“Paper Pills” by Sherwood Anderson tells the tale of the Doctor Reefy and his young wife, both prominent residents of the small and rural town of Winesburg, Ohio. He is a lonely man, very set in his ways and she has been left with dozens of suitors after her parents died, leaving her a vast fortune of land and capitol. After becoming pregnant by one of these suitors, she goes to see Doctor Reefy who, instead of giving her medical attention, takes her on a ride through the country. They quickly fall in love but she dies but a year after their marriage.
I’ve never read a story in which the sense of touch is so monumentally important. One of the things I highlighted were the dozens of references to hard, rounded objects, and both the sicknesses and beauties that lay within them. In the paper pills, there lie the thoughts of the good Doctor Reefy, in the belly of the tall dark girl there lies an unwanted child. In the gnarled apples, there is a tender lump of sweet flesh and in the jeweler’s cold eyes there is a lurking lust. The repetition of this symbol creates a very interesting impression on the reader’s thoughts surrounding Doctor Reefy. To the outside world, he is cold and “jaded”, as is his horse, but to the tall dark girl he falls in love with, he seems to be a warm “summer afternoon”.
I also think it’s interesting to examine how stories such as this one function when removed from the context of their larger collection. “Paper Pills” is a short chapter from Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio which chronicles the comings and goings of a small town much in the same fashion as John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row or Carsen Jensen’s We, the Drowned. In my opinion, this story does stand up to being removed from its kin dually through its incredible description and its grip on the narrative. I don’t usually like stories with basic hooks like “Within a year after the marriage she died”. Lines like that are supposed to make you wonder whether or not the rich lady was married for her money and murdered for her land and the tactic is somewhat cliché, I think. But this story does something really interesting with it. It leaves the question totally open but hints, again and again, as to a lurking evil within both the doctor and the setting itself. The text is ripe with “twisted apples”, “dripping” jaws, and blood running “down on [a] woman’s white dress”. Each of these is dark because it takes something sweet and turns it rancid; the sweetest apples are trapped within the deformed skins, the kisses of a lover are turned into bloody and bruised bite marks, and the pregnancy of young woman is contrasted with an old lady roaring as her teeth are pulled, raw and wet, from her jaw. This lurking contrast serves to cast a rather horrible and uncertain light on the marriage of Doctor Reefy and his tall dark bride. Was their loving marriage ended so suddenly by foul play? It is this nagging question that keeps the reader invested in the story despite the lack of it’s collection.
I also highlighted indirect characterization because I think it’s a really interesting tactic in fiction that I’m still working on getting down. The perfection of Anderson’s indirect characterization is that there’s no question about it. You know immediately that the horse Doctor Reefy drives to and from the town is not the jaded one, but him. His wife wasn’t merely left fertile land, but left alone and rich in her child-bearing years. It is obvious and yet incredibly elegant and nonchalant.
- Write a story in which the ending is revealed in the very beginning.
- Pick a story you’ve already written and choose an unimportant character. Write that character a story.
- Did it bother you that this story was from a larger work? Did you know it was?
- This story functions almost inversely from “Backpack”. In that story, the truth is revealed only at the end, while in this story the ending is revealed at the beginning and the truth is never truly revealed. Which worked better? Did this one feel more like a “gotcha hook”?
- How did y’all interpret the repletion of the hard objects?