Summary and Analysis
To recognize fully the ironies in "The Strength of God," we must also read "The Teacher." This helps us to understand why Kate Swift threw herself weeping on her bed as Reverend Hartman watched, We see too that the climax of the two stories really occurred simultaneously and this overlapping time sequence is one more link in the chain that binds Winesburg into a unified work of art.
Kate Swift is a warm, exciting woman of thirty. She has lived an adventurous life, traveling abroad before returning to Winesburg to live with her mother, five years before the action of the story. The town's citizens "thought her lacking in all the human feelings that did so much to make and mar their own lives." Yet Anderson tells us, "In reality she was the most eagerly passionate soul among them." The truth is that Kate Swift needs love, but her attempts to find it are always repulsed or misunderstood. Thus she is like some of the other sensitive grotesques who find their dreams destroyed by a repressive, uncaring society.
Kate finds some fulfillment, however, as a teacher. Her students like her, and we see her eagerness to "open the door of life" for George Willard, a former pupil. She recognizes in George an unusual talent and she tries to warn him, "If you are to become a writer you'll have to stop fooling with words . . . You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say." Like Wing Biddlebaum, Kate, in her eagerness, touches George physically taking hold of his hand, kissing his cheek, even letting her body lean heavily against him. There is no question that Kate's interest in George's talent is genuine, but she is also a passionate, unsatisfied woman. Her frustration makes her act ambiguously, so it is no wonder that George thinks that she is in love with him. His response to Kate Swift's needs reminds us of his response to Louise Trunnion in "Nobody Knows." Kate, like Louise, failed to communicate successfully with George, but at least the events of the evening — Kate's overtures and Reverend Hartman's announcement about his vision — lead George to ponder the complexity of human motives. As he falls asleep that night, he thinks, "I have missed something Kate Swift was trying to tell me."
Setting plays an important part in the effectiveness of "The Teacher." The story opens with a description of the deep snow and frozen mud roads. On this cold winter morning, George goes off to the woods, then returns to his room at the New Willard House, where he lies down with his window shade pulled. The emphasis is on his aloneness. We are told that by ten o'clock that evening all but four of the eighteen hundred citizens of the town were in bed. One of these four is Hop Higgins, the night watchman, who makes his rounds, then settles down to drowse by the stove in the New Willard House. That leaves three persons awake — Kate Swift, Reverend Hartman, and George Willard. Each is, for a time, in a separate room, a fact that again emphasizes man's alienation. Hartman's loneliness is driving him to sit in his cold bell-tower waiting for a glimpse of Kate Swift. Kate's loneliness drives her out into the cold streets for a long walk, despite the fact that her health is already poor. Anderson emphasizes the coldness, snow, and darkness in order to create, metaphorically, the world's harshness. Various characters build fires or seek out fires — just as they try, from time to time, to establish a warm relationship with other humans — but attempts are generally futile. The world remains a cold, dark, grim and lonely place of habitation.