"An Awakening" is one of several of the Winesburg stories that deal with George Willard's experience with various women. We have read of George's evening with Louise Trunnion in "Nobody Knows"; later, we will read of the evening he; spends with Helen White in "Sophistication." In "An Awakening," we learn of his meeting with Belle Carpenter.
This story might lead one to think that the latter part of Winesburg contains more hope than the first part. Belle Carpenter is a strong, successful young woman. As her name implies, she is an attractive flirt and a builder, one who successfully manipulates people and situations so that she gets what she wants. We learn that she has refused to let her petty, bookkeeping father dominate her life, and, in "An Awakening," we see her use George Willard to incite Ed Handby, the man she really loves.
Although Belle is the catalyst for the action in this story, the conflict is between her two suitors. Ed Handby, a burly bartender, has large fists and a soft, quiet voice — physically, he is powerful; verbally, he is impotent. Ed wants to marry Belie, but he can't seem to declare his intentions until Belle drives him to it by seeming to encourage George Willard's attentions.
It is George, however, who experiences the awakening mentioned in the title. On a January night when George is taking a walk, he begins to play soldier, like a child. He imagines himself scolding his subordinates about not being orderly enough, then he drops that role and begins to reflect, "In every little thing there must be order . . . I myself must be orderly." At the end of "Nobody Knows," George had "stood perfectly still in the darkness, attentive, listening as though for a voice." Now, in "An Awakening," he feels "some voice outside of himself had been talking." He finds himself in an area of Winesburg that seems like a little medieval village and as he pauses in an alleyway that smells of cow and pig manure, he has a sense of power such as he has never known before. His thoughts are egotistical and romantic and he thinks that he has experienced an awakening. Forgetting Kate Swift's advice about not being a mere peddler of words, George begins to whisper words without meaning, "Death, night, the sea, fear, loveliness." Hypnotized by his own words, he thinks that he is "too big to be used," and he rushes off to see Belle. He is mistaking his sense of spiritual power for sexual power. George's real awakening comes, however, a few hours later with Belle Carpenter, for he discovers that his words are less powerful than the hands of the inarticulate Ed, that Belle has been using him, and that Ed considers him too much a child to beat up, as he would do to a real competitor. George is thus left humiliated and full of hate; the village that had seemed so charming now looks "utterly squalid and commonplace."
Here Anderson is again reiterating the contrast between appearance and reality (George is not quite the adult he thinks he is) and is suggesting again the danger of being fascinated by abstract words. But he shows one more step in the young reporter's education and preparation to leave Winesburg.