This post is part of a series dedicated to Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories, from The Library of America. “Respectability” comes from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. For an introduction to this series and for links to the other posts, please click here.
We feel pity and care about many of the subjects in Winesburg, Ohio, but I doubt many people lose sleep over the wretched life of Wash Williams, though I do think Anderson is meaning us to. Interestingly, while Anderson usually introduces his characters’ physical traits at the beginning of the chapter, here he introduces a grotesque caged monkey we might see at a zoo, something that “[i]n the completeness of his ugliness [. . .] has achieved a kind of perverted beauty. In fact, this is how Anderson leads into the physical description of the repulsive telegraph operator, Wash Williams, “the ugliest thing in town.”
Sure, at this point we may be feeling some pity for this friendless, obese man. We learn early on that his current state is quite a drop from his youth. He was once the best telegraph operator in Ohio, but somewhere along the lines he was demoted to the Winesburg telegraph office, perhaps the most obscure post. Once happy, he now hates life, “and he hated it wholeheartedly, with the abandon of a poet.” He doesn’t associate with men, but he absolutely despises women. All pity we may have had for him goes out the window when we come to understand the depths of his misogyny.
And yet, Wash was once married, devotedly, and considers himself a fallen man, not by his own volition but because of the corrupted female sex. One day, he sees George Willard walking around town with a young woman. Wash knows it’s time for him to intervene.
For his part, George is simply walking with a girl he can flirt with. She has a suitor already, and George does not love her, but they embrace and, generally, seem to be enjoying youth. But George knows Wash has a story to tell, and, when he and Wash are alone, asks if Wash was married and if his wife is dead.
Wash Williams spat forth a succession of vile oaths. “Yes, she is dead,” he agreed. “She is dead as all women are dead. She is a living-dead thing, walking in the sight of men and making the earth foul by her presence.”
George Willard is “half frightened and yet fascinated” as he listens to Wash tell his story, who had, Anderson explains, “become a poet.” He tells George: “Already you may have dreams in your head. I want to destroy them.”
In many ways, Wash’s story is like many others. He was married, devoted, life was ideal, and then he found out his wife was having an affair or two. But the event that causes Wash to despise all women, an event I’ll only allude to here, is genuinely grotesque. It’s an event caused by his mother-in-law, who otherwise dwells in “respectability,” but who obviously has a fundamentally perverted view of love. So disgusted is Wash by his wife’s mother’s actions, Wash attacks with a chair, sorry later that he was prevented from committing a murder.
It’s true: what his mother-in-law does, what it suggests about Wash, his wife, and love and sex in general, is awful. We’re meant, I believe, to revise our conception of Wash, to see him as a sensitive man, a man who would have forgiven if he hadn’t been so betrayed. However, though I can understand how this reformed view is supposed to be effected, I cannot go there. To me, Wash is still the man with a heart much uglier than his appearance could suggest.
That said, I can buy into Wash as a character. When I complain that Anderson is trying to make us sympathize with someone this grotesque, I don’t mean to go so far as to complain that Wash is in Winesburg, and that his story is told like it is.
Furthermore, this story is an excellent counter to George’s own first sexual encounter in “Nobody Knows” (see my thoughts here), where George and Louise Trunnion have such different views of love and sex. In some ways, Wash is the male version of Louise Trunnion, a sensitive person who needs a connection and thinks he’s found one. And then it turns out the other person is conflating love and sex. No, conflating is wrong: love is not even involved.
Lastly, Wash’s own extreme misogyny is shown to be a subtle part of several men in Winesburg, Ohio, and even in “Respectability” itself. Wash is demoted to Winesburg’s telegraph office because it is the lowest rung on the ladder, and the superintendent didn’t want to boot Wash off the ladder entirely. The superintendent likes Wash, and not just because he’s really good at his job, if a bit unpleasant. No, he likes the unpleasantness:
Here and there a man respected [Wash]. Instinctively the man felt in him a glowing resentment of something he had not the courage to resent. When Wash walked through the streets such a one had an instinct to pay him homage, to raise his hat or to bow before him.
When the superintendent receives a letter of complaint from the banker’s wife about Wash’s behavior in the telegraph office, the superintendent “tore it up and laughed unpleasantly. For some reason he thought of his own wife as he tore up the letter.”
Wash outwardly expresses what these men feel. They don’t even know why, yet they honor him. They defend him. So why, yes, Anderson wants us to spare some sympathy for Wash, he clearly doesn’t want us to overlook Wash’s pervasive world view, making this a pretty incredible little story.