Academic journal article Text Matters

The Tell-Tale Hand: Gothic Narratives and the Brain

Academic journal article Text Matters

The Tell-Tale Hand: Gothic Narratives and the Brain

Article excerpt

Text Matters, Volume 6, Number 6, 2016 DOI: 10.1515/texmat-2016-0006

Neil Forsyth

University of Lausanne

The opening story in Winesburg, Ohio (1919) by Sherwood Anderson is called simply Hands. It is about ateachers remarkable hands that sometimes seem to move independently of his will. This essay explores some of the relevant contexts and potential links, beginning with other representations of teachers hands, such as Caravaggios St. Matthew and the Angel, early efforts to establish asign-language for the deaf, and including the Montessori method of teaching children to read and write by tracing the shape of letters with their hands on rough emery paper. The essay then explores lmic hands that betray or work independently of conscious intentions, from Dr Strangelove, Mad Love, to The Beast With Five Fingers. Discussion of the medical literature about the double of our hands in the brain, including phantom hands, leads on to aseries of images that register Rodins lifelong fascination with sculpting separate hands.

The Tell-Tale Hand: Gothic Narratives and the Brain

A B S T R A C T

The Tell-Tale Hand: Gothic Narratives and the Brain

The opening story in Winesburg, Ohio (1919) by Sherwood Anderson (18761941) is called simply Hands. It tells with great sympathy the story of Wing Biddlebaum, aman meant by nature to be ateacher of youth and who these days would be named and shamed as apaedophile. His story, we are told early on is astory of hands. Their restless activity, like unto the beating of the wings of an imprisoned bird, had given him his name:

In Winesburg the hands had attracted attention merely because of their activity. With them Wing Biddlebaum had picked as high as ahundred and forty quarts of strawberries in aday. They became his distinguishing feature, the source of his fame. (Anderson 29)

Yet we also learn that

the hands alarmed their owner. He wanted to keep them hidden away and looked with amazement at the quiet inexpressive hands of other men who worked beside him in the elds, or passed, driving sleepy teams on country roads. (2829)

Nonetheless, Wing Biddlebaum

talked much with his hands. The slender expressive ngers, forever active, forever striving to conceal themselves in his pockets or behind his back, came forth and became the piston rods of his machinery of expression. (28)

Eventually Wing gets close to ayoung reporter on the Winesburg Eagle. In the presence of George Willard, Wing Biddlebaum

lost something of his timidity, and his shadowy personality, submerged in a sea of doubts, came forth to look at the world. With the young reporter at his side, he ventured in the light of day into Main Street or strode up and down on the rickety front porch of his own house, talking excitedly. (29)

Their conversations usually involve some further activity with the hands:

When he talked to George Willard, Wing Biddlebaum closed his sts and beat with them upon atable or on the walls of his house. The action made him more comfortable. If the desire to talk came to him

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Neil Forsyth

when the two were walking in the elds, he sought out astump or the top board of afence and with his hands pounding busily talked with renewed ease. (29)

The turning point of the story comes one day when Wing is urging George to live adifferent kind of life, and getting him to dream of aworld in which it is possible that young men gather about the feet of an old man beneath atree and listen to his talk. He becomes so inspired that for once he forgets his hands, which stole forth and lay upon George Willards shoulders:

Pausing in his speech, Wing Biddlebaum looked long and earnestly at George Willard. His eyes glowed. Again he raised the hands to caress the boy and then alook of horror swept over his face. . . . With aconvulsive movement of his body, Wing Biddlebaum sprang to his feet and thrust his hands deep into his trousers pockets. …

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