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.'
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.
The existence of and our access to truth are also brought into question in the recounting of Wing Biddlebaum's past life. We learn that one of his students 'imagined unspeakable things' in his bed one night and then 'in the morning went forth to tell his dreams as facts.' So easily and so quickly, this boy's fanciful imaginings become galvanized truth. Furthermore, as the town accepted the boy's story, we read that 'shadowy doubts that had been in men's minds concerning Adolph Myers were galvanized into beliefs.' Again, there is an alarmingly smooth transition from fiction to fact, which brings into question the validity of all facts.
We are told that if the story of Wing Biddlebaum's hands was accurately presented, 'it would tap many strange, beautiful qualities in obscure men.' Wing's hands were originally something beautiful. As a young teacher, his 'voice and the hands, the stroking of the shoulders and the touching of the hair were a part of the schoolmaster's effort to carry a dream into the young minds.' There was nothing sinister in them until they were vilified by untruths and hatred.
After being chased out of Pennsylvania, Wing began his efforts to suppress his hands and all they longed to express. The townspeople made fun of him and could not find value in the beauty of his hands. The only value they could understand was that of the quantity of berries his hands could pick. Wing tries to help George Willard understand the value of beauty as he pleads with him, 'You must try to forget all you have learned...You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices.' it is the things one learns from the roaring voices of society that robs beauty of its worth, as we see in the vilifying and degrading of Wing Biddlebaum's hands.
'Hands' is one story among many in Sherwood Anderson's book Winesburg, Ohio. The very first story in the book is called 'The Book of the Grotesque,' in which we learn of a writer who is inspired to create a book containing truths: 'Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful... and then the people came along... the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself... he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.' This provides a preface for the rest of the book, and it implies the stories that follow are actually the creations mentioned by this author in 'The Book of the Grotesque.' As such, we are supposed to view the characters found therein as grotesques.
To be grotesque is to be somehow ludicrous, distorted, and/or repulsive. As noted, we are instructed to see the effort to embrace and own truth as the means whereby one becomes grotesque. Wing Biddlebaum is made grotesque by the truth that would be expressed by his hands. His attempt to convey 'the influence for which the hands were but fluttering pennants of promise' leads to his vilification in Pennsylvania and his subsequent flight to Ohio. He spends the rest of his life fearing his hands and trying to suppress them. In doing so, he becomes the distorted and ludicrous character we meet pacing nervously on his front porch. He is an oddity in a town of odd people. He is a grotesque.
Sherwood Anderson's 'Hands' is a story structured around the hands of Wing Biddlebaum, which express ideas about truth, beauty, and the grotesque. Truth and our ability to attain it are questioned, as reality and perception are conflated by both the characters and the reader. Beauty fights for value among those who would negate it, and we see the transformation of a man into a grotesque.