“‘I will stab him,’ she said aloud. ‘He has chosen to be the voice of evil and I will kill him. When I have killed him something will snap within myself and I will die also. It will be a release for all of us’” (Anderson 1217). This passage from Sherwood Anderson’s “Mother” does not lead to murder, but the woman speaking has become desperate enough to contemplate killing her own husband. Elizabeth Willard has lost her sense of identity, a dramatic portrayal of how many Americans felt during the political, social, and economical upheaval of the early twentieth century. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, America was still a largely agricultural, rural nation (“American Literature between the Wars” 1071). Americans had to come to terms with irreversible global modernization and learn to compromise pre-war ideals with the emerging capitalist society. The nation was beginning to see a “New Woman” in Quentin E. Martin’s words, one that “worked, talked freely and frankly, and questioned the rules of society” (162). Mobilized by the Nineteenth Amendment’s grant of women’s right to vote in 1920, as well as a growing female presence in the workforce, women had begun to demand freedom from sexual double standards (“American Literature between the Wars,” 1074). Unfortunately, as Martin notes, “this transformation of women was by no means complete - it was, in fact, producing profound complications and problems” (163).
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sherwood Anderson wrote about the isolation and frustration invading relationships between women and men, and they attempted to articulate the effects of modernization on the women they loved.
Anderson’s and Fitzgerald’s works epitomize the conflicted nature of modernist writing; the need to embrace a new language of meaning in American society tinged with nostalgia for old forms. In the stories “Mother” and “Death” from Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and “Winter Dreams” by Fitzgerald (1922), the writers try to understand a new kind of female character who is ambitious, opinionated, adventurous, and sexually enlightened. But in the end, their female characters are reduced to the predominant images of women present in the white male psychology: that of mother, lover and wife. The central female characters in these stories, Judy Jones and Elizabeth Willard, emerge into their youths with hope and apparent agency but shrink to fit into stereotypes when faced with the challenges of a male-centered society. Undoubtedly the ambivalence that Anderson and Fitzgerald feel towards this “New Woman” is illustrated in their enigmatic female characters.
In “Winter Dreams,” Fitzgerald constructs the wealthy, beautiful Judy Jones from the perspective of one of the many men who is infatuated with her, Dexter Green. Through Dexter’s love for Judy, Fitzgerald muses on the search for ideals in a country becoming defined purely by wealth or as he calls it, “the glittering things and glittering people” (1645). Dexter’s winter dreams are just that: dreams of a perfect woman to bring hope to the desolate and cold terrain of modern social relations. Fitzgerald was a hopeless romantic in a tumultuous time, continuously oscillating between idealization and disillusionment. For Fitzgerald, Judy represents the possibility for beauty and romance in the new era. Judy’s wealth and social status give her the opportunity to break down the barriers that stop men and women from relating in an honest way, but her position also puts her in direct competition with white males protecting their egos. When Judy interrupts Dexter and his friends in a game of golf by attempting to play through, the men feel threatened. One man says, “All she needs is to be turned up and spanked for six months and then to be married off to an old-fashioned cavalry captain” (Fitzgerald 1646). This man sees Judy as a liability to his dominance, and wants to see her put in a subservient, infantile position. Judy is able to compete with the powerholding men of society, but she will have to play their game. Another man tellingly comments, “Better thank the Lord she doesn’t drive a swifter ball” (Fitzgerald 1646). Judy’s confidence and assertion are threatening, but the metaphorical ball she drives is not hard enough to compete and win in a game that is dominated by white men. Martin points out, “It was still considered unusual if not improper for middle- and upper-class women (such as Judy Jones) and for most married women to work” (163). Judy has no money or power of her own, and therefore can be trivialized as merely an extension of her father’s wealth.
Judy is a compelling female character because she has dreams of her own that cannot be restricted by male fantasies. Her drive for independence and adventure leads to her addiction to controlling the game of American sexual politics. She learns how to use the cultural conceptions of female beauty and sexuality for her own means. Dexter explains: “She was not a girl who could be ‘won’ in the kinetic sense— she was proof against cleverness, she was proof against charm, if any of these assailed her too strongly she would immediately resolve the affair to a physical basis and under the magic of her physical splendor the strong as well as the brilliant played her game and not their own” (Fitzgerald 1651). Dexter’s choice of words shows that Judy is a prize that he wants to win or possess, but he can’t because she refuses to allow a man to control her. When Judy first meets Dexter, she is escaping a man at her house who’s asking her about ideals (Fitzgerald 1647). Maybe Judy runs away from ideals because she knows that though they may serve that man they will only restrain her. Judy tries to place herself in a superior position to men and marriage, which is why she repeatedly calls Dexter “kiddo” (Fitzgerald 1655). It’s no surprise that she eventually runs away from Dexter, because as early as their first date he’s already treating her as a commodity. He says, “It excited him that many men had loved her. It increased her value in his eyes” (Fitzgerald 1649). He describes being “disappointed” by her mediocre appearance and carriage, and later says, “he found the conversation unsatisfactory. The beautiful Judy seemed faintly irritable” (Fitzgerald 1649). The moment Judy stops projecting Dexter’s quixotic fantasy, she becomes a subject while Dexter faces a setback.
