Saturday, March 24, 2012

Countdown: The 10 Most Grotesque Residents of Winesburg, Ohio--#2

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

#2.Jesse Bentley

Like many characters in Winesburg, Ohio, Jesse Bentley exhibits physical distortion (his left eyelid twitches from the time "he had been threatened with paralysis"), but his true grotesquerie stems from a twisted mentality.
Jesse--the central figure in the four-part tale "Godliness"--is a bona fide "fanatic"; a would-be Presbyterian minister (and now farm overseer) who goes astray by adhering too closely to Biblical typology.  He seeks to emulate his Biblical namesake, "to rule over men and to be the father of sons who shall be rulers!"  His religious zeal leads him to believe "that something like a halo of Godly approval hung over him" and his business endeavors, but his rampant egotism has some ugly consequences.  For instance, Jesse's total "absorption in himself and his own destiny" blinds him "to the fact that his young wife was doing a strong woman's work even after she had become large with child and that she was killing herself in his service."

The wife ultimately dies giving birth to a daughter, after Jesse had run through the countryside at night clamoring for God to "send me a son to be called David who shall help me to pluck at last all of these lands out of the hands of the Philistines and turn them to Thy service and to the building of Thy kingdom on earth."  This is but the first of the darkly ironic results of Jesse's religious devotion.  When his daughter later
delivers a boy named David, Jesse walks through the woods with his beloved grandson, suddenly clutches the boy, and beseeches God for a sign of His presence.  David, though, ends up tearing free and fleeing in terror from a figure he deems "dangerous and brutal," while Jesse stands there wailing to his maker, "What have I done that Thou dost not approve of me."

This incident foreshadows the climax of the tale, which in turn hearkens back to the opening designation of Jesse as an "odd sheep."  His religious mania certainly not on the wane, Jesse decides "that like the men whose stories filled the pages of the Bible, he would make a great sacrifice to God."  Jesse's intent (in the hopes of finally receiving some divine message) is to slaughter a lamb and then anoint David's head with the blood, but when the man draws a long knife the grandson mistakenly believes that he himself is in mortal danger.  This time, though, David doesn't just run for his life but turns and sling-shoots a stone at Jesse, striking the ghoulish Goliath in the head.  Unfortunately, the blow fails to knock any sense into Jesse, who is humbled but still insists on filtering modern reality through a Biblical lens.  When asked to explain his wound and his grandson's flight, Jesse asserts that a "messenger from God had taken the boy" because Jesse "was too greedy for glory."

In his obsession with Godliness, Jesse Bentley forms the perfect picture of grotesquerie as framed by the book's prologue ( recall the posited "notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood").  Based on his warped mindset and crazy behavior, Jesse Bentley warrants the label "grotesque" not just in the prologue's established terms but in every sense of the word. 

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