Saturday, April 7, 2012

Countdown: The 10 Most Grotesque Residents of Winesburg, Ohio--#1

[For a recap of the previous entries on this countdown, click here.]

#1.Elizabeth Willard

Long before Robert Bloch, Alfred Hitchcock, and the bloody mayhem at the Bates Motel, there was Sherwood Anderson's "Mother."  The story concerns Elizabeth Willard, a woman with an unusual relationship with her son George, and who is typically found seated at her bedroom
window, "perfectly still, listless.  Her long hands, white and bloodless, could be seen drooping over the ends of the arms of the chair."

Elizabeth is "tall and gaunt," her face "marked by smallpox scars."  Though only in her mid-forties, she has been prematurely aged by "some obscure disease."  She casts a "ghostly figure" whenever she moves through the gloomy, shabby corridors of the New Willard House.  Likely her current state is not just the result of corporeal illness, but the debilitating disheartenment that has followed from a "girlhood dream that had long ago died."  Elizabeth has vowed to return as a vengeful revenant should George ever follow in her unfortunate footsteps of unfulfillment:
"If I am dead and see him becoming a meaningless drab figure like myself, I will come back."  So she is understandably appalled when she overhears George's father Tom urging the boy towards a bland career as a businessman.  She picks up a pair of sewing sheers, determined to wield them "like a dagger" against her detested husband:
The scene that was to take place in the office below began to grow in her mind.  No ghostly worn-out figure should confront Tom Willard, but something quite unexpected and startling.  Tall and with dusky cheeks and hair that fell in a mass from her shoulders, a figure should come striding down the stairway before the startled loungers in the hotel office.  The figure would be silent--it would be swift and terrible.  As a tigress whose cub had been threatened would she appear, coming out of the shadows, stealing noiselessly along and holding the long wicked scissors in her hand.
Elizabeth might steal noiselessly along, but it's hard not to imagine shrill violin music sounding as she makes her repeated stabs at her unsuspecting victim.  This "sick woman" is no doubt a psycho, even if the would-be murderess climactically decides to stay her hand (after learning that George doesn't plan to follow Tom's career advice). 

Elizabeth reappears briefly at book's end, in the story "Death."  In the final days of her illness, she yearns for surcease, and fantasizes of Death as a lover coming to embrace her.  Her last night on this earth, though, is spent pleading with the personified figure to hold off, at least until Elizabeth has the chance to inform George about the $800 she has kept hidden in the hotel since the time of her marriage.  But Elizabeth expires before ever revealing the existence of the secret stash (money that would have greatly aided George in his plans to leave town and venture into the wider world).  The morbidity and dark irony surrounding Elizabeth's fate only reinforces this mother's status as the most grotesque resident in Winesburg, Ohio.

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