An Awakening by
From The Little Review
Belle Carpenter had a dark skin, grey eyes and thick lips. She was
tall and strong. When black thoughts visited her she grew angry and
wished she were a man and could fight someone with her fists. She
worked in the millinery shop kept by Mrs. Nate McHugh and during the
day sat trimming hats by a window at the rear of the store. She was the
daughter of Henry Carpenter, bookkeeper in the First National Bank of
Winesburg, Ohio, and lived with him in a gloomy old house far out at
the end of Buckeye Street. The house was surrounded by pine trees and
there was no grass beneath the trees. A rusty tin eaves-trough had
slipped from its fastenings at the back of the house and when the wind
blew it beat against the roof of a small shed, making a dismal drumming
noise that sometimes persisted all through the night.
When she was a young girl Henry Carpenter made life almost
unbearable for his daughter, but as she emerged from girlhood into
womanhood he lost his power over her. The bookkeeper's life was made up
of innumerable little pettinesses. When he went to the bank in the
morning he stepped into a closet and put on a black alpaca coat that
had become shabby with age. At night when he returned to his home he
donned another black alpaca coat. Every evening he pressed the clothes
worn in the streets. He had invented an arrangement of boards for the
purpose. The trousers to his street suit were placed between the boards
and the boards were clamped together with heavy screws. In the morning
he wiped the boards with a damp cloth and stood them upright behind the
dining room door. If they were moved during the day he was speechless
with anger and did not recover his equilibrium for a week.
The bank cashier was a little bully and was afraid of his daughter.
She, he realized, knew the story of his brutal treatment of the girl's
mother and hated him for it. One day she went home at noon and carried
a handful of soft mud, taken from the road, into the house. With the
mud she smeared the face of the boards used for the pressing of
trousers and then went back to her work feeling relieved and happy.
Belle Carpenter occasionally walked out in the evening with George
Willard, a reporter on the Winesburg Eagle. Secretly she loved another
man, but her love affair, about which no one knew, caused her much
anxiety. She was in love with Ed Handby, bartender in Ed Griffith's
Saloon, and went about with the young reporter as a kind of relief to
her feelings. She did not think that her station in life would permit
her to be seen in the company of the bartender, and she walked about
under the trees with George Willard and let him kiss her to relieve a
longing that was very insistent in her nature. She felt that she could
keep the younger man within bounds. About Ed Handby she was somewhat
Handby, the bartender, was a tall broad-shouldered man of thirty who
lived in a room upstairs above Griffith's saloon. His fists were large
and his eyes unusually small but his voice, as though striving to
conceal the power back of his fists, was soft and quiet.
At twenty-five the bartender had inherited a large farm from an
uncle in Indiana. When sold the farm brought in eight thousand dollars
which Ed spent in six months. Going to Sandusky, on Lake Erie, he began
an orgy of dissipation, the story of which afterward filled his home
town with awe. Here and there he went throwing the money about, driving
carriages through the streets, giving wine parties to crowds of men and
women, playing cards for high stakes and keeping mistresses whose
wardrobes cost him hundreds of dollars. One night at a resort called
Cedar Point he got into a fight and ran amuck like a wild thing. With
his fist he broke a large mirror in the wash-room of a hotel and later
went about smashing windows and breaking chairs in dance halls for the
joy of hearing the glass rattle on the floor and seeing the terror in
the eyes of clerks, who had come from Sandusky to spend the evening at
the resort with their sweethearts.
The affair between Ed Handby and Belle Carpenter on the surface
amounted to nothing. He had succeeded in spending but one evening in
her company. On that evening he hired a horse and buggy at Wesley
Moyer's livery barn and took her for a drive. The conviction that she
was the woman his nature demanded and that he must get her, settled
upon him and he told her of his desires. The bartender was ready to
marry and to begin trying to earn money for the support of his wife,
but so simple was his nature that he found it difficult to explain his
intentions. His body ached with physical longing and with his body he
expressed himself. Taking the milliner into his arms and holding her
tightly, in spite of her struggles, he kissed her until she became
helpless. Then he brought her back to town and let her out of the
buggy. When I get hold of you again I'll not let you go. You can't
play with me, he declared as he turned to drive away. Then, jumping
out of the buggy, he gripped her shoulders with his strong hands. I'll
keep you for good the next time, he said. You might as well make up
your mind to that. It's you and me for it and I'm going to have you
before I get through.
* * *
One night in January when there was a new moon George Willard, who
was, in Ed Handby's mind, the only obstacle to his getting Belle
Carpenter, went for a walk. Early that evening George went into Ransom
Surbeck's pool room with Seth Richmond and Art Wilson, son of the town
butcher. Seth Richmond stood with his back against the wall and
remained silent, but George Willard talked. The pool room was filled
with Winesburg boys and they talked of women. The young reporter got
into that vein. He said that women should look out for themselves that
the fellow who went out with a girl was not responsible for what
happened. As he talked he looked about, eager for attention. He held
the floor for five minutes and then Art Wilson began to talk. Art was
learning the barber's trade in Cal Prouse's shop and already began to
consider himself an authority in such matters as baseball, horse
racing, drinking and going about with women. He began to tell of a
night when he with two men from Winesburg went into a house of
prostitution at the County Seat. The butcher's son held a cigar in the
side of his mouth and as he talked spat on the floor. The women in the
place couldn't embarrass me although they tried hard enough, he
boasted. One of the girls in the house tried to get fresh but I fooled
her. As soon as she began to talk I went and sat in her lap. Everyone
in the room laughed when I kissed her. I taught her to let me alone.
