Mother by Sherwood Anderson
In Mother by Sherwood Anderson we have the theme of disillusion, acceptance, hope, escape, paralysis and ambition. Taken from his Winesburg, Ohio collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises how significant or symbolic Anderson’s description of the setting is. Throughout the story he uses words like old, faded, failure, gloom and darkness when describing the Willard’s hotel. This may be important as in many ways Anderson’s description of the hotel mirrors the life and circumstances of both Elizabeth and Tom Willard. They too appear to live a life that is full of failure, gloom and darkness. Also by describing the hotel as old and faded likewise so too are the dreams or ambitions that Elizabeth and Tom have. This is particularly true for Elizabeth who has had aspirations to be an actress since she was a young girl. However despite these ambitions she has never had the opportunity to pursue her dreams rather she continues to remain at the hotel having taken over responsibility for its upkeep after her father died. Similarly Tom’s ambitions of going to congress or becoming governor have never been achieved and just as Elizabeth has never left Winesburg, Tom too remains rooted in the town. The fact that Elizabeth (and Tom) have never left Winesburg despite their ambitions is important as it suggests that both remain in some ways stuck or paralysed. In essence they seem to be going nowhere.
Anderson also appears to be exploring the theme of disillusion. Throughout the story there is a sense that both Elizabeth and Tom are disillusioned or at least unhappy with their life in Winesburg. For Elizabeth this disillusion appears to stem from the fact that she is responsible for the running of the hotel while in reality she longs to do something different (be an actress). Also it would appear that her marriage is loveless, which may be a result of Tom’s inability to make the hotel a success and provide Elizabeth with a better life. Similarly when Tom is walking along the streets he utters ‘Damn such a life, damn it.’ This line may be important as not only does it suggest that Tom is unhappy and possibly disillusioned with his life but it also serves to highlight that Tom wishes to escape from the life he is living (as manager in the hotel). At no stage in the story does the reader feel that either Elizabeth or Tom have the ability to accept the position they find themselves in rather they continue to chase old, faded ambitions. George too seems to be disillusioned with his life as a reporter however out of all the characters in the story he may be the only one who actually succeeds in achieving his goals.
There are also incidents in the story which suggest that both Elizabeth and Tom are living their lives vicariously (or through others). Anderson tells the reader that Elizabeth when thinking about George ‘yearned to see something half forgotten that had once been a part of herself.’ Also the reader is aware that Tom is ‘ambitious for his son’ and ‘wanted his son to succeed.’ However it is possible that while Elizabeth hopes that George will pursue a life that involves some artistic creativity (as she would have liked to have done) there is a sense that Tom’s definition of what a success may be is based more on materialistic gain rather than on artistic achievement. Something that becomes a little clearer to the reader when we discover that Elizabeth prays that George will not become ‘smart and successful.’ Though this may be confusing it is possible that Anderson, by having Elizabeth wish that George does not become successful, is suggesting that Elizabeth is in fact hoping that George does not turn out like Tom who in all likelihood would consider himself to be both smart and successful. How strong Elizabeth feels about allowing George to have his own dreams and pursue them is noticeable when she hears Tom tell George that though it is okay to become a writer he will ‘have to wake up to do that too.’ This line is important as it not only acts as the trigger for Elizabeth wanting to kill Tom but it also suggests that Tom thinks that George should stop dreaming. Which in many ways is ironic as he continues to dream about going to congress or being governor. It may also be a case that Elizabeth fears that any dreams that George has will result in nothing (as her own dreams have) should he follow Tom’s advice and stop dreaming.
Apart from the setting there is other symbolism in the story which may be important. By telling the reader that Abner Groff throws bits of broken glass at the cat and that he once broke a window while throwing the glass and some sticks at the cat Anderson may be symbolically linking both the glass and the window to Elizabeth and Tom’s broken dreams. The fact that Anderson also describes the back door of Abner’s bakery as ‘a picture of village life’ may also be symbolically important as Anderson could be suggesting that just as Abner is unable to get the better of the cat or continues to be defeated by the cat so too are the majority of people who live in Winesburg. The scissors that Elizabeth intends to kill Tom with may also be symbolically significant. As the reader would be aware scissors are used to cut something and by introducing them into the story Anderson may be symbolically suggesting that Elizabeth wants to not only kill Tom but to also cut all her ties to Tom.
The ending of the story is interesting as Anderson repeats sentences that he had used earlier in the story. Though some critics suggest that by doing so Anderson was highlighting how repetitive Elizabeth’s life is, which would suggest a continued paralysis in Elizabeth’s life, it is also possible that Anderson is suggesting that Elizabeth is unable to express herself as she would like to. Though it is clear to the reader that Elizabeth is happy that George has decided to leave Winesburg and pursue a career as a writer she may not actually be able to express this joy due to how beaten or defeated she herself may feel having had to spend all her life living in Winesburg (and married to Tom). Unlike George she has never been able to follow her dreams or ambitions rather she remains stuck in the hotel in what is most likely a loveless marriage.