Dexter is infatuated with Judy and wants to marry her, but decides that Judy’s business of seduction stops her from settling down. This is a convenient explanation for a man who describes his love as “the exquisite excitability that for a moment he controlled and owned” (Fitzgerald 1651). As a man who wants to possess Judy, he can only presume that her resistance is as simple as a power trip. To assuage his insecurities, Dexter convinces himself of “her glaring deficiencies as a wife” (Fitzgerald 1652). He tries to reduce her power by holding her up against traditional standards of womanhood. Dexter’s growing animosity toward Judy is based on his inability to control her as a subject. He comforts himself by saying, “there was very little mental quality in any of her affairs. She simply made men conscious to the highest degree of her physical loveliness” (Fitzgerald 1650). He tries to pretend that she’s nothing but a beautiful, stubborn bimbo. Martin points out that Fitzgerald never allows us to know the motives of Judy’s behavior, but suggests it can be explained by her intelligence to resist Dexter’s conventional male behavior (168).
Judy’s power finally crumbles to illusion, and it cannot fulfill her anymore. She cries to Dexter, “I’m more beautiful than anybody else . . . why can’t I be happy?” (Fitzgerald 1655). Sexual power over men is not enough to make Judy happy because her role isolates her from her own emotions and needs. Judy appears vulnerable here for the first time, because Dexter’s engagement to another woman causes her to question her own contentment. Her independence relies on a lack of intimacy and love, a void she tries to fill with Dexter one last time. She says to Dexter, “I’m awful tired of everything, kiddo . . . I wish you’d marry me” (Fitzgerald 1655). Marriage promises women like Judy a formula of fulfillment for the passion that she cannot seem to find expression for. She tells him, “I’ll be so beautiful for you Dexter” (Fitzgerald 1655). She is essentially agreeing to be his ideal woman so that she won’t have to feel the emptiness of playing the role of lover to men who don’t understand her. She cries, “I don’t want to go back to that idiotic dance - with those children” (Fitzgerald 1655). This is the most insightful statement that Judy makes, showing that she is very conscious of the adolescent male fantasy she’s been playing.
After Dexter breaks off his engagement to be with her, she remains dissatisfied and leaves him again. Judy’s character is only drawn to Dexter when he shows signs of success and independence. If Judy’s character is to be given more depth, it could be stated that she is drawn to Dexter’s idyllic version of love, which would die with his possession of Judy. Dexter resolves, “he did not possess in himself the power to move fundamentally or to hold Judy Jones” (Fitzgerald 1656). In the end, the man who Judy chooses to marry supposedly “treats her like the devil” (Fitzgerald 1657). As predicted, Judy found her cavalry captain. Her husband is a younger man who “drinks and runs around” while Judy “Stays at home with her kids” (Fitzgerald 1657). Judy found a man more young and restless than her and found a lifetime’s challenge in trying to satisfy his ideals. Much like the character of Elizabeth Willard, Judy’s marriage seems to be her surrender to the common fate of all misunderstood women.
But the reader doesn’t know what actually happened to Judy after leaving Dexter, besides Devlin’s assertion that her beauty faded “just-like-that” (Fitzgerald 1656). Dexter laments his loss of Judy but callously speaks of breaking his conventional engagement with Irene saying, “There was nothing sufficiently pictorial about Irene’s grief to stamp itself on his mind” (Fitzgerald 1656). He doesn’t mourn over losing Judy herself, he barely knows her, but he does mourn the loss of his dream of Judy as the perfect image of desire. Martin analyzes Judy Jones’ ending: “Men are enraptured by her because the women of their creation - tamed, protected, idealized - are pallid in comparison . . . Yet the men in the story do all they can to deny and eliminate that mystery” (168). Dexter convinces himself that Judy is, in the end, no different from any other woman: a wife and a mother. James M. Mellard uses Lacanian psychology to explain Judy’s ending as a successful resolution of her oedipal complex and narcissistic tendencies, blaming the Family Romance. Perhaps this explanation is not too far-fetched, since Judy’s father is in fact the wealthy, powerful, and distant Mortimer Jones. But Fitzgerald leaves no proof to provide any resolution to Judy’s conclusion, because Dexter’s complex feelings of loss at the end of the story in a way depend on Judy being converted to a faulty illusion of beauty and truth instead of a person. Fitzgerald successfully kills off the mystery and allure of Judy by turning her marriage into an anecdote for Dexter’s disillusionment and loss of hope. Fitzgerald says, “He had thought that having nothing else to lose he was invulnerable at last - but he knew that he had lost something more, as surely as if he had married Judy Jones and seen her fade away before his eyes” (1658). This implies that Dexter feels Judy’s ending is inevitable, that her ambitions are destined to fade with her beauty. Society offers very few viable options for dreamers like Dexter, and even fewer for their female counterparts. Judy’s failure of expression ends with the same ambivalent tone in which it began.
