The Many Faces of Isolation in Winesburg, Ohio

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Isolation is a deep feeling of being alone and lonely. Human beings like to live, work, and play in groups. We share our happiness, sadness, ideas, and truths with people around us. Having someone to talk to and share our feelings with gives us a sense of belonging, a sense of being alive. However, there are situations and times where people are unable to express themselves in the truest way. In situations like this, it is possible for anyone to feel isolated and lonely, it is possible to question ones place in this world.

As we explored some work of literature in this class, we encountered a common theme of isolation in the literary work we read. I chose two of the work to discuss the theme of isolation, Winesburg Ohio and The Great Gatsby, where the authors take us into the lives of characters who experience deep isolation, either social isolation and or inner dissatisfaction with life. In Winesburg Ohio, the characters are mostly portrayed to have experienced both social and inner isolation, whereas in The Great Gatsby, the characters, despite having quite happening social lives, experience inner isolation.

In Winesburg Ohio, the author SHERWOOD ANDERSON explores isolation as a theme to shape and identify his characters. The book is a collection of short stories which are linked through a common theme of loneliness and the character George Willard. Anderson examines the lives of people living in a small town in the mid-west America in 1919 through the eyes of George Willard, a young newspaper reporter in the town who is basically everyone’s only friend.

The book starts with the chapter called “The Book of Grotesque” which tells us a story about people living a life with a truth that they are unable to share and express. Anderson compares his characters to grotesques in the sense the characters are living their lives by one truth, thus living a life of falsehood and isolation from the rest of the world. “It is the truths that make the people grotesques” (p. 24), that turn them more and more away from their social lives and make them outsiders to society. Although, all of the characters live in the same town, they only know each other superficially. It is only through George we are introduced to the characters’ real truths. These “grotesques” rely on George to take notice of their isolation and falsehood, in hopes of George publishing their “truths”. I have chosen some of the stories from the book to discuss how the author uses the theme of isolation to tell their stories and truths.

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“Hand” which tells the story of a former school teacher Wing Biddlbaum gives the readers an insight into the reality of the character and how lonely he feels in the town he's lived for twenty years. Wing Biddlbaum was a passionate school teacher in a town in Pennsylvania where he was accused of molesting young boys. He has been living in Winesburg for 20 years, yet he does not think of himself as in any way a part of the life of the town. He appears to have isolated himself from the rest of society. He talks to his hands and forever strives to conceal themselves in his pockets or behind his back (p.28). “Among all the people of Winesburg but one had come close to him.” (p.27). This one person, is of course George Willard, who is portrayed as a friend of Wing Biddlbaum. George is someone he can talk to, break free temporarily of his isolation.

“The Teacher” tells the story of Kate Swift, a local teacher in her mid thirties. Kate who has traveled a lot and has lived in cities feels no different from rest of the characters in the book. She is lonely and in need of love. Her interaction with George Willard tells us how much she craves love and intimacy. She is living a life that she does not like at all. She is enthusiastic about traveling and being adventurous, yet she is living in a small town in the mid-west as a school teacher where she has no one she can express herself to. While trying to give some advice on how to be a better writer to her former student, George Willard, She touches him and kisses him. How she interacts with George Willard tells the readers that she has unfulfilled desires as a woman which she is trying to fulfill through George.

'Mother' is a story about George Willard’s mother, Elizabeth Willard who is neglected by her husband. She had been a beautiful and dreaming woman in her youth, but now she has sunk into a middle age, weakened by illness, neglected by her husband, and out of touch with her son. Her isolation and loneliness feels so bad that she even thinks of killing her husband in hopes that will lead to her death as well. 'When I have killed him,' she tells herself, 'something will snap within myself and I will die also. It will be a release for all of us.'

In the last story ' departure ' George leaves home after his mother’s death only to find himself in exile. He experiences isolation just like other people in Winesburg. “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald is another example of a literary work that explores the theme of isolation. Although, not as socially isolated as the characters in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, the main characters in this book still feel a strong sense of inner isolation from the reality of the world. The story is told from Nick Carraway’s perspective as he tells in the beginning of the story that he is open minded and a good listener, and, as a result, others tend to talk to him and tell him their secrets. Nick Carraway is a young man from Minnesota, who travels to New York in 1922 to learn the bond business. He lives in the West Egg district of Long Island, next door to Gatsby, the main character. During his stay in West Egg, Nick examines all the main characters from very close and realizes that the characters are living their lives with truths that they cannot share with anyone. They cannot express themselves in the way they actually feel. This feeling moves them away from the reality and isolates them. In the end of the story, Nick himself starts feeling isolated or perhaps fears isolation.

The main character, Gatsby is a dreamer, a dream of something that is beyond his reach. This isolates him and sets him apart from the reality of the world. He makes his way up to the top by doing some shady work only to impress his love interest, Daisy. He throws this constant parties for the mere purpose of finding a way to get in touch with Daisy again. He invites hundreds of people at his house at all times; however, on the inside he is just lonely. He does not participate in his parties. He does not chat with his guests, he only observes them. When Gatsby dies, no one comes to his funeral except for Nick. No one comes to the wealthy celebrity like person’s funeral. If no one came to say goodbye to Jay Gatsby after his death, Nick fears what is in store for him when he dies. This emphasizes his fear of growing older and being isolated.

Daisy, the love interest of Gatsby and a cousin of Nick is one of the main characters in the book. She is married to Tom who is well off financially, however their marriage seems to have some problems. She is shown to have experienced isolation from the very beginning of her introduction. She is alone and lonely even when Daisy gives birth to her child. Her husband Tom was not even there for the birth of their only daughter. Tom, Daisy’s husband also experiences isolation. He is in love with another married woman named myrtle. He struggles to find balance between what he wants and what he has to do. All these characters experience isolation as a result of going after something that is out of their reach or perhaps not realistic enough to dream of. They live two lives, one they wish they had and one they have, which further isolates them from the reality of the world.

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