Summary and Analysis
Like "Hands," the story of Doctor Reefy and his paper pills describes a lonely old man and, again, there is emphasis on hands. The doctor's paper pills are scraps of paper on which he writes some of his thoughts, "little pyramids of truth." His big hands stuff these scraps of paper into the pockets of his frayed suit rather than risk having his ideas misunderstood by others.
For a short period during his life, Doctor Reefy found someone with whom to share his ideas. A tall, dark girl had come to the middle-aged doctor because she was "in the family way." She had been courted by two young men, one a jeweler who talked of virginity but whom she dreamed had bitten her in lust, the other a youth who talked little but actually did not only bite her but made her pregnant. When the tall, dark girl went to Doctor Reefy for help, she found him pulling the tooth of another patient. She apparently sensed that the doctor was the enemy of bestial lust — symbolized by the image of teeth — and she married him. Anderson compares the doctor to the gnarled apples left on the trees by those who pick fruit to ship to the city. The wife was "like one who had discovered the sweetness of the twisted apples, [and] she could not get her mind fixed again upon the round perfect fruit that is eaten in the city apartments."
Doctor Reef's wife, however, lived only a few months after their marriage; again he was alone. His inability to communicate with anyone else is conveyed not only by the paper pills but also by Anderson's description of him sitting all day by a cobweb-covered window in his empty office. Anderson says, suggestively, "He never opened the window. Once on a hot day in August he tried but found it stuck fast and after that he forgot all about it." We will notice throughout Winesburg that many characters seem imprisoned in their rooms.
Doctor Reefy is a less pitiful character than Wing because he has known love and companionship for a few months and because, as his name implies, he is a rugged fellow who mocks such sentimentalists as his one friend, the old nurseryman. Nevertheless, Doctor Reefy is a lonely grotesque who is unable to communicate with others. The paper pills suggest the ineffectuality of all the physician's attempts to cure the ills of the world, an ineffectuality which we will glimpse again in "Death," when Reefy reaches out to help Elizabeth Willard, but is unsuccessful. Ineffectual, static, silent-thus Doctor Reefy's life is depicted, and Anderson makes the reader feel this by writing a story in which nothing happens and there is almost no dialogue.
"Paper Pills" is one of the five stories in the book in which George Willard is not mentioned, but the story of Doctor Reefy is tied to the others by the imagery of hands, by the theme of loneliness, and by the later disclosure (in "Death") of the doctor's love for George's mother, Elizabeth.