Friday, February 10, 2012

Countdown: The 10 Most Grotesque Residents of Winesburg, Ohio--#8

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

#8.Doctor Parcival

This practicing physician in Winesburg, Ohio earns a spot on the countdown if only for the verbal portrait with which Sherwood Anderson opens the story "The Philosopher":
Doctor Parcival was a large man with a drooping mouth covered by a yellow mustache.  He always wore a dirty white waistcoat out of the pockets of which protruded a number of the kind of black cigars known as stogies.  His teeth were black and irregular and there was something strange about his eyes.  The lid of the left eye twitched; it fell down and snapped up; it was exactly as though the lid of the eye were a window shade and someone stood inside the doctor's head playing with the chord.
This "fat, unclean-looking man," though, is no mere physical grotesque; he also sports a quite unusual personality.  An emigrant to Winesburg, he makes ghoulish hints about his past life ("I may have stolen a great sum of money or been involved in a murder before coming here"), referencing a horrid crime in Chicago in which a doctor was killed and his body stuffed into a trunk.  Parcival isn't serious about being a dangerous fugitive, but a factual detail that he does let slip perhaps shines an indicting light on his character: there's a history of mental illness in his family, with his father having spent his final years locked away in a Dayton insane asylum.

Like a modern update of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, the doctor tells George Willard (Anderson's stand-in and the protagonist of the linked short story collection) that "I want to warn you and keep on warning you."  This sounds noble enough, until the doctor subsequently professes: "I want to fill you with hatred and contempt, so that you will be a superior being."  Similarly, Parcival belies his own chivalrous surname in the story's climax, when he refuses to go out and attend to a girl fatally wounded in the street.  Fearing that he will be lynched by the people of Winesburg for his callous disregard of the young victim, Parcival desperately conveys a moral (the central idea of a book he has hoped to complete) to George: "that everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified."  Here delusions of grandeur seemingly mix with a persecution complex, as Parcival proves more a demented thinker than a worthy mentor figure.

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