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Hands
By Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941)
A Study Guide
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Type of Work
Setting
Characters
Tone
Point of View
Flashback
Plot Summary
Climax
Theme
Today's Biddlebaums
Figures of Speech
Study Questions
Writing Topics
Biography of Anderson
Complete Free Text
Index of Study Guides
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings... 2012
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Type of Work and Publication Year

......."Hands" is a short story centering on the psychological trauma a teacher suffers after parents falsely accuse him of fondling male students. It was first published in 1916 in The Masses, a Chicago literary magazine. The New York firm of B. W. Huebsch published the story in 1919 as part of Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of related short stories by Sherwood Anderson.

Setting

.......The action takes place in the 1890s on the outskirts of the fictional town of Winesburg, Ohio. A flashback recounts an episode that takes place in a Pennsylvania community. 

Characters

Wing Biddlebaum: A middle-aged former schoolteacher who lives on the outskirts of Winesburg, Ohio. His real name is Adolph Myers. However, he changed his surname to hide his identity after people in a Pennsylvania community falsely accused him of fondling male students while he was teaching school there. They drove him out of town, and he settled in Winesburg.
George Willard: A newspaper reporter for the Winesburg Eagle. He is Biddlebaum's only friend.
Berry Pickers: Boisterous young people who pass by Biddlebaum's house in a wagon carrying their cherry pickings.
Angry Parent: Man who severely beat Biddlebaum in the yard of the Pennsylvania school where Biddlebaum, then known as Adolph Myers, was teaching. 

Tone

The tone is serious. It exhibits sympathy and compassion for Biddlebaum, a victim of gross injustice.

Point of View

Anderson tells the story in omniscient third-person point of view.

Flashback

A flashback occurs when the narrator recounts an incident that explains why Wing Biddlebaum is so preoccupied with the movement of his hands.

Plot Summary

While pacing on the decaying porch of his small house near a ravine on the outskirts of Winesburg, Ohio, a fat man watches young adults passing in a wagon on a highway beyond an expanse of weeds. They are boisterous berry pickers returning from the fields. One fellow jumps out and tries to pull a girl after him. She screams in mock protest. Then, seeing the man on the porch across the weed field, calls out to him, “Oh, you Wing Biddlebaum, comb your hair, it's falling into your eyes.” The man is bald.
Wing Biddlebaum, who is full of self-doubts, has only one real friend in town, George Willard. George, a reporter for the Winesburg Eagle, is the son of Tom Willard, operator of the New Willard House. Sometimes Tom could be seen on the highway walking to Biddlebaum's house. Biddlebaum wishes that Willard would visit him on this evening. Wing walks across the field of weeds and looks toward town for a moment and then, afraid, hurries back to the porch and resumes pacing.
Whenever he is with Willard, Biddlebaum's shyness eases, and he talks animatedly on his porch with his friend or sometimes goes into town with him. Biddlebaum talks with his hands. In fact, says the narrator, “The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands.” His hands move like the wings of a captive bird—hence, his nickname, Wing. Not that he wants to gesticulate. He would rather hide his hands, and he looks with envy upon those who have them under control.
Sometimes, when talking with George, Wing beats his fists on a wall or table—or even on a stump or a fence if they are outdoors. Doing so makes him feel more at ease. And they are fast hands. He can pick as many as one hundred forty quarts of strawberries in one day. The townsfolk are proud of his hands. They are legendary in Winesburg, where Wing has lived for the last twenty years.
George had often wanted to question him about his hands—about their movements and his tendency to hide the hands. One summer afternoon he is on the verge of doing so when Wing is telling him he tries to be too much like other people in the town. “You are destroying yourself," he cried. "You have the inclination to be alone and to dream and you are afraid of dreams.” To help him make his point, Wing beats on a grass bank. 
Wing then dreams of a scene in which young men gather around a wise old man under tree. Laying his hands on George's shoulders, Wing tells him what the old man said: “You must try to forget all you have learned. You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices.”
Suddenly Wing puts his hands in his pockets. Tears well in his eyes, and he says he must go home. He hurries away. George, unsettled by the terror in Wing's eyes, vows not to ask him about his hands. There's something strange about them. He thinks his hands are responsible for his timidity, his fear of everyone. George is right, and the narrator tells the story of Wing's hands.
When he was young, Wing—his actual name is Adolph Myers—taught school in a Pennsylvania. There the boys liked him, for he was gentle to them. He often walked with the boys after school or sat talking with them outside the school on the steps. His hands would touch their shoulders or tousle their hair. His voice was soft. His voice and hands were instruments of kindness. 
“And then the tragedy,” the narrator says. “A half-witted boy of the school became enamored of the young master. In his bed at night he imagined unspeakable things and in the morning went forth to tell his dreams as facts.”
He made accusations. People believed him. Then, under questioning from parents, students of Myers said he would run his fingers through their hair or put his arms around them. One day, a saloonkeeper named Henry Bradford, whose son was one of the boys Myers touched, went to the school, beat him with his fists, and kicked him around the schoolyard. That night, a group of men drove Myers out of town. 
He changed his name to Biddlebaum and settled in Winesburg, where he has lived for twenty years. During the whole of his first year in town, he was ill in reaction to his bad experience in Pennsylvania. Early on, he lived with an elderly aunt, who raised chickens. After she died, he was on his own. Upon his recovery from his illness, he became a field laborer and developed the habit of hiding his hands. 
Wing is only forty, but he looks sixty-five. After pacing on his porch until dusk, he goes inside and makes himself a snack: slices of bread spread with honey. A train rumbles by carrying the day's harvest of berries. Afterward, Wing goes back out on the porch and resumes pacing. In the gathering darkness, he cannot see his hands. As a result, they behave themselves.
He goes back inside, washes dishes, and opens a folding cot and puts it next to the screen door that opens onto the porch. Spying on the floor a few crumbs of bread from his snack, he brings a lamp near and picks up the crumbs and eats them. As he kneels there, he resembles a priest carrying out a ritual. In the dim light, he also looks like a petitioner hurrying his fingers through the beads of a rosary.

