Critical Essays George Willard's Development


One factor that unites the tales of Winesburg, Ohio into something resembling a novel is the developing character of George Willard. Anderson said that he wanted his book to give the "feeling of the life of a boy growing to manhood in a small town." Thus the book became, to some extent, a Bildungsroman, an initiation story. George's development is a result of his experiences with the other disparate characters of the various tales.

These other citizens of Winesburg seek out George for a number of reasons. For one thing, they seem to think that he, unlike most of them, is an accepted part of the community. The fact that George's family runs the New Willard House, (presumably, the only hotel in town) and that George is a reporter for the Winesburg Eagle puts the youth in the center of village life. Because most of the grotesques have difficulty expressing themselves, they hope that George is sensitive enough to understand them and articulate enough to act as a messenger between them and the rest of the world. Like Elizabeth Willard, most of them hope that George will "be allowed to express something for us both." Doctor Parcival, for example, hopes that the youth will "write the book that I may never get written."

Actually, at the beginning of Winesburg George, like the other characters, is isolated, insensitive to others' needs, and confuses appearance and reality; during the course of the book, however, the young reporter develops in three ways.

First, he becomes firmly committed to creative activity rather than money-making. In the first tale, Wing Biddlebaum tells George, "You are afraid to dream. You want to be like others in town here." In "Mother," George is torn between his father's demand that he become a hustling financial success and his mother's hope that he become a writer. At the end of that tale, George tells his mother that he doesn't want to be a business man, that he just wants to "go away and look at people and think." By the end of the book, we see George carrying out his plan to go away; he now has a "growing passion for dreams."

The second way in which George develops is his discovery of what constitutes a creative writer. At first, he is naive about a writing career. In "The Thinker," the immature George tells Seth Richmond that he intends to fall in love with Helen White so that he can write a love story; clearly, he is unaware of the complexities of loving and writing. He seems interested in only the surface of life. Anderson tells us that "like an excited dog, George Willard ran here and there" writing down "little facts" about A. P. Wringlet's shipment of straw hats or Uncle Tom Sinning's new barn on the Valley Road. Kate Swift tells him in "The Teacher" that he must "stop fooling with words," that he must learn "what people are thinking about, not what they say." By the end of the book, George, like Helen White, is tired of "meaningless people saying words"; he has evidently developed, like Anderson himself, "a hunger to see beneath the surface of lives."

Finally, then, George becomes more sensitive to other people. This growth in his understanding, sympathy, and intuitive perception is particularly obvious in his encounters with three different women. In "Nobody Knows," he fails to understand Louise Trunnion's need for love and gives her, instead, a sexual experience. Later, in "An Awakening," he is still self-centered and interested only in his own gratification. By "Sophistication," however, George has become increasingly interested and involved with the grotesques and he begins "to think of people in the town where he had lived with something like reverence." Whereas in "An Awakening" he had felt himself "oddly detached and apart from all life," in "Sophistication" he wants "to come close to some other human, touch someone with his hands."

Thus, George has learned not only to reject the material values urged on him by his father and most of society; he has also learned what is involved in being a creative writer and, more important, he has learned to feel love and sympathy for the world's grotesques. Though most of the Winesburg citizens are limited by their absurdities, George is a developing character and this development helps to unify Anderson's book of the grotesque.