The Universal Signifier
The word “love” contains a great deal of meaning for people. People empower the word itself to hold the force that the concept contains. Other words, such as “God” and “truth,” are also regarded as quite powerful. Often, people hope to find a word to express the ultimate meaning; this word is the “universal signifier.”
Characters in Winesburg, Ohio try to find that powerful word. The name “Tandy,” for example, is supposed to be all a man wants from a woman. George Willard walks with Belle Carpenter uttering words such as “death” and “fear,” words that could contain tremendous meaning. However, he learns that night that there is no universal connection between people, and he, with his words, is in the way of a passion between Belle and Ed Handby that goes beyond words.
Town v. Country v. City
Sherwood Anderson writes of the changes that have shaken America in his time: “The coming of industrialism, attended by all the roar and rattle of affairs. has worked a tremendous change in the lives and in the habits of thought of our people of Mid-America.” This is a concern because “If you listen you will find [the farmer] talking as glibly and as senselessly as the best city man of us all” (56-57). While Anderson is writing with a touch of humor, he does often contrast the city with small-town America. Elizabeth Willard, for example, worries her son will become too urbane. Kate Swift has become too worldly by leaving the city.
There are numerous mentions of young men leaving Winesburg to find their fortunes. Elmer Cowley does this badly, but Ned Currie goes off to become a reporter. Ultimately, George Willard must leave Winesburg to realize his full potential. So, while the city certainly has its hazards, to remain in Winesburg is to limit oneself like Seth Richmond does. He claims he will leave, but he can only imagine his future existence within the confines of Winesburg.
All of the characters in Winesburg, Ohio, are grotesques, in the texts definition of that word. Truths are beautiful, but when truths become fixed in peoples lives, they turn people into grotesques-lonely, isolated distortions of people. Since all of the characters in the text are fixated on a truth or truths, they end up being grotesques, even if they are not horrible but are funny or sweet or even beautiful.
Sherwood Anderson sets himself up in opposition to these grotesques. While they are fixated on a particular idea, he is devoted to the multiplicity of truths. This text presents all sorts of truths as represented by the different characters. Moreover, he freely acknowledges that there are other stories that he could have chosen to tell, so truths are infinite.
Despite his overt stance that he is the opposite of the grotesques, Anderson does espouse particular points of view in the text. He chooses certain stories and certain truths to present. Even though he can claim that there are many other truths out there, he has limited the world of Winesburg, Ohio, by the choices he has made. This is a necessity of any text, just as it is a necessity of life to limit ones truths. Anderson seems to be claiming that the ability to acknowledge that there are other possible truths is what saves some people from becoming grotesques who are warped by their adherence to one point of view.
The Universal Signifier