Summary and Analysis
Although many of the tales in Winesburg Ohio have dealt with lonely, frustrated people, "Sophistication" suggests that humans can also find moments of happiness. It is significant that the happiness described in this next-to-the-last tale is a silent hour of togetherness. Both George Willard and Helen White come to their walk from scenes where they feel disgust at overly talkative people. George says of Wesley Moyer, who has been bragging about a stallion, "Old windbag . . . Why don't he shut up?" And Helen, listening to her mother and a visiting college professor, feels that "the world was full of meaningless people saying words." Even when the two young people meet, George is "still saying words," a fault which Kate Swift warned him about, but once Helen and George are together there is no dialogue whatsoever. Thus Anderson emphasizes again the importance of intuition over verbal communication. As Walt Whitman said, "Logic and sermons never convince; the damp of the night drives deeper into my soul."
Both George and Helen feel that there has been a change in them since they last met, that they have, in other words, grown up. This change is particularly apparent in George, whom we have seen exposed to a number of maturing experiences — culminating with the death of his mother. Now the voice outside himself that he listened for in "Nobody Knows" and that spoke to him briefly in "An Awakening" whispers again — this time "concerning the limitations of life." We are told, "A door is torn open and for the first time he looks out upon the world, seeing, as though they marched in procession before him, the countless figures of men who before his time have come out of nothingness into the world, lived their lives and again disappeared into nothingness." The image of the door, here as elsewhere in the book ("Death," for example), suggests an opening to new opportunities and insights, and we realize that George, the writer-to-be, is experiencing what the old writer in "Book of the Grotesque" experienced — the procession of people before his mind's eye. At last he is becoming a mature artist.
We should not think, however, that the artist will necessarily be morose. The pessimism of George's perception about man's passage from nothing to nothing is mitigated by his experience with Helen. When they sit together in the deserted grandstand, as though to see the spectacle of life, we are told that they are confronted by ghosts, the people who have been there that day. "One shudders," says the narrator, "at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes." Thus George has realized the over-simplification of seeing life as worthless; he has glimpsed the grotesqueness of humans, but now he begins "to think of the people of the town with something like reverence."
Anderson tells us that Elizabeth Willard's death has enabled George "for the first time to take the backward view of life," to recognize with the "sadness of sophistication" that "in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty."
This uncertainty is caused by the ambiguity of life which is conveyed in the story by several symbols, some of which have appeared before in the book. Helen White is herself more a symbol than a real person. Her name suggests her beauty, like that of Helen of Troy, and her last name indicates her purity and innocence. George, in "Nobody Knows" and "An Awakening," saw the woman he was with in terms of her sexual attraction, but here he thinks of Helen as a friend, not as a woman, thus keeping her on a symbolic plane. "He wanted to love and to be loved by her," we are told, "but he did not want at the moment to be confused by her womanhood." Anderson ties this longing for pure love to the symbols of hands and darkness, which he used in several of the earlier stories: "With all his heart he wants to come close to some other human, touch someone with his hands, be touched by the hand of another . . . He wants, most of all, understanding." Then, at the peak of their togetherness, "In the darkness, he took hold of her hand." In this wordless moment of understanding they have, says Anderson, experienced what "makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible."
Men can't know such moments often, however, and the author uses several other symbols to remind us that each person is a part of the natural cycle of life and death with little — if any — control over his fate. Leaves and corn convey this impression quite forcefully. George, for example, sees himself as "merely a leaf blown by the wind through the streets of his village . . . a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun." On a previous walk, Helen and George stopped near a field of young corn; now it is fall and they pass "a field of corn that had not yet been cut. The wind whispered among the dry corn blades." Some critics have used such imagery to prove that Anderson was a naturalist, denying free will and maintaining a basically pessimistic view of life. It is more likely, however, that the author of Winesburg is suggesting that George's maturation is simply a part of the natural process that though his life in Winesburg is almost over, his life elsewhere is just beginning. We will see this imagery carried into the next chapter, showing George's departure in the spring. Even as the young couple walk together, they vacillate between the children they have been and the adults they are becoming. As Anderson puts it, "the warm unthinking little animal struggles against the thing that reflects and remembers." From the hill where they have gotten a new perspective on life, they come tumbling down, playing like excited little animals until, at the bottom of the hill, Helen takes George's arm and walks beside him "in dignified silence." There will continue to be winds and darkness in their lives, but they have discovered that humans can, momentarily at least, understand and love one another.