‘Unlighted Lamps’ by Sherwood Anderson


Unlighted Lamps by Sherwood Anderson, 1921

The magic trick:

Changing points of view to emphasize the disconnect between a father and daughter

Everything about this story is perfect, right on down to the lovely image given us in the title. A doctor learns of his own impending death and shares the sad news with his daughter. This causes both father and daughter to reflect on their relationship together and the lack of any open, tender expression between them.

But of course they do this reflection separately. Cleverly, the story follows each father and daughter with separate point of view sections. The reader is able to fully understand each perspective – which only makes our sympathies grow for both of them. But it also highlights the disconnect between them. And that’s quite a trick on Anderson’s part.

The selection:

A broad-shouldered man dressed in rough clothes came down along the street and stopping on the bridge spoke to her. It was the first time she had ever heard a citizen of her home town speak with feeling of her father. “You are Doctor Cochran’s daughter?” he asked hesitatingly. “I guess you don’t know who I am but your father does.” He pointed toward the two boys who sat with fishpoles in their hands on the weed-grown bank of the creek. “Those are my boys and I have four other children,” he explained. “There is another boy and I have three girls. One of my daughters has a job in a store. She is as old as yourself.” The man explained his relations with Doctor Cochran. He had been a farm laborer, he said, and had but recently moved to town to work in the furniture factory. During the previous winter he had been ill for a long time and had no money. While he lay in bed one of his boys fell out of a barn loft and there was a terrible cut in his head.

“Your father came every day to see us and he sewed up my Tom’s head.” The laborer turned away from Mary and stood with his cap in his hand looking toward the boys. “I was down and out and your father not only took care of me and the boys but he gave my old woman money to buy the things we had to have from the stores in town here, groceries and medicines.” The man spoke in such low tones that Mary had to lean forward to hear his words. Her face almost touched the laborer’s shoulder. “Your father is a good man and I don’t think he is very happy,” he went on. “The boy and I got well and I got work here in town but he wouldn’t take any money from me. ‘You know how to live with your children and with your wife. You know how to make them happy. Keep your money and spend it on them,’ that’s what he said to me.”


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