An Analysis of Sherwood Anderson’s "Mother"
Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Many of us have at some point felt we are living out our parents’ vicarious dreams—or are at the mercy of them. Sherwood Anderson’s “Mother,” a short story excerpted from his longer work Winesburg, Ohio, tells the story of Elizabeth Willard, the sickly mother of the young man who serves as the story’s protagonist. Anderson tells us that Elizabeth feels a ferocious bond with her son George, a reporter for the local paper—a bond that she cannot express in words.
Elizabeth expresses her feelings by going down to George’s room when he is not home, kneeling in front of his little desk, and praying to God that her boy should turn out all right—not “smart and successful.” Why would any mother make such a request? We understand a little bit more as we learn about her life. When she was young, Elizabeth wanted to be an actress and travel to distant cities; when outsiders would come into Winesburg, she would press them for stories of what it was like in the outside world. Entertainers would try to tell her that all towns are essentially the same—equally dull—but traveling salesmen would feed her dreams of visiting ever greener pastures. She often slept with these salesman, seeming to instinctively feel that by uniting with their bodies she could lay claim to a bit of the world beyond Winesburg.
But she did not marry any of them; she married a man from Winesburg, Tom Willard. Tom considers himself smart and successful (even though he is really neither). Disparaging his wife’s dreams, he has consistently ridiculed her until he has made her physically ill. Having no real function in life, she spends most of her time in her room. Her self-esteem has sunk so low that she can’t even talk to George. They share odd epiphanies; for example, they are sitting together at the window when the neighborhood baker furiously beats a stray cat, and Elizabeth retreats from the window because the cat’s experience is so much like her own. But she doesn’t articulate this to George; she seems to feel that he is a wonderful boy, full of promise, that he would only think her silly and embarrassing. So they exchange meaningless remarks instead of having a real conversation.
One night Elizabeth overhears her husband telling George that the boy needs to do something with his life. “Will Henderson has spoken to me three times concerning the matter. He says you go along for hours not hearing when you are spoken to and acting like a gawky girl…You’re not a fool and you’re not a woman. You’re Tom Willard’s son and you’ll wake up.” George apparently tells his father of his desire to be a real writer, not just a reporter for a minor paper, and Tom replies, “I guess you’ll have to wake up to do that too, eh?”
Elizabeth is incensed. She is not going to have her son’s dreams beaten down as hers were. She would literally rather see her husband dead, and she goes to her sewing bag for a pair of scissors to stab him with. But before heading out in search of him, she takes out her make-up kit, long unused, and decides to transform herself back into the beautiful, strong, and proud young woman she once was.
Suddenly, however, the futility of this whole exercise overwhelms her. She clutches the back of the chair, trying to decide what to do next, and George unexpectedly comes in. “I’m going to get out of here,” he tells her. “I don’t know where I shall go or what I shall do but I am going away.”
Playing Devil’s advocate, Elizabeth tosses Tom’s words back at him. “I suppose you had better wake up….You will go to the city and make money, eh? It will be better for you, you think, to be a businessman, to be brisk and smart and alive?” But George says no. That isn’t what he wants. He’s sure his mother won’t understand; certainly his father doesn’t. But something Tom said has made George realize that he can’t stay here any more.
This would have been the perfect opportunity for Elizabeth to finally reach out to her son, to tell him that she has felt the same way, and for the same reason; but she can’t bring herself to do it. George and Elizabeth’s inability to talk deprives them of the opportunity to really know one another, and benefit from one another’s experience.
“Mother” can be found in Anderson’s collection Winesburg, Ohio.
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