Summary and Analysis
Without a doubt, Elmer Cowley is queer, or different. Yet before his family sold their farm and moved into Winesburg, Elmer was evidently a fairly happy individual. He remembers, "I worked and at night I went to bed and slept. I wasn't always seeing people and thinking." In town, however, Elmer and his sister and his father are all considered queer, or at least Elmer thinks they are. Certainly the father is an unsuccessful shop-keeper and a shabbily dressed individual. This, in a society that values money-making and social conformity, is enough to make the family scorned by the people of Winesburg. So Elmer, though he has no specific deformity, is "condemned to go through life without friends."
Elmer tries to be friendly with George Willard because he feels that the young reporter "typified the town, represented in his person the spirit of the town." Elmer can't believe that George also feels "vague hungers and secret unnamable desires," so he wants to convince George that he isn't queer. Instead, he talks to the half-wit Mook who doesn't understand him but comments in amazement, "I'll be washed and ironed and starched." This is, of course, what Elmer's bewildered father had said earlier in the day when Elmer had chased a salesman out of the shop. Ironically, it is all that Elmer himself can say when George, at Elmer's request, comes to the train station at midnight. Elmer had hoped that before leaving for Cleveland he could convince George, at least, that he wasn't queer, but again he can't say what he wants. Therefore, to George's complete surprise, Elmer "with a snarl of rage . . . turned and his long arms began to flay the air. Like one struggling for release from hands that held him he struck out, hitting George Willard blow after blow." The prime irony, of course, is Elmer's remark after this: "I showed him," he says as the train pulls out, "I guess I showed him I ain't so queer."
George doesn't understand why Elmer acts as he does, but this is one more lesson that will teach the young reporter to feel compassion and empathy for the world's grotesques. Elmer's isolation can only be overcome by love and understanding, qualities which at this point George isn't capable of giving. Nevertheless, the future writer has stored another experience, another grotesque character, into his memory bag.