
“I will do something dreadful if I am not careful,” she thought, and turning her fact to the wall, began trying to force herself to faces bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg.