This post is part of a series dedicated to Sherwood Anderson: Collected Stories, from The Library of America. “Mother” comes from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. For an introduction to this series and for links to the other posts, please click here.
While the first story I think about when I think about Winesburg, Ohio is “Hands,” I think that “Mother” is the story where we see Anderson’s writing really take off, creating a richly layered, psychologically delicate (I was going to say “subtle,” but I don’t think that’s quite right) take on George Willard’s mother, Elizabeth.
As has been the case so far, “Mother” begins with a physical description of the forty-five-year-old woman: “Elizabeth Willard, the mother of George Willard, was tall and gaunt and her face was marked with smallpox scars.”
Before we get into the story about Elizabeth, I think this is a good time to bring up George Willard’s own ambitions, first expressed in “Mother.” George, as you may recall, is currently working for the Winesburg Eagle. He has recently finished school and is in a transitional state, trying to figure out where he wants to go with his own life. It’s not necessarily practical, but he tells his mother late in the story that he just wants to “go away and look at people and think.” Looking at people and thinking matches the very structure of many of Anderson’s stories, which begin with a physical description and then go under the surface, considering their psychological makeup.
Here, it doesn’t take long to get from Elizabeth Willard’s scarred face and weak frame to digging under the surface of the dysfunctional Willard household.
Her husband, Tom Willard, “tried to put the wife out of his mind.” Anderson is always sensitive to how a character might think of someone else, and here “the wife” matches Tom Willard’s distant, disdainful perspective of Elizabeth perfectly.
Elizabeth had inherited her father’s inn, and she and Tom married and moved in to the inn with high hopes for the future. Now the inn is dilapidated and ragged. Tom “thought of the old house and the woman who lived there with him as things defeated and done for. The hotel in which he had begun life so hopefully was now a mere ghost of what a hotel should be.” For her part, Elizabeth also sees herself reflected in the old inn: “The hotel was continually losing patronage because of its shabbiness and she thought of herself as also shabby.”
Tom doesn’t see himself as shabby in any way: “He had always thought of himself as a successful man, although nothing he had ever done had turned out successfully.” However, he is frustrated because he had high hopes for himself, dreaming of going to Congress and “even of becoming governor.” He’s not even close to achieving these dreams, though he walks around town as if everyone knows he could have.
In the third paragraph of “Mother,” we see the conflict deepen, though Anderson doesn’t come out and bash us over the head. Rather, he shows us how much Elizabeth wants her son’s hopes to stay alive where hers have died. She frequently goes through a ceremony where she prays he will escape her fate:
“If I am dead and see him becoming a meaningless drab figure like myself, I will come back,” she declared.
Of course, besides showing us a mother’s hopes for her growing son, this paragraph also shows us George’s precarious position between two parents who hope he will have the life that slipped through their fingers. Of course Elizabeth loves her son. But, just as surely, she hates her husband and has the duel mission of ensuring George doesn’t become like Tom and that Tom doesn’t kill in George what Tom killed in her.
The burst of passion in that paragraph quickly subsides when we see Elizabeth and George, as they often are, sitting in the same room, quietly, awkwardly. They say next to nothing. We don’t know why, but perhaps we can pin George’s own silence on two things. First, he has never really seen his mother as anything other than the frail, ghostly being who, herself, sits quietly; could she comprehend the thoughts he wants to express? And second, George probably understands — even if it’s still just under the surface — some of the other reasons his mother is so quiet; talking might bring all of that out in the open.
One July evening, “when the transient guests who made the New Willard House their temporary home had become scarce, and the hallways, lighted only by kerosene lamps turned low, were plunged into gloom,” Elizabeth realized that her son had not visited her in her bedroom where she’d lain ill for several days. Weak, but horrified by what his absence might mean, she wanders down the dim hallway to stand outside George’s door. There she hears him talking. Thinking he is talking to himself, just as she once did, she feels pleased:
Within him there is a secret something that is striving to grow. It is the thing I let be killed in myself.
When she has walked away from the door, however, it opens and Tom Willard begins to walk out while still talking behind him to George. Sickened, mortified, Elizabeth hides and hears Tom tell George to “wake up.” Tom says that people are talking about George, saying George goes “along for hours not hearing when [he is] spoken to and acting like a gawky girl.”
Filled with strength, Elizabeth returns to her room promising herself that “Now, I will act.” She prepares to go downstairs and kill her husband. We get a look at her youth, the days she scandalized the town by wearing boy’s clothing and riding a bike, the nights when she slept with various men, “beginning with kisses and ending, after strange wild emotions, with peace and then sobbing repentance,” nights she looked at the man she’d just made love to and felt ” he had become suddenly a little boy,” not comprehending why he didn’t also sob.
Now, pock-marked, she decides that she will become a beautifully terrifying murderess, and she gets out the makeup.
In Winesburg, Ohio, these moments of spiked emotions — whether the emotion be sadness, dread, fear, rage — tend to happen when no one else is aware. They stay hidden in the shadows, rarely coming to anything, and the town goes on with everyone assuming everyone’s lives are dull and predictable and stable. Anderson handily takes ua out of the daily lives that mask and distract from such emotions, and places us into the long lonely hours where the emotions become the grotesque monsters that may, after all, be the real thing. In this case, it’s hard to believe there is any sweetness in this twisted apple.
Next up: Sherwood Anderson’s “The Philosopher,” from Winesburg, Ohio.