We move after "Paper Pills" to a story about George Willard's mother and thus get better acquainted with George, the central character of Winesburg, Ohio. Elizabeth Willard is an unhappy woman of forty-five; once she was a tall, dark, restless young girl who dreamed of joining an acting company and "giving something out of herself to all people." The citizens of Winesburg, however, said she was "stage-struck" and they shook their heads in disapproval when they saw her on dates with traveling men who were staying at her father's hotel. Elizabeth, frustrated and bored, found some release in sexual relations with these men and eventually with Tom Willard, a handsome fellow with a military step and a black mustache. Finally, Elizabeth married Tom, who turned out to be a big talker and a dabbler in village politics, but an ineffectual provider. The hotel, under his management, became increasingly dusty, faded, and run-down.
In loneliness and despair, Elizabeth turned her dreams on her son George hoping that he might "be allowed to express something for us both." Thus she states what so many of the characters seem to feel about the young reporter, that perhaps he can communicate their suppressed needs, desires, and insights. In wanting him to tell their story, they are like Pirandello's characters — in search of an author.
The characters sense in George, however, an uncertainty about his own goals. Wing Biddlebaum tells the boy, "You are afraid of dreams. You want to be like others in town here." In "Mother," the action, what little there is, begins with Elizabeth's jealous suspicions that George is going to be the kind of man his father wants him to be, a hustling success. In her prayers, Elizabeth begs God not to let George become a "meaningless drab figure like myself," but not to let him "become smart and successful either." As she overhears Tom Willard telling George that he must "wake up" and stop dreaming at the newspaper office, Elizabeth feels such rage that she thinks of stabbing Tom with her sewing scissors.
In the smoldering conflict between the ideals held by Tom and Elizabeth, Sherwood Anderson dramatizes the clash of American materialism and artistic values which the author felt in his own life. Like George Willard, Anderson had a rather charming but shiftless father. Like George, Anderson had a mother who died because of hard work and poverty when her son was nineteen. Like George, Anderson had to make a choice between being a sharp, successful businessman or a literary artist. But, unlike George, Anderson did not make his choice until that day when he, at the age of thirty-six walked out of his factory office to become a writer. George states his decision when he says, "I'm going to get out of here . . . I just want to go away and look at people and think."
Elizabeth, realizing that she has won, wants to cry out with joy, but both she and George are too embarrassed to communicate with each other openly. In this scene, at the end of the story, Anderson wrote for the two characters exactly the same dialogue he had written earlier in the narrative. This repetition suggests, again, the monotony and loneliness of human beings, but the fact that George is going to try to escape to a bigger world is encouraging.
Some critics have said that "Mother" is evidence of Anderson's knowledge of Freud and they have argued that Elizabeth's love for her son is Oedipal. It seems more likely, however, that Anderson is portraying a frustrated dreamer who hopes that her son can discover the opportunities and outlets for creative impulses which she couldn't find. Elizabeth's unhappiness and helplessness is sensed when she watches from her bedroom window a series of battles in a feud between the town baker and a stray cat. We are told, "Once when she was alone, and after watching a prolonged and ineffectual outburst on the part of the baker, Elizabeth Willard put her head down on her long white hands and wept . . . It [the contest between the man and the cat] seemed like a rehearsal of her own life, terrible in its vividness." Yet pathetic as she is, Elizabeth, like Doctor Reefy, is proof that the twisted, gnarled apples are often the sweetest.
The first draft of the Winesburg, Ohio manuscript shows that Anderson actually wrote "Mother" sixth but, in preparing his manuscript for publication, he made it the third of his stories. Thus he has introduced his pervasive theme of frustration in the first three stories: "Hands" concerns a person unable to communicate his desire to help others, "Paper Pills" presents a person unable to communicate his ideas, and "Mother" tells the story of a person unable to communicate her love. In this little village that seems to be for Anderson a microcosm of the world, the author shows in case after case that humans must live and die alone.