"The Untold Lie" introduces us to two farm workers, Ray Pearson and Hal Winters. Ray is about fifty years old, has a sharp-featured, sharp-voiced wife and half-a-dozen thin-legged children. Hal is a twenty-two-year-old bachelor. As the two work side by side in the field one October day, Hal says to Ray "I've got Nell in trouble. Perhaps you've been in the same fix yourself. I know what everyone would say is the right thing to do, but what do you say? Shall I marry and settle down? Shall I put my self into the harness to be worn out like an old horse?" This question causes a turmoil of emotion in Ray for he has been in the same fix himself and he knows that society would insist that his young friend should marry the girl, yet Ray feels rebellious. The beauty of the fall day makes him want to do something unexpected, "shout or scream or hit his wife or something." He feels trapped and longs to protest against his life, against "everything that makes life ugly." He decides to advise Hal to avoid the responsibility of a wife and children; after all, children are "the accidents of life . . . not mine or yours. I had nothing to do with them."
When the two men meet again that evening, however, Hal has decided to marry, and Ray, thinking of some of the pleasant times that he has spent with his family, reflects, "It's just as well. Whatever I told him would have been a lie." Ray thus realizes the complexity of life. This story, basically plotless like most in Winesburg, achieves what James Joyce called an epiphany, a moment of revelation, when words and acts create together something new or deeply meaningful.
"The Untold Lie" is a good example of Anderson's use of oral storytelling techniques. It has shifts in time, the author's intrusions, and, most of all, it has the meandering style advocated by Mark Twain and used so effectively in the story of Huck Finn. The longest digression in Anderson's story occurs as the narrator pauses to tell us about Hal Winters's family, especially how his father, Windpeter Winters, drove his wagon straight down a railroad track into an oncoming train. But even this information is not really irrelevant, for it shows that Hal comes from a daring family and it gives Anderson a chance to reveal his admiration for rebels. He does this by commenting that George Willard and Seth Richards were impressed by this death; "most boys have seasons of wishing they could die gloriously instead of just being grocery clerks and going on with their humdrum lives." Knowing that Anderson himself a few years before writing "The Untold Lie" had rebelled against his humdrum life and his marital responsibilities, we suspect his sympathy is with Ray Pearson in this story. Yet Anderson is artist enough to show that the answer to young Hal's question is not a simple one.