Places: Dark Laughter

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1925

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1920’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Ohio River

*Ohio Dark LaughterRiver. Major tributary of the Mississippi River that rises in western Pennsylvania and flows southwest nearly one thousand miles before joining the Mississippi. On a boat trip on the Ohio with his parents, Bruce Dudley hears the singing, conversation, and laughter of African Americans for the first time. Their daily connection with the river allows their voices to remain in touch with the world. Bruce’s return to the river as an adult spawns a connection with the river and the sense of self he lost while in Chicago.

*Mississippi River

*Mississippi River. Bruce’s trip down the Mississippi awakens his sensibility to the elemental self he lost. He rides the Mississippi to New Orleans, enjoys the shade and sounds of trees on the bank, hears the voices of African Americans, and returns to his childhood home and his place near the Ohio River.

Old Harbor

Old Harbor. Bruce’s childhood home in Indiana, to which he returns after years in Chicago. Old Harbor is a fictional town similar to the more famous Winesburg, Ohio, which Anderson depicted in greater detail in 1919. Bruce is reunited with the Ohio River and rejects newspaper work. He changes his name from John Stockton to Bruce Dudley, indicating his change of self in his old home, and experiences a personal rebirth, working with his hands varnishing automobile wheels.

Grey home

Grey home. Home of automobile wheel factory owner Fred Grey and his wife, Aline. Aline is reunited with her lost sense of self in the garden of the home built on Fred’s family’s acreage. Living with Fred, who is the embodiment of the comfortable bourgeois man, in a home with separate bedrooms, Aline experiences intense restlessness and despair. Hiring Bruce as a gardener, she expresses her forgotten sexual self, which is brought to life in the presence of natural vegetation. Aline and Bruce’s decision to admit that Bruce is the father of her forthcoming child indicates their complete acceptance of themselves as natural creatures, uninhibited by the decorum of artificial, civilized society.

Martin home

Martin home. Home of Sponge Martin, the first natural human Bruce meets on his journey back to his original self. Sponge lives on the river in an old brick home, a former stable on a dirt road that was the main road of town before the factories took the town away from the river. Sponge fishes with his wife and shares a natural intimacy that is crude by societal standards but refreshing and honest to Bruce.


*Chicago. Great midwestern city in which Bruce, as John Stockton, lives with his wife, Bernice, in a studio apartment. Both write for a newspaper, where they enjoy success. However, Bruce feels adrift in the city. A lack of connection to the fundamental elements of life make him listless and bored. Every city dweller appears bored and frightened to him. Artistic men in the city appear feminine to him, and the women are turning masculine. The artificial living environments of Chicago have altered the natural responses of the people. Bruce does not even have to use his hands to work. He can phone the stories to the newspaper.


*Paris. Capital of France where Aline Grey spends time after World War I. She seeks to develop her artistic abilities, studying painting. However, she is already too removed from her original self to become an artist, and suffers the same fate as Bruce, marrying for security and comfortable compatibility instead of passion. She meets Fred in a studio apartment, denying her interest in a working man at the same party, because he is not of her social standing.

BibliographyAnderson, David D. “Anderson and Myth (1976).” In Critical Essays on Sherwood Anderson, edited by David D. Anderson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. Connects content to the writer’s effort to define the myth underlying his own life. Concludes that in Dark Laughter Anderson is pleading for individualism in a materialistic America and that the novel is the rejection of rejection.Burbank, Rex. Sherwood Anderson. New York: Twayne, 1964. An accessible text with a chapter-long consideration of Dark Laughter that gives historical context for the novel. Provides an effective interpretive plot summary and critical analysis of the work. Includes a preface and chronology, minimal notes and references, a selected bibliography, and an adequate index.Flanagan, John T. “The Permanence of Sherwood Anderson.” In Critical Essays on Sherwood Anderson, edited by David D. Anderson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981. Emphasizes the autobiographical nature of Anderson’s fiction, connects his lifestyle to that of characters like Bruce Dudley, and addresses his writing style. Flanagan presents Dark Laughter in a positive light.Townsend, Kim. Sherwood Anderson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. An excellent literary view of the novel, including the influence of various writers. Sees Anderson as seeking complete identification with the “niggers” of his novel. Townsend evaluates the work as a failure, despite the fact that it captures the rhythms of life in the 1920’s.White, Ray Lewis. Sherwood Anderson’s Memoirs: A Critical Edition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1969. Collection offers a good selection of the writer’s reflections on Dark Laughter. Includes an account of how the family maid, Kate, inspired the novel. Also includes a selected bibliography and index.
Categories: Places