Analysis of Hands by Sherwood Anderson

This article is the short analysis of "Hands" by Sherwood Anderson.

His Life:

Sherwood Anderson lived from 1876- 1941.

He was born in Camden, Ohio. His parents led a transient life, moving from one place to another in order to work.

His father had served in the Union Army and declined from the saddlery-and-harness business into odd jobs of the house- and sign- painting.

Anderson attended school only intermittently while helping to support his family by working as a newsboy, housepainter, stock handler, and stable groom.

At the age of 17, he moved to Chicago where he worked as a warehouse laborer and attended business classes at night.

During the Spanish-American war, Anderson fought in Cuba and returned after the war to Ohio, for a final year of schooling at Wittenberg College, Springfield.

For the next few years, Anderson moved restlessly around Ohio.

His life calmed down for some time with marriage and with work as a paint manufacturer. He became a successful businessman and president of his own company.

After suffering an emotional crisis because of the conflicting demands of his family, business and creative life, he left his wife, 'bourgeois lifestyle', and moved to Chicago.

When he moved to Chicago, he decided to dedicate himself to writing.

He joined the "Chicago Group" of writers, hanging out with authors Theodore Dreiser and Carl Sandburg.

Anderson as a writer:

He wrote novels & short stories containing these themes:

  • A focus on complex psychological issues. probing the inner lives of the average American person, outside big-city life
  • The pursuit of success is examined
  • Disillusionment with the “success” ethic and/or faulty pursuits of happiness.
  • NOT a moralist.
  • He qualifies as a realist—using realistic language, descriptions, and incidents, NOT other-worldly/spiritual devices. His interest in the thought processes of his characters extends beyond the kind of strict realism that Mark Twain would employ.

His stories are often more character sketches than driven by plot. His writing style employed simple, realistic language

His most popular book was Winesburg Ohio written in 1919. Each chapter is its own short story, tied together by the character George Willard, who gets to know or learns about the major characters of each chapter.

This book is unique because although it has the basic pretense of a novel, it is really just a collection of somewhat interconnected short stories.

"Hands" is a chapter in this book.

Anderson’s influence on American Literature

The stories in his books are characterized by a casual development, complexity of motivation, and an interest in the psychological process.

Anderson directed the American short story away from the neatly plotted tales of 0. Henry, Edgar Allen Poe, etc

Anderson’s style significantly influenced the young generations of writers just beginning to write at this time: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, & others.


Characterization is the method through which an author reveals a character's personality.

Anderson reveals Wing Biddlebaum's personality not by dialogue (since he says very little), but by providing the reader with descriptions of his actions. These reveal him to be an insecure, nervous, vaguely ashamed person.

Character Motivation

Anderson was very interested in exploring the complex psychology of a character such as Wing. While we learn that Wing was driven out of his previous town due to false accusations of inappropriate sexual conduct with a young boy, we know these accusations to be untrue.

Regardless, Wing has become paranoid and ashamed of himself as a result. He also appears to be afraid to touch or connect with anybody.

Social Criticism

There are at least two major points of social criticism this story can be viewed as raising:

  • A critique of society's willingness to cast out those who are seen as weak or different. Some have interpreted this story to suggest that Wing was gay and therefore was already considered an outsider within the town before the false accusations were spread. Regardless of the dubiousness of the allegations, the townspeople were quick to turn on him. The speed and ease with which others will destroy a person's life are certainly revealed within this story.
  • A critique of society's expectation of men as rejecting those elements that are labeled as feminine. Thus, by being a caring, nurturing teacher, his gender roles are questioned by the community. This allows them to easily believe the dubious allegations made.


Wing seems to have a great capacity for love which, ironically, is his downfall.

The story also seems to be suggesting that we are not always in control of our fate.

Even our better traits (like his caring for his students) can be one's "Achilles' heal." Fate is sometimes cruel and arbitrary.

George Willard

In the last paragraph, the author says that at the end Wing "still hungered for the presence of the boy [George], who became the medium through which he expressed his love of man, the hunger again a part of his loneliness and his waiting."

This can be interpreted as an expression of Wing's longing to once again connect with another human being.


Note that neither character in the story—Wing nor George—are freed by letting the story he told.

  • George would find release in hearing the story and no longer wondering, and Wing would find liberation in telling his side. Yet, only the reader gets to see this...not the characters.

Thus, this story is a portrait of a man trapped by his own unearned guilt, maybe an inner guilt about his own sexuality, and nobody is released from this guilt.

Point of View:

While the author could have told this story through a 1st person narrator, that would have significantly changed the reader's understanding of the character because it would have clearly revealed the thoughts within Wing Biddlebaum's mind.

Instead, Anderson wants the reader to have to interpret Wing's mindset by seeing his actions.

Analysis of Hands by Sherwood Anderson

Anderson does not even allow us the comfort of a 3rd person omniscient narrator. Instead, we are left with a limited 3rd person narrator who can only report on what is observable.

As a result, we are left to ponder Wing's psychological motivations and he remains something of an enigma to the reader, just as he did to the people in town (and George Willard).
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