By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Strength of God’ is a short story by the American writer Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941). The story appeared in Anderson’s 1919 collection Winesburg, Ohio and concerns a minister who finds himself entertaining lustful thoughts about a woman he accidentally sees through a window one day.
‘The Strength of God’ is a story about temptation and desire, and despite its rather plain style and easy-to-understand plot, the story contains some curious ambiguities. You can read ‘The Strength of God’ here before continuing to our summary and analysis of Anderson’s story below. (The story is only short and can be read in around five minutes.)
‘The Strength of God’: plot summary
The story is about a tall, brown-bearded minister named Curtis Hartman, who is well-liked among his parishioners in Winesburg, Ohio. Hartman is married to Sarah, the daughter of an underwear manufacturer, and the couple are financially comfortable.
Every Sunday morning, Hartman sits at the top of the church’s bell-tower and prays to God for strength to help him deliver his sermon with enthusiasm, as though channelling the spirit of God himself. One Sunday morning, as he is in the tower, he looks out of the window and accidentally sees a neighbour lying on a bed, reading and smoking a cigarette. The woman, Kate Swift, is a thirty-year-old schoolteacher who lives with her mother.
Hartman is attracted to Swift but is also scandalised by her sinfulness: as well as smoking, Kate also often exposes her bare shoulders. He longs to see her again, so on a Sunday morning he uses a stone to break one corner of the window in the bell tower and sits there, waiting for the sun to rise so he can see directly into Kate’s bedroom.
However, she is not there, having gone for a walk, and Hartman considers this a sign from God that he is to be delivered from temptation.
He grows more affectionate towards his wife and tries to banish thoughts of Kate. But when he happens to discover that she lies on her bed most evenings and reads, he finds himself succumbing to temptation, and three times throughout the autumn and winter he sneaks up to the bell tower to watch her. He then walks the streets and prays to God afterwards.
Hartman decides he must resist temptation by putting itself directly in its path. So he goes up to the bell tower and refuses to repair the window, forcing himself not to look at Kate, no matter how tempted he might be to peer out of the window and into her bedroom. He believes God has sent him this temptation as a test, and he must show himself worthy by passing it.
However, he finds it impossible to quell his desire for her, and decided it would be better to quit the ministry and give in to sin, starting a relationship with another woman, rather than entertaining sinful desires and hypocritically preaching against them from the pulpit. He blames his wife for depriving him of a passionate relationship with a woman and resolves to throw himself at Kate. He then falls ill with a fever from going out into the cold and sitting in the bell-tower.
His behaviour grows increasingly strange, until one evening he sees Kate fall on the bed, completely naked, crying and praying to God. She is clearly distressed and beats the pillows in her emotional state. Seeing her in this devout pose changes Hartman’s perception of her and his sexual desire disappears.
Exhilarated, he rushes out into the night and speaks to the local newspaper man, George Willard, telling him that God has manifested himself in the form of a woman, Kate Swift. He tells George that he has been delivered from his sin and now has nothing to fear. He says that he will replace the window in the bell-tower which he broke.
‘The Strength of God’: analysis
‘The Strength of God’ is a story about temptation, religious piety, and the struggle between worldly desires and spiritual and emotional responsibilities and commitments. Curtis Hartman, whose very surname suggests a man of the heart, discovers he is actually a man of the flesh: it is another organ than his heart which is, apparently, calling the shots.
Sherwood Anderson’s short stories are renowned for their clear, accessible style, in which everything appears to be on the surface. He is not interested in stylistic experimentation or constructing elliptical narratives. As with the stories of Mark Twain (a big influence on him) or O. Henry, the reader is given everything they need to understand and interpret the story’s meaning. And yet at the level of character, ‘The Strength of God’ raises some more troubling questions.
Consider Hartman himself, the protagonist of the story. Despite his height and his demeanour, and his bushy brown beard, Hartman is not an especially strong man. Indeed, in many respects he is passive and weak. He drifts through his job as a minister, delivering adequate but by no means inspirational sermons. His wife did more to initiate and maintain their courtship than he did.
What’s more, he tries blaming other people, including God and even his own wife, for his feelings towards Kate. He blames his wife for being ‘ashamed of passion’ and for having ‘cheated’ him of a fulfilling sexual relationship. Initially, he also tries to ‘other’ Kate by viewing her as a sinful woman when he first encounters her (smoking was often associated with the sexually liberated ‘New Woman’ of this period): one of these modern women who are out to lead good men astray with their bare shoulders and their necks.
Ironically, of course, when Hartman is given a full-frontal (or the opposite: Kate is described as lying face downward on the bed) view of the woman he lusts after, his desire is almost immediately extinguished. One could argue that this has happened partly because the mystery of Kate’s nakedness – of what else lies beneath her clothes, below her bare shoulders and neck – has been removed, and the mystery, the hint of something more revealing, was what attracted him to her. (It was Philip Larkin who observed that ‘unbuttoning’ was the most erotic word in the English language – ahead of, say, ‘nude’ or ‘undressed’.)
Once the ‘hint’ has become a full-blown male gaze, the erotic attraction dissipates.
However, Hartman is also probably being at least partly honest when he declares to George Willard, at the end of ‘The Strength of God’, that – to him – Kate represents a divine manifestation, which puts him back in touch with spiritual fulfilment rather than physical lust. The fact that she is praying to God – putting him in mind of the figure of the boy depicted in the tower’s leaded window, where the boy is being blessed by Christ.
That said, we might question whether this is not also Hartman trying to find an easy way out of his predicament. He has allowed Kate to take on the figure of a femme fatale, leading him to sin and worldly destruction, and the narrative is a hard one to break. She cannot be ignored; he knows it would be the end of his reputation and marriage to pursue her. He tries to forget her, to resist temptation, but realises he is too weak to do that.
The only way of resolving his problem, of breaking himself free from the cycle in which he has become trapped, is to transform he narrative, taking control of it and turning Kate into a symbol of something else. But being passive, he needs a sign from beyond himself to make this happen. He believes God has sent him such a sign in the figure of Kate praying.
Yet there is some reason to doubt this self-diagnosis of salvation. For one, Hartman lies to Willard (and to himself?) about how he broke the window, claiming in the story’s final words that ‘The strength of God was in me and I broke it with my fist.’ But he broke the window not with his fist, but with a stone. If the strength of God didn’t break the window, has the strength of God really given Hartman the strength to replace it?