In “Mother,” Anderson introduces the character of his own mother, to whom he dedicated Winesburg, Ohio (Rigsbee). Marilyn Judith Atlas explains the large effect that Anderson’s mother had on the development of this character: “His mother, Emma Smith Anderson, dying in her forties, worn out from having to maintain a family of six children with insufficient financial and emotional support from her husband” (251). Elizabeth’s story is a personal and retrospective account of the modern white woman’s motivations, desires, and failures. We meet Elizabeth in her old age; she has lost her youthful hope, she is in a loveless marriage, and she is, in Anderson’s words, “doing the work of a chambermaid among beds soiled by the slumbers of fat traveling men” (Anderson 39). At the hotel, Elizabeth is keeping house for the gluttons of capitalist society. Unlike Judy Jones, she has no wealth or worldliness to hoist her above domestic servitude in small-town America. Elizabeth has inherited her father’s hotel and her husband, Tom Willard, enslaves himself and his family within that small fraction of the world. Her flashbacks reveal how her burgeoning identity has always depended on her relationships with men. Anderson says:
A great restlessness was in her and it expressed itself in two ways. First there was an uneasy desire for change, for some big definite movement to her life . . . And then there was the second expression of her restlessness. When that came she felt for a time released and happy. She did not blame the men who walked with her and later she did not blame Tom Willard. It was always the same, beginning with kisses and ending, after strange wild emotions, with peace and then sobbing repentance (46).
Before Elizabeth’s marriage she was called “stage-struck” because she would dress up and go out with actors who were patrons of her father’s hotel (Anderson 45). What she craved was to have the worldly knowledge that these men possessed, symbolized by her “putting on men’s clothes and riding a bicycle down Main Street” (Anderson 45). Elizabeth wanted to escape her small-town life, but her passion was misunderstood as promiscuity by men who spoke a different language. Sally Adair Rigsbee notes, “Anderson makes it clear that conventional sexual mores make no provision for women to judge sexual relationships in terms of spiritual communion” (235-6). Within the male capitalistic language of sexuality, Elizabeth’s sexual encounters lack any real intimate communication or meaning for her as a woman. Anderson describes Elizabeth’s true desires, that “she wanted a real lover. Always there was something she sought blindly, passionately, some hidden wonder in life” (224). Her sexual endeavors briefly provide her with the release of having her passion expressed, but end in regret as she looks into a man’s face and realizes he is “suddenly a little boy” who does not truly understand her (Anderson 46). Anderson says, “She dreamed of joining some company and wandering over the world, seeing always new faces and giving something out of herself to all people . . . They did not seem to know what she meant” (46). The only men who understand her yearning are the similarly stifled men of Winesburg like Tom Willard. Unfortunately, as Elizabeth’s father predicts on his deathbed, her only escape is to leave Winesburg and the men in it (225). She instead chooses to follow the path of other women and looks to marriage for significance and acceptance in life, and ends up with a horrible failure of a marriage. Elizabeth spends the rest of her life isolated, grieving her lost dreams until she can barely communicate with anyone. She sits alone and watches from her window the recurring feud between the baker and the neighbor’s cat until it is too much to bear. Anderson says, “It seemed like a rehearsal of her own life, terrible in its vividness” (41). Like the grey cat in the alleyway, Elizabeth was only trying to get her share of treats from the bakery. Despite the prowess of the cat, she can never escape her limitations.
The relationship between Elizabeth and her son, George, articulates the unrequited meaning of her life. After projecting all of her passion and identity into her relationships with men, her son must bear all the weight of what she could never do on her own. Anderson says, “In the boyish figure she yearned to see something half forgotten that had once been part of herself” (40). Elizabeth wants to see her dreams acted out by her son: the product of her sexual search for identity. There is another dimension though because she fears that if her son is successful, he will abandon his dreams and take away her last bit of hope. She prays, “I will take any blow that may befall if but this my boy be allowed to express something for us both . . . And do not let him become smart and successful either” (Anderson 40-41). Elizabeth fears that George will become just like her husband someday, who has thwarted his own dreams of politics (Anderson 40) and blocks any impulse of passion in himself and others. She is afraid that this modern life will crush her son’s hopes and aspirations to be a writer, and that he will fail in finding his own identity like she did. George is Anderson’s complex and conflicted writer character within the coming-of-age narrative in Winesburg, Ohio. In order to become fully developed as a writer and escape small-town life, George must come to terms with himself and his home. Anderson must create understanding and resolution between the mother and son so that his character can move on.
