Summary and Analysis The Philosopher



Doctor Parcival is one of the strangest of the grotesques in Winesburg. The dirty, middle-aged misanthrope arrived in the Ohio town about five years before the narrative begins and opened a medical practice. During his years in Winesburg, however, he has had few patients, yet he doesn't seem to lack money. Perhaps, as he suggests to young George Willard, Doctor Parcival had been a murderer or a thief; George is never sure whether he should believe the doctor's stories.

If what the physician says about his background is true, his life has been an unhappy one. His father died in an insane asylum, his mother had to take in washing to support Parcival (who was studying for the ministry), and his brother was a drunken railroad painter who treated the family with brutal contempt yet, paradoxically, bought them presents as if to show his love.

Doctor Parcival urges George to be like the painter-brother, who was a "superior being" because he felt "hatred and contempt" for everyone. He himself apparently tries to follow this advice; he hates society — he even refuses to treat a child who has been thrown from a buggy. The doctor thinks that his refusal will arouse the town's citizens to lynch him, but, ironically, they don't even notice his heartlessness. The event is important, however, for the doctor's fear for his life causes him to drop his mask of hatred long enough to tell George what he has been trying to say in the book he has been writing: "Everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified." This message suggests that all men are really loving and compassionate but are doomed to be misunderstood and, eventually, will be destroyed by society.

"The Philosopher" reiterates several of the themes that have already been introduced in the first three chapters of Winesburg, Ohio. Again we encounter the theme of isolation, this time embodied in the lonely doctor who is ignored by the townspeople. Again there is the difficulty of communication and understanding between people; indeed, Doctor Parcival's message is that all men are misunderstood. Again young George Willard is used as a listener and urged to write what others aren't able to communicate. Again there is the difficulty of discerning appearance from reality; the motivations of Doctor Parcival are even more ambiguous than those of Wing Biddlebaum, Doctor Reefy, and Elizabeth Willard.

Another similarity between this story and others by Anderson is the suggestiveness of the central character's name. A number of ancient legends concern a hero named Percival, Parsifal, or Parzival. The details of the legends vary, but usually the hero is the son of a widow living in poverty. As he grows to manhood, he undergoes various adventures. One popular episode involves an encounter with a maimed king whom the hero fails to heal. Other versions identify the hero as one of King Arthur's knights and tell of his search for the Holy Grail, the legendary cup which can cure mortal illness. The best known of these legends recounts that Percival had a glimpse of the Grail but not as clear a vision as did Sir Galahad, the purest of knights.

Obviously, a number of these details seem to parallel Doctor Parcival's experiences — the widowed mother, the failure as a healer, and the search for a divine vision — but the correspondences are only suggestive, not overt or obvious. When one realizes, however, the significance of many of the names of Winesburg's characters, he suspects that the name "Parcival" was deliberately chosen by Anderson.