In literature as in life, there is often a conflict between individual expression and the perceptions of the community. Sometimes these differences are sufficient to force the individual to completely suppress their identity rather than face the wrath of the community. This was often the case with women as they struggled to overcome the role definitions of the 18th and 19th centuries. However, this wasn’t the exclusive domain of women; men who did not fit within the socially prescribed roles also often had difficulties. This is the case in Sherwood Andersen’s short story “Hands.” The conflict between individualism and community in “Hands” shows that communities like Biddlebaums’ Pensylwania community use violence only against individuals who pose a threat to their stability.
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The main character in the story is Wing Biddlebaum, who was originally called Adolph Myers and whose personality in his older years in Winesburg, Ohio is significantly different from his personality in Pennsylvania as a result of the violence done to him in the eastern town. Far from the recluse of Winesburg, Myers was a man who was much involved with others when he worked as a teacher in the Pennsylvania town. “Adolph Myers was meant by nature to be a teacher of youth.
He was one of those rare, little-understood men who rule by a power so gentle that it passes as a lovable weakness.” As the story reveals, his individuality was expressed not only in his quiet manner and dreamlike view of life but also by the expressive hands that helped him formulate his thoughts. “Here and there went his hands, caressing the shoulders of the boys, playing about the tousled heads … In a way, the voice and the hands, the stroking of the shoulders and the touching of the hair were a part of the schoolmaster’s effort to carry a dream into the young minds. By the caress that was in his fingers, he expressed himself.” By itself, this was seen as a harmless trait and Myers was well-respected as being inspirational among the boys.
However, when one boy misconstrued the touches to be something more than they were and then started to spread lies about them, the community reacted immediately and violently. “Hidden shadowy doubts that had been in men’s minds concerning Adolph Myers were galvanized into beliefs. One afternoon a man of the town … began to beat him [Myers] with his fists.”
The one answer Myers received as to the sudden change of heart regarding his status in the town was the repeated message that he should ‘keep his hands to himself.’ “Adolph Myers was driven from the Pennsylvania town in the night.” Although the town had intended to hang him for his disturbing and disruptive alleged activities, his pure helplessness and obvious innocence prevented them from carrying out the action.
From this experience, Wing Biddlebaum, having changed his name to protect himself, learned that as long as the community did not perceive him as a threat of any kind, he was safe from such violent reactions. His hands had something to do with it, so the fluttering, hopeless nature of their thwarted expressiveness earned him the nickname of Wing, and their energy was put into the unrewarding task of picking berries as a hired hand.