Respectability by Sherwood Anderson
In Respectability by Sherwood Anderson we have the theme of resentment, letting go, fidelity, trust, respectability, isolation, loneliness and forgiveness. Taken from his Winesburg, Ohio collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises how symbolically important the narrator’s physical description of Wash Williams is. It is possible that by comparing Wash to a monkey Anderson is suggesting at least symbolically that Wash himself may not be human when it comes to how he treats or views others. If anything Wash is resentful towards other people, particularly women, viewing them in an unfavourable light. It is also noticeable that Wash isolates himself from others. Apart from going to the bar to get drunk and possibly to dull the pain he feels; the only person that Wash engages with throughout the story is George Willard. If anything it is possible that Wash, through his wife’s infidelities, feels not only bitter but lonely too. Any aspirations he had for happiness have been thwarted by the fact that his wife has been unfaithful. So strong are Wash’s feelings about what has happened to him that he is resentful towards all women. Placing all women in the same category that he puts his wife in.
It is also interesting that Wash appears to have placed his wife on a pedestal of respectability yet when she is unable to meet his expectations he sends her home to her mother. At no stage did Wash attempt to repair the marriage before he sent his wife home which may suggest that fidelity (or loyalty) is of the utmost importance to Wash. It is also difficult to say as to whether Wash is right or wrong when Wash himself does not communicate any reason as to why his wife may have been unfaithful. If anything Wash is one-sided in his telling of his story to George. The reader only getting to see Wash’s side of the story. It is possible that Wash’s wife was unhappy in the marriage and did not wish to live the life that Wash had chosen for the two of them. A life that appears to have been centered around Wash and his own activities while his wife fulfills the role of homemaker. The most important person in the relationship between Wash and his wife may have been Wash himself. It is also possible that Wash had an idyllic view as to what a marriage should be and may not have had the stamina that is needed to overcome any difficulties he may have incurred within the marriage (his wife’s infidelities). Though both Wash and his wife may have appeared to be outwardly happy (the garden as an example) it is obvious that Wash’s wife did not feel the same about him as he did for her.
It might also be a case that the resentment that Wash feels towards women is based on his inability to trust another woman after his wife has been unfaithful. After the collapse off his marriage Wash appears to have steered clear of any romantic involvement with women. Which might suggest that despite the passing of time Wash feels so hurt by his wife’s actions that he is unable to trust another woman. However it is interesting that Wash does attempt to forgive his wife when he is summoned by his wife’s mother. Though any attempt at a reconciliation is shattered when Wash’s wife enters the room naked with Wash believing she has been instructed to do so by her mother. It is this action (by the mother) that leads to Wash feeling even more resentful not only towards his wife but towards his wife’s mother too.
It is also difficult to say for certain as to what the mother’s motivation is for deciding to strip her daughter of her clothes. It is possible that she is attempting to appeal to Wash’s instincts as a man. To entice him back into the marriage by way of sexual intercourse. Though it would appear that the mother is also using her daughter as a product rather than as a free-thinking individual. At no stage in the story is Wash’s wife given a voice. Which may be the point that Anderson is attempting to make. At the time the story was written many women in America (and around the world) lived their lives in silence without having a voice of their own. It is possible that Wash’s wife is an independently minded woman though her mother does not seem to allow her the opportunity to express herself (on her terms). If anything the mother is the driving force behind any attempt at a reconciliation between Wash and his wife. It is also possible that the mother is driven by money and assumes that Wash should he forgive her daughter will continue to send money to her. The reader is also aware that the mother’s actions are misguided or at least Wash does not seem to be interested in the direction the mother is taking the attempted reconciliation. Despite wanting to forgive his wife Wash remains unable to do so with the result being that he has spent his life resentful towards all women because of the actions of one woman. Wash has never been able to let go of the past.