Summary and Analysis
The central character in this story is not, as one might suspect from the title, a wise old citizen; he is a boy about George Willard's age. This boy, Seth Richmond, who is reserved and inarticulate, has earned the reputation of being a "thinker." Even his mother is a little afraid of him. Again Anderson shows the reality behind appearance: Seth was "not what the men of the town, and even his mother, thought him to be. No great underlying purpose lay back of his habitual silence and he had no definite plan for his life."
As we read "The Thinker," we realize that the rationality which at first appeared to be a virtue is really a handicap to Seth. He is like J. Alfred Prufrock, so busy rationalizing his actions and analyzing possible alternatives that he never acts. He says, for example, that he is going to leave Winesburg, but he doesn't jump on a train, as Elmer Cowley does in "Queer." Or consider his actions with Helen: He is obviously somewhat in love with her, yet he is so busy trying to impress her with his plans that he doesn't encourage her interest in him when, at the end of their walk, she wants to kiss him.
In three ways Anderson makes apparent Seth's inability to act decisively and to feel deeply. First, Seth stands watching Abner Groff, the town baker, and wishing that "he himself might become thoroughly stirred by something, even by the fits of sullen anger for which Baker Groff was noted." Second, as he walks with Helen, Seth sees the village lamplighter moving purposely down the street and lighting the lamps. At the same time, he notices that a wind has disturbed the sleeping birds so that they are flying about while two bats are pursuing a swarm of night flies. This contrast of natural activity with Seth's habitual planning, rather than doing, is made more apparent in the third scene, when Seth imagines that he and Helen are lying in the tall grass under a tree and around them a swarm of bees are "singing as they worked." In this imaginary scene, "a peculiar reluctance kept him from kissing her lips, but he felt he might have done that if he wished. Instead, he lay perfectly still . . . listening to the army of bees that sang the sustained masterful song of labor above his head."
In "The Thinker," Anderson not only shows the danger of thinking too much but also that of talking too much. Seth feels that he is surrounded by idle, meaningless chatter. Turk Smollet, the wood chopper, deliberately goes down Main Street with his wheelbarrow so that he can be "the center of a whirlwind of cries and comments"; the windy politicians in the New Willard House spend the day talking; George Willard, "like an excited dog, ran here and there, noting on his pad of paper who had gone on business to the county seat or had returned from a visit to a neighboring village."
Seth scorns both George and the other men of the town who are "perpetually talking of nothing," yet the boy also wishes that he could fit in as they do. Seeing a wagon-load of berry pickers, as Wing Biddlebaum did in "Hands," Seth "regretted that he also could not laugh boisterously, shout meaningless jokes and make of himself a figure in the endless stream of moving, giggling activity that went up and down the road." Seth feels an outcast in his own town, "and he realizes that loneliness was something that would always stay with him." Even after his walk with Helen White, Seth feels hopeless about escaping his loneliness. "When it comes to loving someone," he thinks, "it won't never be me. It'll be someone else — -some fool — someone who talks a lot — someone like that George Willard."
The theme of "The Thinker" seems to be that a person can think so much that he fails to act, but that talking without thinking is not the solution. Real communication is not the same as idle chatter.