Sherwood Anderson’s story “Hands” might be called a portrait. Like a formal painted portrait, it not only depicts Wing Biddlebaum, the central figure, as he exists but also uses background props to reveal his past and define his circumstances. Wing’s hands are the focal image of the portrait. The story also depends for effect on a series of painterly tableaux, from the sunset landscape with berry pickers with which it begins to the silhouette of Wing as a holy hermit, praying over and over the rosary of his lonely years of penance for a sin he did not commit. The use of synecdoche in which a part becomes representative of the whole, in the title keeps the tale of the unfortunate Wing in the reader’s memory; we recall his hands far longer than we do his name.
Part of Anderson’s short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio (1919), “Hands” also features George Willard, the reporter in the tales who, as a character in his own right, may be viewed as the progenitor of Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams. George is one of the few people in Winesburg who feel sympathetic to the peculiar Wing, and Wing will speak to no one but George. Wing had arrived in Winesburg two decades previously under unexplained circumstances. Gradually the unnamed third-person narrator reveals Wing’s background: He had been a teacher in Pennsylvania, popular and well liked by the boys who attended his school. Wing treated them gently, touching their shoulders or tousling their hair. Through a series of misunderstandings, a half-witted boy accuses Wing of making sexual advances on him, and Wing barely escapes the boys’ outraged fathers. Neither Wing nor George Willard experiences any clear revelation or makes any climactic decision. Wing never understands why he was driven out of Pennsylvania—he realizes only dimly that his hands were somehow to blame—and George is afraid to ask the questions that might lead them both to a liberating understanding of Wing’s experience.
The reader, however, is not permitted to remain in the dark. With the clear understanding of the way the crudity and narrow-minded suspicion of his neighbors have perverted Wing’s selfless and innocent love for his students into a source of fear and shame comes a poignant sorrow for the waste of a good man’s life. Wing’s hands may be the pride of Winesburg for their agility at picking strawberries, but the nurturing love that they betoken is feared by everyone, including George and even Wing himself, whose loneliness is as great as his capacity to love, and from which, by a cruel irony, it arises.