Loneliness. Everyone experiences it at some point, along with the need to be accepted for who they are. People make decisions and act based on the fear of being alone. The characters in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg Ohio are no different. As the reader glimpses into the loosely woven lives, he can see a young girl rush into a marriage to escape loneliness, only to feel alone anyway. Or he can see an old man who lives in fear of himself reach out for the friendship of a young man. Each character reaches out for companionship of some sort, whether in friendship, romance, or even a connection with God.
In a way each character takes a turn at being the protagonist. The major protagonist in Winesburg Ohio is George Williard, who is a young reporter. For some reason people are drawn to him and confide in him. He is the loose link among the stories.
He appears in many of the stories, sometimes as the main character, others as a way for the reader to hear the stories of the characters. There is no set antagonist throughout the book. For example, in "Hands" the antagonists are the people who run Wing Biddlebaum out of town after accusing him of molesting one of his pupils. Then in "Mother" Elizabeth Willard views her husband, Tom Willard as the antagonist. Even George Willard takes his turn as the antagonist in the eyes of Elmer Cowley in "Queer." Winesburg, Ohio is based on the town of Clyde, Ohio where Sherwood Anderson grew up. The setting of a small town that has not yet caught up with the rest of a changing America allows the characters to keep their old fashioned naivety about the world. Many of the town's inhabitants never leave Winesburg, and those that do often return to stay for the rest of their lives. The setting of a small, tightly knit community allows the stories to take place.
"Loneliness" carries the theme to the reader in the most extreme way. In this chapter, Enoch Robinson's fears lead him to lock himself away from the world and create his own imaginary friends. When he moves away from Winesburg to the New York City, he befriends a bunch of artists, but then comes to hate them. He prefers the company of his imaginary friends, who will always understand what he means and will never challenge him. He creates these people because he fears loneliness. Later he meets a woman who comes to visit him and seems to understand. But then one night he drives her away, and his imaginary friends went with her, and he is now truly alone. Enoch feared rejection so much that he created people who would accept him; so he would not be alone. But his people left with the one person he allowed to get slightly close.
Anderson's message of loneliness is a powerful one. He shows the reader what a driving force it can be, how fear of loneliness can cause people to act strangely. Everyone will feel it at some point in his life. But be careful in choices made to escape it. Rushing into something to escape or pretending to be what you are not could only cause it later.