I Want to Know Why by Sherwood Anderson
In I Want to Know Why by Sherwood Anderson we have the theme of passion, connection, disillusion, confusion, anger, acceptance (or rather the lack of it), innocence and coming of age. Taken from his The Triumph of the Egg collection the story is narrated in the first person by a young, unnamed sixteen year old boy who is looking back at an incident that happened a year earlier when he was in Saratoga Springs. From the beginning of the story it would appear that Anderson is exploring the theme of connection and passion. Through the narrator the reader learns that when the racing season comes ‘everything talked about in Beckersville is just horses and nothing else.’ The reader also learns that ‘every breath of air you breathe’ in Beckersville is about horses. These two lines may be significant as they suggest not only a connection for the narrator (and those living in Beckersville) with horses but also there is a sense of passion among the people of Beckersville for horses. It is as if the people of Beckersville (and the narrator) live for horses.
The reader also learns that the narrator, while in Beckersville, spends his free time among the trainers and jockeys at the training track. This may also be significant as it further highlights to the reader the idea or theme of connection and passion. How passionate the narrator is about horses is also noticeable by the fact that when he sees some horses running he can feel ‘a lump up into my throat.’ It is also through the narrator’s passion for horses that the reader discovers that the narrator in some ways connects with Jerry Tillford (Sunstreak’s owner). If anything the narrator begins to idolize Tillford placing him, as he does Sunstreak, on a pedestal. The reader learning that the narrator begins to like Tillford more than he does his own father. There is also a sense that the narrator sees a similarity with his own passion for horses, in Tillford, which may be the reason that the narrator begins to idolize him.
There is also some symbolism in the story which may be important. To the narrator the horses represent or symbolise everything that is good in the world. They are trustworthy, can be relied upon and are free of conceit. In contrast, Tillford and the incident in the brothel may symbolise (for the narrator) everything that is wrong with the world. If anything the brothel serves to represent the opposite of what the horses symbolise for the narrator. The title of the story is also interesting as it is suggests not only a desire to understand something (for the narrator) but it may also suggest the narrator’s inability to accept the realities of life.
There is also a sense that the narrator is innocent of human nature and a person’s need or desire to impress others. This is noticeable by Tillford’s bragging and attributing Sunstreak’s success to himself rather than to the horse. It is by inflating his (Tillford’s) own ego that the narrator begins to become disillusioned with Tillford. Having once placed him on a pedestal, now the narrator begins to realise that Tillford is not the man that he thought him to be. It is from the narrator’s sense of disillusion (with Tillford) that the reader realises that not only is the narrator confused about the realities of life but the realities of life also anger him. It is also possible that the narrator is yet to understand (or accept) that somebody (Tillford) would need to spend their time with a woman. If anything the narrator has no understanding of the dynamic between a man and a woman. For the narrator life is about horses (and nothing else) and he feels that others (particularly Tillford) should feel the same way too.
The ending of the story is also interesting as it becomes clear to the reader that despite becoming aware of the realities of life, the narrator still is unable or struggles to accept the incident in the brothel. It continues to be lost on the narrator that a man may need to spend time with a woman and that a person may have interests outside of horses. No longer does the narrator idolize Tillford and if anything his passion for horses, though he continues to go to the training and race track, appears to be tarnished from what he has seen in the brothel. How disillusioned the narrator actually is can be seen by the fact that he tells the reader that ‘I’m so mad about it I want to fight someone.’ This line is significant as it serves to highlight exactly how deeply affected the narrator is from what he witnessed at the brothel. In many ways Anderson has written a story which explores the transition (for the narrator) from innocence to experience and by the narrator asking ‘What did he (Tillford) do it for?’ the reader is allowed an opportunity to see just how confused, angry and disillusioned the narrator has become.