Climax

.......The climax occurs during the flashback, when the main character is beaten and driven out of a Pennsylvania town.The incident marks a tragic turning point in his life that leaves him mentally scarred and perpetually anxious about the movements of his hands.

Theme

.......After accusing Adolph Myers of fondling male students in a Pennsylvania school, a gang of men drives him out of town. But Myers is innocent. All he did was tousle the hair of students or place his hands on their shoulders while speaking with them. That was his way of exhibiting kindness and concern for the students. His hands helped him to augment what his voice was saying. 
       Unfortunately, his innocent use of his hands as a teacher earned him the wrath of townspeople and a severe beating. The experience left him psychologically traumatized. 
       In his new town, he worked as a day laborer and lived in isolation in constant fear that his hands would again get him into trouble. So he always attempted to keep them hidden when around everyone except George Willard, the young newspaper reporter. However, one day when he unconsciously puts his hands on Willard's shoulders, he suddenly draws back and hurries away. 
       Biddlebaum lives alone on the edge of town, psychologically debilitated and unable to ply his profession as a talented teacher. He is a ruined, prematurely aging man.

Today's Biddlebaums

.......Wing Biddlebaum's tragic story calls to mind criminal cases today in which adults are accused of molesting youngsters. Many of the accused are guilty. But some of the accused, like Wing Biddlebaum, are innocent. Yet the innocent ones often suffer irreparable harm to their reputations even when an investigation finds no evidence that they committed an offense. 

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Figures of Speech

.......Following are examples of figures of speech in the poem. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.

Alliteration

The feet of the boy in the road kicked up a cloud of dust that floated across the face of the departing sun. 

forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts

Anaphora
The slender expressive fingers, forever active, forever striving to conceal themselves in his pockets or behind his back, came forth and became the piston rods of his machinery of expression. 

"You are destroying yourself," he cried. "You have the inclination to be alone and to dream and you are afraid of dreams. You want to be like others in town here. You hear them talk and you try to imitate them." 

Alliteration and Anaphora
Across a green open country came clean-limbed young men, some afoot, some mounted upon horses.

Alliteration: Across, country, came, clean
Anaphora: some afoot, some mounted on horses
Metaphor
The slender expressive fingers, forever active, forever striving to conceal themselves in his pockets or behind his back, came forth and became the piston rods of his machinery of expression. 

Comparison of the fingers to piston rods
Comparison of Biddlebaum's speaking manner to machinery
Irony
In the following quotation, Biddlebaum is speaking to George Willard, but the shortcomings he mentions are actually his own. "You are destroying yourself," he cried. "You have the inclination to be alone and to dream and you are afraid of dreams."
Simile
With a kind of wriggle, like a fish returned to the brook by the fisherman, Biddlebaum the silent began to talk.

Comparison of the movement of Biddlebaum to the wriggle of a fish

The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands. Their restless activity, like unto the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird, had given him his name.
Comparison of the activity of Biddlebaum's hands to the beating of wings

By a fence he had stopped and beating like a giant woodpecker upon the top board had shouted at George Willard, condemning his tendency to be too much influenced by the people about him. . . .
Comparison of Biddle's fist-pounding to the pecking of a woodpecker

Study Questions and Writing Topics
  • Use the following sentence from the story to form a thesis for an essay about the effects of unsubstantiated charges, then write the essay. "Hidden, shadowy doubts that had been in men's minds concerning Adolph Myers were galvanized into beliefs."
  • The first sentence of the story says, "Upon the half decayed veranda of a small frame house that stood near the edge of a ravine near the town of Winesburg, Ohio, a fat little old man walked nervously up and down." Does the word ravine suggest that Biddlebaum is living psychologically on the edge of a precipice? Does the location of his house suggest that he is isolated from humanity? Does the "half decayed veranda" suggest anything about Biddlebaum?
  • In your opinion, what kind of person was the man who beat Biddlebaum?
  • The narrator mentions that Biddlebaum ate bread laced with honey. Does eating provide a refuge for him from his worries?
  • What is the significance of the following sentence? " In the dense blotch of light beneath the table, the kneeling figure looked like a priest engaged in some service of his church. The nervous expressive fingers, flashing in and out of the light, might well have been mistaken for the fingers of the devotee going swiftly through decade after decade of his rosary."

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