George Willard went out of the pool room and into Main Street. For
days the weather had been bitter cold with a high wind blowing down on
the town from Lake Erie, eighteen miles to the north, but on that night
the wind had died away and a new moon made the night unusually lovely.
Without thinking where he was going or what he wanted to do George went
out of Main Street and began walking in dimly lighted streets filled
with frame houses.
Out of doors under the black sky filled with stars he forgot his
companions of the pool room. Because it was dark and he was alone he
began to talk aloud. In a spirit of play he reeled along the street
imitating a drunken man and then imagined himself a soldier clad in
shining boots that reached to the knees and wearing a sword that
jingled as he walked. As a soldier he pictured himself as an inspector,
passing before a long line of men who stood at attention. He began to
examine the accoutrements of the men. Before a tree he stopped and
began to scold. Your pack is not in order, he said sharply. How many
times will I have to speak of this matter? Everything must be in order
here. We have a difficult task before us and no difficult task can be
done without order.
Hypnotized by his own words the young man stumbled along the board
sidewalk saying more words. There is a law for armies and for men
too, he muttered, lost in reflection. The law begins with little
things and spreads out until it covers everything. In every little
thing there must be order, in the place where men work, in their
clothes, in their thoughts. I myself must be orderly. I must learn that
law. I must get myself into touch with something orderly and big that
swings through the night like a star. In my little way I must begin to
learn something, to give and swing and work with life, with the law.
George Willard stopped by a picket fence near a street lamp and his
body began to tremble. He had never before thought such thoughts as had
just come into his head and he wondered where they had come from. For
the moment it seemed to him that some voice outside of himself had been
talking as he walked. He was amazed and delighted with his own mind and
when he walked on again spoke of the matter with fervor. To come out
of Ransom Surbeck's pool room and think things like that, he
whispered. It is better to be alone. If I talked like Art Wilson the
boys would understand me but they wouldn't understand what I have been
thinking down here.
In Winesburg, as in all Ohio towns of twenty years ago, there was a
section in which lived day laborers. As the time of factories had not
yet come the laborers worked in the fields or were section hands on the
railroads. They worked twelve hours a day and received one dollar for
the long day of toil. The houses in which they lived were small cheaply
constructed wooden affairs with a garden at the back. The more
comfortable among them kept cows and perhaps a pig, housed in a little
shed at the rear of the garden.
With his head filled with resounding thoughts George Willard walked
into such a street on the clear January night. The street was dimly
lighted and in places there was no sidewalk. In the scene that lay
about him there was something that excited his already aroused fancy.
For a year he had been devoting all of his odd moments to the reading
of books and now some tale he had read concerning life in old world
towns of the middle ages came sharply back to his mind so that he
stumbled forward with the curious feeling of one revisiting a place
that had been a part of some former existence. On an impulse he turned
out of the street and went into a little dark alleyway behind the sheds
in which lived the cows and pigs.
For a half hour he stayed in the alleyway, smelling the strong smell
of animals too closely housed and letting his mind play with the
strange new thoughts that came to him. The very rankness of the smell
of manure in the clear sweet air awoke something heady in his brain.
The poor little houses lighted by kerosene lamps, the smoke from the
chimneys mounting straight up into the clear air, the grunting of pigs,
the women clad in cheap calico dresses and washing dishes in the
kitchens, the footsteps of men coming out of the houses and going off
to the stores and saloons of Main Street, the dogs barking and the
children cryingall these things made him seem, as he lurked in the
darkness, oddly detached and apart from all life.
The excited young man, unable to bear the weight of his own
thoughts, began to move cautiously along the alleyway. A dog attacked
him and had to be driven away with stones and a man appeared at the
door of one of the houses and began to swear at the dog. George went
into a vacant lot and throwing back his head looked up at the sky. He
felt unutterably big and re-made by the simple experience through which
he had been passing and in a kind of fervor of emotion put up his
hands, thrusting them into the darkness above his head and muttering
words. The desire to say words overcame him and he said words without
meaning, rolling them over on his tongue and saying them because they
were brave words, full of meaning. Death, he muttered, night, the
sea, fear, loveliness. George Willard came out of the vacant lot and
stood again on the sidewalk facing the houses. He felt that all of the
people in the little street must be brothers and sisters to him and he
wished he had the courage to call them out of their houses and to shake
their hands. If there were only a woman here I would take hold of her
hand and we would run until we were both tired out, he thought. That
would make me feel better. With the thought of a woman in his mind he
walked out of the street and went toward the house where Belle
Carpenter lived. He thought she would understand his mood and that he
would achieve in her presence a position he had long been wanting to
achieve. In the past when he had been with her and had kissed her lips
he had come away filled with anger at himself. He had felt like one
being used for some obscure purpose and had not enjoyed the feeling.
