Winesburg, Ohio Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1919

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Late nineteenth century

Locale: Winesburg, Ohio

Characters DiscussedGeorge Willard

George Winesburg, OhioWillard, the young reporter who learns about life from confessions and observations of townspeople. The son of an insensitive man and a sensitive mother, young Willard accepts the practical help of his father but follows the inclinations of his mother in accepting his job. Living as he does in the family hotel, which has seen better days, he runs alone and thinks long thoughts. Something about him draws the weak, the insecure, and the hopeless as well as the clever and strong. His loyalties to those who give him their confidences are unflinching. He takes advantage of a lonely farm girl, but only at her insistence, and then secretly. On the other hand, he has an exaggerated sense of chivalry concerning the girl whom he has long admired. He is searching for the truth. This search finally, after his mother’s death, takes him away from the town that formed him.

Elizabeth Willard

Elizabeth Willard, his mother, whose hotel and life savings never benefit anyone, but whose spirit serves as a bond and inspiration to two men. Promiscuous in her youth, though in search of spirituality, Mrs. Willard had married on the hearsay of village wives expressing contentment. Never in love with her husband, she cherishes a beautiful memory of a lover who murmured to her, “Oh, the dear, the dear, the lovely dear.” The two who loved her most, her son and Dr. Reefy, repeat these words to her dead but seemingly young and uncorrupted body. She lives and dies in quiet desperation and in search of loveliness.

Dr. Reefy

Dr. Reefy, a poet of obscurity who writes great truths on scraps of paper that he throws away in wads and with a laugh. True to a vision of greatness, the doctor loved twice in his life. One love was a pregnant girl who miscarried, then married the understanding doctor and died, leaving him a comfortable income. The other, Elizabeth Willard, he befriends in her last days of a ravaging disease; he was never her lover.

Helen White

Helen White, the banker’s daughter with a college complex but small-town disposition. Lovely and gracious, Helen is an inspiration to three Winesburg boys, though only George Willard arouses a like response in her. Like the other main characters, she is unconsciously in quest of beauty and truth.

Kate Swift

Kate Swift, a schoolteacher who burns inwardly with a deep desire to live and to pass along the passion of living. Attracted as she is to her former student George Willard, Kate cannot finally cast aside her small-town prudery. Always confusing the physical and the spiritual in her effort to awaken her protégé, spinsterish Kate is secretly worshiped in a like way by the Presbyterian minister, who considers her a messiah of sorts (having seen her naked and praying from his clerical window).

The Reverend Curtis Hartman

The Reverend Curtis Hartman, the Presbyterian minister, Kate’s admirer.

Wing Biddlebaum

Wing Biddlebaum, a fugitive teacher who ran from unfair accusations of homosexuality to become the restless-fingered berry picker and handyman of the town. Only once in the many years of his hiding out in Winesburg does Wing attempt to pass along his fervor for knowledge, which made him a great teacher. George is on the verge of discovering the man’s tragic secret and is moved by the aging man’s eloquence.

Jesse Bentley

Jesse Bentley,

Louise Hardy

Louise Hardy, his daughter, and

David Hardy

David Hardy, his grandson. These people reveal the deterioration of the pioneering spirit in northern Ohio. Jesse, the lone surviving brother of a farm family, turns from the ministry to farm management with religious zeal. He neglects his frail wife, who dies in childbirth, and he resents the daughter who should have been his son David. When his neurotic but brilliant daughter turns to a village boy and has a son by him, the old man takes this birth as his omen and names the son David. In a moment of fright when the obsessed old man is about to offer up a lamb as a sacrifice to God, the boy strikes his grandfather, leaves him for dead, and runs away, never again to see the old man, his mother, or the town.

BibliographyBurbank, Rex. Sherwood Anderson. Boston: Twayne, 1964. This accessible study of Anderson’s life and work provides a fine introduction to his first novel.Crowley, John W., ed. New Essays on Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Presents a variety of critical points of view and provides a forum of interpretative methods about Winesburg, Ohio.Dewey, Joseph. “No God in the Sky and No God in Myself: ‘Godliness’ and Anderson’s Winesburg.” Modern Fiction Studies 35, no. 2 (Summer, 1989): 251-259. Dewey’s essay searches the novel for its religious implications by focusing on the character of Jessie Bentley and shows how George Willard, as an artist, reshapes her search for spiritual communion.Reist, John S., Jr. “An Ellipse Becomes a Circle: The Developing Unity of Winesburg, Ohio.” CEA Critic 55, No. 3 (Spring-Summer, 1993): 26-38. This general study highlights the way the reader’s experience can grow through a close examination of the text.Rigsbee, Sally Adair. “The Feminine in Winesburg, Ohio.” Studies in American Fiction 9, no. 2 (Autumn, 1981): 233-244. Argues that the meaning given to the women characters in Winesburg, Ohio provides the novel with an important source of its artistic unity.White, Ray Lewis. Winesburg, Ohio: An Exploration. Boston: Twayne, 1990. This book-length study examines the novel’s historical context, the general importance of the work, and its critical reception. Provides a close reading of the text and a selected bibliography.
Categories: Characters