Symbolism in the Short Story "Sophistication" by Sherwood Anderson
Sherwood Anderson's "Sophistication" was first published in 1919. The story follows the characters George Willard and Helen White while in the midst of a transition into adulthood. That transition is riddled with confusion, sadness and a sense of isolation for the two, but ultimately brings them closer together. There are several symbols employed in the story, including leaves, hands, corn, crowds, darkness and silence.
One important nature-related symbol in the story is leaves. The author writes: "With a little gasp he sees himself as merely a leaf blown by the wind through the streets of his village." The leaves symbolize George's uncertainty about his future and about the legacy he will leave behind. The 18-year-old protagonist's transition into adulthood involves the revelation that he has been a mere leaf blown about the world, and the lack of direction and purpose he observes in himself he translates into an existentialist worldview about human life that is present throughout the story.
Hands symbolize George's desire to connect deeply with others, and in particular with Helen. The author writes: "With all his heart he wants to come close to some other human, touch someone with his hands, be touched by the hand of another." This "touching" includes a sense of understanding and being understood. Anderson writes: "If he prefers that the other be a woman, that is because he believes that a woman will be gentle, that she will understand. He wants, most of all, understanding." Later, the symbol of the hand transitions from a longing to be understood to actually being understood and being given a purpose. Anderson writes: "It was as though her woman's hand was assisting him to make some minute readjustment of the machinery of his life."
Corn is a repeated symbol in "Sophistication." It represents the cycles of life, including aspects of innocence and mortality. Anderson writes: "He knows that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun." Here George is reflecting on the futility of boasting; ultimately, like corn, all people "wilt" away. At times, the young corn symbolizes George's own youthfulness and immaturity. We see that he had tried to impress Helen White by bragging -- a juvenile act -- and later as he reflects on that encounter he feels ashamed. The author writes: "George thought of the talk beside the field of young corn and was ashamed of the figure he had made of himself." The young corn represents his own young thoughts and juvenile priorities.
The crowds in this story symbolize the confusion and complexity of adult life. George is surrounded by crowds, but he is never an active part of them, often finding himself trying to navigate through them. Anderson writes: "Pushing his way through the crowds in Main Street, young George Willard concealed himself in the stairway leading to Doctor Reefy's office and looked at the people." He is transitioning into the world of being an adult, and is therefore surrounded by the "crowds" of it; however, he is not yet ready to fully join. Anderson writes that "he wandered gloomily through the crowds...", signifying the solitary quality of the rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. The crowds is also a symbol of adulthood for Helen. The author writes: "She thought that the months she had spent in the city, the going to theaters and the seeing of great crowds wandering in lighted thoroughfares, had changed her profoundly." Even for Helen the complexity and chaos of crowds symbolize the life experience that constitutes the passage into adulthood.
Darkness and Silence
Darkness and silence reveal the loneliness and fleeting "insignificance" of human life, while also serving as a medium for individuals to feel one another's presence more profoundly. Anderson writes: "In that high place in the darkness the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited." The silence is also an important symbol because it represents an absence of talking, particularly of boasting -- a vice we observe in George as a young man, the pedantic instructor, and Wesley Moyer. Silence, a tool for reflection on oneself and the world, serves as a symbol for adulthood.
Soheila Battaglia is a published and award-winning author and filmmaker. She holds an MA in literary cultures from New York University and a BA in ethnic studies from UC Berkeley. She is a college professor of literature and composition.