Summary and Analysis
Wash Williams, like Alice Hindman, is an example of how unreliable appearance can be. Wash is the ugliest man in Winesburg. He is so fat and dirty that he looks like a huge, grotesque monkey — a kind of mandrill, as Anderson describes him. Wash is also psychologically grotesque for he is a confirmed misogynist who despises all women and pities all men because two sexes were created.
Yet Wash Williams, beneath this rough exterior, is really a sensitive, eloquent person. Wash tells George Willard about his first years of marriage, when he and his bride bought a house and planted a garden, where he literally worshipped at her feet.
Such devotion helps us to understand his subsequent excessive hatred of women, but the scene also helps us realize that Wash was once a handsome, tender young man who thought he had found love and understanding in an ideal marriage. Even after he discovered his wife's adultery, he "ached to forgive and forget."
This sensitive man is naturally shocked, repulsed, and angered when his mother-in-law, hoping to bring about a reconciliation, pushes her naked daughter into the parlor where Wash waits. Such confusion of sex with love has changed many people of Winesburg into grotesques — Wing Biddlebaum, Elizabeth Willard and Louise Trunnion, to name a few. In Wash Williams, the love of one woman has been perverted into hatred of all women.
Several characteristics other than the appearance vs. reality theme link "Respectability" to the other Winesburg stories. First, there is the irony of the title itself, for the wife's family, who are called "respectable people," prove to be coarse and vulgar. Second, there are the repeated images linking this story to some of the others. Wash's naked wife, for example, reminds us of the naked Alice Hindman in the preceding story. Wash's well-cared-for hands, which have made him the best telegrapher in the state, remind us of Wing Biddlebaum's hands, which have made him a champion berry picker. In both cases, hands are symbols of sensitivity, of the potential for love and understanding. Anderson seems to imply, however, that such gentleness can't survive in today's harsh world. Wash Williams's hands are the primary clue to the man he might have been.