Friday, March 2, 2012

Countdown: The 10 Most Grotesque Residents of Winesburg, Ohio--#5

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

#5.Wash Williams

Sherwood Anderson begins the story "Respectability" by comparing Wash Williams to a "huge, grotesque kind of monkey."  The local telegraph operator is "the ugliest thing in town.  His girth was immense, his neck thin, his legs feeble.  He was dirty. Everything about him was unclean.  Even the whites of his eyes looked soiled."  Wash's very name is thus drenched in irony, denoting an act of personal hygiene apparently alien to him.

The man is both misanthropic and severely misogynistic, shunning the company of his fellow townspeople and denouncing all women as bitches.  "There is something rotten about them," Wash asserts.  "I was married, sure.  My wife was dead before she married me, she was a foul thing come out a woman more foul."  These bitter comments are telling, pointing to "the thing that had made ugly the person and the character of Wash Williams."  Wash eventually shares his story with George Willard, revealing that he had been cuckolded countless times over by his beloved wife.  Learning of the adultery, Wash simply sent the woman home to her mother.  Soon, though, he aches "to forgive and forget," and when he receives a summons from his mother-in-law, he travels to her home with the intent of reconciling with his wife.  Upon arrival, he sits waiting in the parlor, until his superficially "respectable" mother-in-law pushes her daughter into the room, stripped stark naked yet cloaked in shame.

Wash's outraged reaction to this lurid peace (or should I say "piece"?) offering forms the clincher of Anderson's tale.  "I didn't get the mother killed," Wash says.  "I struck her once with a chair and then the neighbors came in and took it away.  She screamed so loud you see.  I won't ever have the chance to kill her now.  She died of a fever a month after that happened."  The frustration of Wash's murderous impulses has twisted him into hideousness.  Wash Williams might not fraternize with the other residents, but this grotesque figure is right at home in Winesburg, Ohio.

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