Elizabeth experiences great difficulty in communicating her feelings to her son, underlining Anderson’s recurrent theme of what Rigsbee calls “the special problems of communication between men and women” (241). Nancy Bunge relates, “While alive his mother could only repeat inarticulate phrases to him, yet George apparently learned something from her stunted declarations; for he had assimilated her fascination with dreams and contempt for conventional success” (245). Elizabeth is necessary to George’s maturity as an artist, but she is also impotent in her inability to express herself. This is a poignant expression of a theme that renders relationships problematic throughout Winesburg, Ohio: that men and women do not speak the same language. Tom Willard, for example, instructs his son, “You’re not a fool and you’re not a woman. You’re Tom Willard’s son and you’ll wake up” (Anderson 44). According to George’s father, the measure of a man is his success, and women are simply fools who dream away their lives. Elizabeth frantically resolves that she will have to kill Tom and the part of herself that he represents to allow George full expression. In this moment of determination to find a final release for her passion, she decides to be beautiful and pulls out her box of theater make-up (Anderson 47). Elizabeth sees her youthful beauty as the epitome of the fervor that she once had for life. Only three men ever come to realize her loveliness and make the same exclamation “You dear! You dear! You lovely dear!” (Anderson 223). Anderson says that Elizabeth only has two lovers in her life who fulfill “her dream of release”, Doctor Reefy and Death (232). Her son George only truly sees his mother for the lovely woman that she is after she has died.
Rigsbee concludes that his mother’s death allows George to “acquire the quality of feeling necessary for the artist” (239). Anderson performs Elizabeth Willard like an act of literary exorcism that ultimately gives George the drive to leave Winesburg. Rigsbee comments on Elizabeth’s tragic ending concluding that death is “the only lover who can receive her full identity” (239). This conclusion is quite fatalist for all of the women of Winesburg who yearn for expression. Atlas discusses Elizabeth’s case as an example of the lack of escape for women in Winesburg, serving as a prototype for all of the people in George’s world who die spiritually while he escapes with their stories to propel him (264). In Anderson’s defense, Atlas says, “at least it portrays the women whose lives are limited because they live within a system which was never created for their benefit” (264). Elizabeth’s and Judy’s restless yearnings for expression in society have no fulfilling results, so they both retreat into domesticity. Elizabeth is muted for her entire life by the constricting roles of traditional womanhood, while Judy’s beauty fades away along with the feelings of independence that came with it. Judy and Elizabeth try to create a voice for women in society but without a positive model for female success, they end up conforming to a system that only allows them to be lovers, wives, and mothers. Their marriages demonstrate what modernist writers saw as the deterioration of human relationships in modern America. Fitzgerald and Anderson brought a fresh character to literature with their descriptions of a new American woman, but could only provide puzzling and disappointing resolutions for these strong women. Anderson and Fitzgerald try to find ways to escape the exploitative effects of modern capitalist society on individual expression, unable to accept self-interest and promiscuity as the only outlets of desire. Although the men in these stories are eventually disappointed with the lack of romance in the modern world, they can continue to roam and search for what Fitzgerald calls “the glittering things themselves” (1645) hidden behind the masks of society. Their lovers, wives, and mothers remain trapped by their prescribed roles. Judy’s subjective martyrdom allows Dexter’s insightful closing remarks: “The gates were closed, the sun was gone down and there was no beauty but the grey beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished” (Fitzgerald 1658). Fitzgerald’s use of the word “country” is no coincidence. He makes a universal statement for the loss of beauty and love in America based on his carefully-crafted version of the modern woman. Making a jest on Anderson’s similar nostalgia, Bunge says, “Sherwood Anderson believes that once upon a time everyone lived happily ever after” (242). Fitzgerald and Anderson dwell on lost idealism in America and the consequential search for new meaning within the stark realities of industrialism and social politics. Unfortunately, as misunderstood archetypes of male ideals, Fitzgerald’s and Anderson’s women get lost as well.
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“Sherwood Anderson and the Women of Winesburg”. Atlas, Marylin Judith. pp 250- 266. Anderson, David D. (ed.) Critical Essays on Sherwood Anderson. Boston: Hall, 1981.
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“The Feminine in Winesburg, Ohio”. Rigsbee, Sally Adair. Studies in American Fiction, 9:2 (1981 autumn), pp. 233-244.
“Women in Sherwood Anderson’s Fiction”. Bunge, Nancy. Pp. 242-249. Anderson, David D. (ed.) Critical Essays on Sherwood Anderson. Boston: Hall, 1981.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “Winter Dreams.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Sixth Ed. Baym, Nina. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003. 1642-1658.
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