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Male Reproductive Strategies in Sherwood Anderson's "The Untold Lie"

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 31, Number 2, October 2007
pp. 311-322 | 10.1353/phl.2007.0031

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Singled out repeatedly as one of the finest stories in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, "The Untold Lie" (1919) has attracted surprisingly little sustained critical comment. Like all the stories in the Winesburg cycle, this one delineates a revelatory moment of inner turmoil. There is little outward action; conflict and suspense are generated chiefly in the interior of the protagonist's psyche, focusing on his ambivalence as husband and father. Readers become privy to "the buried life" of unacknowledged impulses and the "hidden truth" of repressed resentments, as Anderson's central characters struggle with the antithetical "choices available to the individual as biology works its will." A portrait of the male mind deliberating the relative advantages of alternative reproductive strategies, the story notably repays biosocial investigation. The theoretical framework, as well as the intellectual rationale, for undertaking biosocial investigation of literary texts has been explained ably by critics and aestheticians such as Joseph Carroll, Brett Cooke, Ellen Dissanayake, Robert Story, and others. Readers unfamiliar with the historical and theoretical foundations of Darwinian literary criticism will find useful commentary in works by these and other thinkers in this rapidly growing field.

Anderson concentrates on the interactions between two men at different stages in life, one middle-aged, perhaps fifty, and one youthful, "only twenty-two." The older man, Ray Pearson, has made his most important reproductive decisions well before the story begins: he has been married for many years and fathered half a dozen children (p. 203). He works as a farm hand, eking out a meagre living for his family by means of hard physical labor. A few details are sufficient to suggest his poverty: his house is "tumble-down," his children "thin-legged," his coat torn and shiny with age (pp. 203, 206). Ray's wife, "sharp" in both features and voice, appears to be a perpetually anxious scold, concerned with fundamental problems of family subsistence. Ray's direct fitness (as measured by reproductive success) promises to be respectable, but the task of rearing his numerous offspring to adulthood has required and will continue to require his utmost effort and full-time commitment. He is just barely able to support his family (food is being purchased on a day-by-day basis), and there is little margin of safety in his situation.

As foil to Ray, Anderson presents Hal Winters, a man not only younger but different in physique, in temperament, and in social class. Hal is big, tall, and broad shouldered; by way of contrast, Ray's shoulders are described as "rounded by too much and too hard labor," and he is "almost a foot shorter" than the robust Hal (p. 203ff). Inclined to prototypical masculine display, Hal is observed "roistering" about the town at night, dressing in "cheap flashy clothes." He challenges his own father in a fist fight, and as a result he is arrested and jailed. His brash and often reckless behavior is very unlike that of the "quiet, nervous," and "altogether serious" Ray. In the community Hal has the reputation of "a bad one." A fighter, a drinker, and a womanizer, he is "always up to some devilment." Unsurprisingly, Hal's family background is said not to be particularly respectable. The fathers of both Hal and Ray are small-business owners: the Winters operate a sawmill, the Pearsons a bakery. (The narrator never explains why Ray did not join or succeed his father in the bakery business, which presumably would have offered him a better income and a physically less onerous profession.) The stated difference in social standing appears to derive from the two families' differing records of conduct.

Hal's aggressive propensities seem to be at least in part hereditary. He is "the worst" of three notoriously bad brothers, all sired by "a confirmed old reprobate" (pp. 202–3). The father, old Windpeter Winters, is remembered best for the gratuitous violence of his death. Drunk, he drove his team of horses along the railroad tracks straight into the path of an oncoming train, having slashed with his whip at a neighbor who tried to deter him from his suicidal course. His death is described as an act of senseless bravado. Like an Ahab...



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