‘Paper Pills’ by Sherwood Anderson

Paper Pills by Sherwood Anderson, 1916

The magic trick:

Symbolism with starkness

The stories in Winesburg, Ohio are chock full of symbolism. This one might be my favorite.

There is something haunting, something tragic about Doctor Reefy and his little wadded up pieces of paper in his pockets. One of the most powerful – and probably most seminal, influential – aspects of these stories is the minimalist approach to meaning that Anderson employs. He uses a lot of symbolism and a lot of metaphor, but he rarely if ever explains directly what anything means. He rarely if ever explains how a character feels. No doubt there is a straight line from Winesburg to Hemingway to Steinbeck to Carver in that writing style.

“Paper Pills” is an excellent example. Symbolism with starkness.

And that’s quite a trick on Anderson’s part.

The selection:

The girl and Doctor Reefy began their courtship on a summer afternoon. He was forty-five then and already he had begun the practice of filling his pockets with the scraps of paper that became hard balls and were thrown away. The habit had been formed as he sat in his buggy behind the jaded white horse and went slowly along country roads. On the papers were written thoughts, ends of thoughts, beginnings of thoughts.

One by one the mind of Doctor Reefy had made the thoughts. Out of many of them he formed a truth that arose gigantic in his mind. The truth clouded the world. It became terrible and then faded away and the little thoughts began again.


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