In Sherwood Anderson's short story, Hands, the author lets the image of the protagonist's hands to serve as the focal point of the tale. At first the reader is not told the importance of the appendages but as the story unfolds one learns that Wing Biddlebaum, previously Adolph Myers, was accused of molesting a child two decades prior. The details are intentionally left vague and by the end, the reader is left to wonder what the truth is, and more importantly, whether the truth still matters in this case.
In the opening scene, the reader learns that Wing has but one friend, George Willard, a reporter for the Winesburg Eagle, which perhaps explains his curiousity towards Wing. As the two talk, the reader forms the image of an elderly Wing, bald and aged. This original conception is disproved later in the story but for the first several pages the reader is led to believe that Wing is several decades old.
It is later revealed that Wing is merely forty. The age of Wing is but one of the facts left ambigous throughout the tale. Part of this may have to do with the overall theme of the story, that very little is as it first seems--several things change from beginning to end, including the reader's sympathy for the protagonist. A more practical answer may be that the events of Wing's past have accelerated his aging and left him a fragile man when he should be in his prime. Much of this story can be dually interpreted, on metaphorical and literal planes.
The reader is left wondering whether Wing is guilty of the crime he is accused of. Anderson places hints leading in both directions, forcing the reader to make the final decision without certainty. The testimony of the alleged victim seems to indite Wing and the other childrens' corroboration only furthers the image of his guilt. Perhaps the most telling indicator to imply guilt is Wing's own thoughts at the conclusion of the story. Wing "hungered for the presence of the boy, who was the medium through which he expressed his love of man" The choice of words and phrasing by Anderson in this paragraph seems very deliberate. It's as if Wing was shouting out "Forget the testimony of the boy! I confess!" The placement of the paragraph at the end of the story is also important. These words are among the last taken in, fresh at the front of the reader's mind as he begins to deliberate the facts to reach a conclusion.
On the other hand, Anderson writes that Wing's accuser "imagined unspeakable things and ... went forth to tell his dreams as fact." And it's possible the other children may have exaggerated or been coerced. Wing, being a tactile person, may have used touch to express positive reinforcement for a job well done in the classroom, not realizing his expressions could be interpreted differently. After the one alleged incident, Wing went decades without another accusation. Child molesters are generally repeat offenders; if Wing truly was guilty, why did he not seek out another victim when he arrived in Winesburg? At the end of the story, when the reader is most conflicted, Anderson paints a vivid portrait of Wing Biddlebaum, alone, kneeling to pick up crumbs and forming the image of a priest praying to God. This serves to confuse the question further and can again be interpreted dually: Wing as the innocent, pious man who worships and lives a good life, despite unfortunate circumstances; and Wing as the member of a profession notorious for producing child molestors.
Anderson prompts another question when the reader learns that Wing changed his name upon leaving Pennsylvania. Originally Adolph Myers, he took his new last name, Biddlebaum, from a box of goods he saw at a freight station in eastern Ohio. His new first name came from his tendency to flutter his hands about, as if they were the wings of a bird.. The reason behind the name change is never spelled out directly, but is implied to be a safety mechanism in case word ever reached Winesburg of the "pervert from Pennsylvania." It is possible that the origins of the names Adolph (German) and Myers (Jewish) also played a role, though this is not a certainty. The story was published in 1916 and it is possible there was some sort of racial tension in Ohio at the time.
The importance of Wing Biddlebaum's hands in the story cannot be understated. They were his most prized possessions and he used them in nearly everything he did. When he talked, his hands flailed about, putting life into his speech. If he was near a table or wall, he'd pound it for emphasis. When walking along the field, he would touch the fence; anything to allow his hands external stimuli. His hands were the catalyst that took his job and life and sent him halfway across the country. Where he once used his hands to teach and inspire, Wing Biddlebaum ended up using them to pick strawberries: difficult manual labor that leaves one's hands rough and callused. Perhaps Wing saw his situtation as a fitting punishment for what he had done in Pennsylvania. He may have taken the strawberry job because he knew it would keep his hands busy and him out of trouble. At the end of the story, Wing picks up crumbs off the floor. Every detail of this story involves his hands in some way.
During one conversation with George Willard, Wing calmed his gesturing and placed his hands on George's shoulders. Something about George made Wing feel comfortable around him. Anderson alternately paints George as a boy and then a man, and during this instance he is depicted as a boy. This might contribute to Wing's comfort; if he was in fact a child molester, he would feel more at ease around a child. This also explains Wing's sudden reaction when he realized he was beginning to caress George's face.
Sherwood Anderson wrote a graphic tale of what can happen when a man is accused of a horrible crime. The details are left vague, but perhaps Anderson wrote Hands in this way so as to intentionally preclude the reader from reaching a conclusive decision. Anderson seems to say that when a person is accused of a crime, then violently beaten and forced to move away from everything he knows and loves, in the end guilt and innocence play second-string to the greater issue: words, even false ones, can destroy a life.