Hands by Sherwood Anderson: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Hands
  • 3:12 Truth
  • 4:45 Beauty
  • 5:53 The Grotesque
  • 7:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

How can a story be about hands, but also about so many other things? Sherwood Anderson's 'Hands,' which is one vignette among many in his book ''Winesburg, Ohio,'' is definitely about hands, but it is also about truth, beauty, and the grotesque.


The story of Wing Biddlebaum, the main character, is a story of hands. But how can that be? Sherwood Anderson's 'Hands' tells the story of Wing Biddlebaum and it is, indeed, a story of hands. We are introduced to Wing's hands in the same sentence wherein we are told his name. His hands and their nervous flitting remain central as we learn of the derision the people of Winesburg, Ohio, have for this neighbor of theirs.

The name 'Wing' was actually given to him in mockery of the way his hands were always fluttering. We learn that Wing 'did not think of himself as in any way a part of the life of the town where he had lived for twenty years,' which tells us of his isolation and loneliness, as does the eager anticipation with which he paces his front porch as the story opens, hoping George Willard will visit him. George seems to be the one person to whom Wing has any with connection in the town. The story of friendship between Wing and George is also a story of hands - we learn that Wing's hands, just as his personality, are freed in the presence of young George. In George's company, Wing's hands 'came forth and became the piston rods of his machinery of expression.'

Hands again drive the plot of this vignette as one night while with George, Wing 'forgot the hands,' and allowed them first to rest on George's shoulders and then to caress his face. At this moment of expression, 'a look of horror swept over his face,' and we are thrust backward in time where we learn that Wing Biddlebaum is actually Adolph Myers, who was once a very successful teacher in a small Pennsylvanian town.

As the young teacher Adolph Myers, Wing Biddlebaum was adored by his students and used his hands as an untainted medium of expression. As he taught them, 'here and there went his hands, caressing the shoulders of the boys, playing about the tousled heads.' Far from being a subject of mockery, the hands seemed to be a catalyst for learning: 'Under the caress of his hands doubt and disbelief went out of the minds of the boys and they began also to dream.' Tragically, these caresses were made sinister by the false accusations of one student. The townspeople believed the boy's tales and turned violently on Adolph Myers, beating him and chasing him away. 'Keep your hands to yourself,' they demanded.

It is from this past that Adolph Myers fled, arriving in Winesburg, Ohio, to seek refuge with an aged aunt. He changed his name, separated himself from society, and worked quietly as a berry picker. In forcing his hands to do this mundane work, he forbade them from their expressiveness and tried desperately to 'keep them hidden away.' Wing Biddlebaum's isolation and loneliness are poignantly expressed as the story returns to the present at the end. George Willard does not come. Wing eats a solitary dinner and prepares to go to bed - alone and dejected. The vignette closes with Wing stooping to eat stray crumbs from the floor, his hands again the central focus of the story as they carry the crumbs 'to his mouth one by one with unbelievable rapidity.'

Analysis: Truth

Published in 1919, 'Hands' falls into the Modernist movement in literature. As many Modernist texts do, 'Hands' seeks to explore the existence of truth and our ability to access it. The story challenges readers to question things presented as truth, and to consider the process whereby we believe we learn true things.

The text presents several 'facts' that are later called into question. The story is supposedly about a character named Wing Biddlebaum. However, we find out that his real name is Adolph Myers. Similarly, we are also told that Wing (Adolph) is a fat little old man but later we learn he was but forty but looked sixty-five, and thus he isn't old at all. With these reversals of information, the reader is left to wonder what other information presented in the story might be incorrect and whether it is possible to ever know for sure.

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