Now he thought he had suddenly become too big to be used.
When George Willard got to Belle Carpenter's house there had already
been a visitor there before him. Ed Handby had come to the door and
calling Belle out of the house had tried to talk to her. He had wanted
to ask the woman to come away with him and to be his wife, but when she
came and stood by the door he lost his self-assurance and became
sullen. You stay away from that kid, he growled, thinking of George
Willard, and then, not knowing what else to say, turned to go away. If
I catch you together I will break your bones and his too, he added.
The bartender had come to woo, not to threaten, and was angry with
himself because of his failure.
When her lover had departed Belle went indoors and ran hurriedly
upstairs. From a window at the upper part of the house she saw Ed
Handby cross the street and sit down on a horse block before the house
of a neighbor. In the dim light the man sat motionless holding his head
in his hands. She was made happy by the sight and when George Willard
came to the door she greeted him effusively and hurriedly put on her
hat. She thought that as she walked through the streets with young
Willard, Ed Handby would follow and she wanted to make him suffer.
For an hour Belle Carpenter and the young reporter walked about
under the trees in the sweet night air. George Willard was full of big
words. The sense of power that had come to him during the hour in the
darkness of the alleyway remained with him and he talked boldly,
swaggering along and swinging his arms about. He wanted to make Belle
Carpenter realize that he was aware of his former weakness and that he
had changed. You will find me different, he declared, thrusting his
hands into his pockets and looking boldly into her eyes. I don't know
why but it is so. You have got to take me for a man or let me alone.
That's how it is.
Up and down the quiet streets under the new moon went the woman and
the boy. When George had finished talking they turned down a side
street and went across a bridge into a path that ran up the side of a
hill. The hill began at Waterworks Pond and climbed upwards to the
Winesburg Fair Grounds. On the hillside grew dense bushes and small
trees and among the bushes were little open spaces carpeted with long
grass, now stiff and frozen.
As he walked behind the woman up the hill George Willard's heart
began to beat rapidly and his shoulders straightened. Suddenly he
decided that Belle Carpenter was about to surrender herself to him. The
new force that had manifested itself in him had he felt been at work
upon her and had led to her conquest. The thought made him half drunk
with the sense of masculine power. Although he had been annoyed that as
they walked about she had not seemed to be listening to his words, the
fact that she had accompanied him to this place took all his doubts
away. It is different. Everything has become different, he thought
and taking hold of her shoulder turned her about and stood looking at
her, his eyes shining with pride.
Belle Carpenter did not resist. When he kissed her upon the lips she
leaned heavily against him and looked over his shoulder into the
darkness. In her whole attitude there was a suggestion of waiting.
Again, as in the alleyway, George Willard's mind ran off into words
and, holding the woman tightly, he whispered the words into the still
night. Lust, he whispered, lust and night and women.
* * *
George Willard did not understand what happened to him that night on
the hillside. Later, when he got to his own room, he wanted to weep and
then grew half insane with anger and hate. He hated Belle Carpenter and
was sure that all his life he would continue to hate her. On the
hillside he had led the woman to one of the little open spaces among
the bushes and had dropped to his knees beside her. As in the vacant
lot, by the laborers' houses, he had put up his hands in gratitude for
the new power in himself and was waiting for the woman to speak when Ed
The bartender did not want to beat the boy, who he thought had tried
to take his woman away. He knew that beating was unnecessary, that he
had power within himself to accomplish his purpose without that.
Gripping George by the shoulder and pulling him to his feet he held him
with one hand while he looked at Belle Carpenter seated on the grass.
Then with a quick wide movement of his arm he sent the younger man
sprawling away into the bushes and began to bully the woman, who had
risen to her feet. You're no good, he said roughly. I've half a mind
not to bother with you. I'd let you alone if I didn't want you so
On his hands and knees in the bushes George Willard stared at the
scene before him and tried hard to think. He prepared to spring at the
man who had humiliated him. To be beaten seemed infinitely better than
to be thus hurled ignominiously aside.
Three times the young reporter sprang at Ed Handby and each time the
bartender, catching him by the shoulder, hurled him back into the
bushes. The older man seemed prepared to keep the exercise going
indefinitely but George Willard's head struck the root of a tree and he
lay still. Then Ed Handby took Belle Carpenter by the arm and marched
George heard the man and woman making their way through the bushes.
As he crept down the hillside his heart was sick within him. He hated
himself and he hated the fate that had brought about his humiliation.
When his mind went back to the hour alone in the alleyway he was
puzzled, and stopping in the darkness, listened, hoping to hear again
the voice, outside himself, that had so short a time before put new
courage into his heart. When his way homeward led him again into the
street of frame houses he could not bear the sight and began to run,
wanting to get quickly out of the neighborhood that now seemed to him
utterly squalid and commonplace.