Friday, February 3, 2012

Countdown: The 10 Most Grotesque Residents of Winesburg, Ohio--#9

[For the previous entry on the countdown, click here.]

#9.Wing Biddlebaum

Fat and fidgety Wing Biddlebaum--the central character of the story "Hands"--moves about the streets of Winesburg, Ohio "forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts."  Although he's been living in town for over two decades, he's still a mystery to the other residents, who are unaware of his past life as a Pennsylvania schoolmaster.  Sherwood Anderson's narrator fills in this elusive backstory for readers: the former "Adolph Myers" was wont to express his affection for his charges via innocent caresses, but this hands-on approach leads to his undoing when a "half-witted" student with lusty feelings for his teacher makes slanderous claims of molestation.  Adolph/Wing is beaten within an inch of his life by the boy's saloon-keeper father before being run out of town.  He comes to Winesburg to stay with an aunt ("a black-toothed old woman who raised chickens"--apparently grotesquerie runs in the family), and lives all alone following her death.  No doubt he's been traumatized by the incident in Pennsylvania, left emotionally scarred and alienated from others.  "Keep your hands to yourself," the saloon keeper had raged at him, and now the wounded Wing struggles to express himself.  The warping of his personality manifests in strange physical gestures, most notably in the story's concluding scene, where Wing plucks up and eats bread crumbs off the floor one by one:
In the dense blotch of light beneath the table, the kneeling figure looked like a priest engaged in some service of the church.  The nervous expressive fingers, flashing in out of the light, might have well been mistaken for the fingers of a devotee going swiftly through decade after decade of his rosary.
The religious imagery is certainly curious here.  Is it meant to underscore the chastity of Wing's "love of man"?  Less charitably, it can be read as a deliberate attempt at incongruity, accentuating the oddity of Wing's behavior by describing the man's actions in exceedingly dignified terms.  Yet while the author's sympathy toward his character is debatable, it is hard to imagine the people of Winesburg being endeared to Wing if they ever got the chance to observe his bizarre communion ritual on the kitchen floor.

No comments: