Summary and Analysis
In the last three stories of Winesburg, Ohio, all written later than most of the other tales, Anderson seems to be deliberately trying to pull ideas and images together. In "Death," for example, he returns to the past, years before the setting of "The Untold Lie" (concerning Ray Pearson) and "Drink" (concerning Tom Foster) and focuses on the Willard family. Here, he is most concerned with Elizabeth Willard and her relationship with Doctor Reefy, characters we met earlier in "Mother" and "Paper Pills." To create the feeling of summation and synthesis, Anderson again uses hands as a symbol, as he did in "Hands" and "Paper Pills." In this case, he makes the hands again symbolic of an attempt to reach a meaningful relationship with another human being; he says of Elizabeth Willard in her youth, "There was something she sought blindly, passionately, some hidden wonder in life. The tall beautiful girl . . . was forever putting out her hand into the darkness and trying to get hold of some other hand."
"Death" also reaches forward to "Sophistication" and "Departure," which follow it in the collection. When Elizabeth dies, we see that George is at first resentful that he will not be able to call on Helen White that evening. Of course, "Sophistication," the next tale, describes the meeting between George and Helen a few days later. We also see that his mother's death triggers George's decision to leave Winesburg, a decision realized in "Departure." Thus "Death" is strongly tied to the rest of Winesburg, Ohio.
This story of Elizabeth Willard is also appropriately placed because of its mood. In "Sophistication," we will see two people achieve the love and understanding that so many of the characters have been striving for; in "Death," Elizabeth Willard and Doctor Reefy almost achieve that goal. This relationship evidently took place four to six years before Elizabeth's death, for we are told that at the time George was twelve or fourteen, and that when she died he was eighteen. During a series of visits to Doctor Reefy's office, Elizabeth found an escape from her disappointing life; she could talk to Doctor Reefy, and he, in turn, found a sympathetic listener to his ideas and grew eloquent as he talked about the beauty and transience of love: "Love is like a wind stirring the grass beneath trees on a black night. You must not try to make love definite. It is the divine accident of life. If you try to be definite and sure about it and to live beneath the trees, where soft winds blow, the long hot day of disappointment comes swiftly and the gritty dust from passing wagons gathers upon lips inflamed and made tender by kisses." Just as the doctor is taking Elizabeth in his arms, however, a noise outside the door interrupts them and ends one of the two moments of release which Elizabeth experiences. We are told ambiguously that Doctor Reefy "did not see the woman he had held in his arms again until after her death." We know, of course, that he saw Elizabeth Willard many times in those years, but Anderson means that Elizabeth's inner beauty was not revealed again until her next moment of release — when she met her lover, death. This beauty is such that three men in her life — a youthful lover, Doctor Reefy and George Willard — have been moved to say to her, "You dear — oh you lovely dear." Elizabeth feels the words "expressed something she would have liked to have achieved in life," and she probably could have if she had not been broken by the callousness and sterility of her environment.
Perhaps Elizabeth's death seems less depressing to us than the fate of most other citizens of Winesburg because she does escape. Even the ironic fact that she dies without telling George about the money which she has saved so long for him doesn't really matter. Her father had hoped the eight hundred dollars might prove to be a "great open door," and she had similar hopes for George, but part of Anderson's message in Winesburg is that money will not solve mankind's problems.