As many of the stories in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio do, “The Strength of God” illustrates Anderson’s understanding of the grotesque as a character’s limited or distorted perspective of reality. As the old man observes in the opening story titled “The Book of the Grotesque, “The moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood” (24).
“The Strength of God” centers on the grotesque character of the Reverend Curtis Hartman, pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Winesburg for 10 years. Despite his relatively short tenure as spiritual leader of his congregation, Rev. Hartman wrestles with the doubt that the fire of the Holy Spirit burns within him and frequently grows despondent from his lack of spiritual passion. He often prays for “strength and courage for Thy Work, O Lord” and resignedly accepts his inability to ignite a religious fervor in his flock yet is a favorite with his parishioners, who view him as “quiet and unpretentious” (147). As in his spiritual life, Rev. Hartman lacks passion in his married life, having married his wife, the daughter of an affluent underwear manufacturer, for practical reasons after a long engagement, his knowledge of women limited.
One Sunday while composing his sermon in the bell tower, Rev. Hartman glimpses his neighbor, the schoolteacher Kate Swift, smoking in bed, and the sight of her naked shoulder inflames him. His head filled with thoughts of Kate, Rev. Hartman preaches his sermon, which stirs his parishioners because of “its power and clearness” (149). His sermonizing becomes more natural and less self-conscious while his conscience grows more troubled from desire, his desire as a minister to save Kate’s soul and his desire as a man to possess her body. He breaks a small hole in the bell tower window to catch further glances of Kate, troubled by the temptation of her naked body. He visits the bell tower over a number of months to gaze through the hole, relieved and frustrated when Kate remains unseen, or at times willing himself not to look as a test of his faith.
One cold night in January, consumed by passion intermingled with spiritual despair, Rev. Hartman gives in to his sexual desire and goes to the bell tower. In the cold, he waits a long time for Kate to appear despite the threat of illness. When she finally materializes, Rev. Hartman watches as the naked woman weeps and begins to pray. Deeply moved by the sight of Kate praying, Rev. Hartman breaks the window and rushes out of the church. He notices in the newspaper office the journalist George Willard, whom he tells about his salvation: “After ten years in this town, God has manifested himself to me in the body of a woman” (155). The Reverend Curtis Hartman now views the object of his sexual desire as “an instrument of God, bearing the message of truth” (155).
As Belinda Bruner points out about the schoolteacher, “Kate’s body teaches without her knowledge, serving as a kind of blank page upon which the Reverend writes his own text,” and “sexual desire and intellectual desire often come together” (365). Ironically, the woman who tempts him becomes his savior and leads him to the truth. He acknowledges he is an imperfect servant of God, who will replace the broken window and rededicate himself to his spiritual life.
Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Penguin, 1992.
Bloom, Harold. “Sherwood Anderson.” In Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.
Bruner, Belinda. “Pedagogy of the Undressed: Sherwood Anderson’s Kate Swift.” Studies in Short Fiction 36, no. 4 (1999): 361–368.