Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Sherwood Anderson’s “The Untold Lie,” from his longer work Winesburg, Ohio, introduces us to two farmworkers named Hal and Ray. Hal is young and a member of a wild and somewhat disreputable family, “all fighters and woman-chasers and generally all around bad ones.” Ray is older, the father of “half a dozen thin-legged children,” and the occupant of “a tumble-down frame house beside a creek at the back end of the Wills farm where Ray was employed.” Quiet, hard-working, and reliable, Ray’s efforts seem to have earned him nothing but round shoulders and a prematurely aged look.
One day, Ray and Hal are shucking corn in a field when it suddenly strikes Ray that Fate has robbed him of any real opportunity to enjoy the few brief years he’s been given. He mutters, seemingly to himself, “Tricked by Gad, that’s what I was, tricked by life and made a fool of.”
Hal overhears Ray’s remark and realizes that Ray is talking about marriage and fatherhood. This causes Hal to confide that he has just gotten a girl pregnant himself, and he’s thought of just taking off, rather than getting “harnessed up and driven through life like a horse.” Assuming that Ray may have been in the same predicament himself at one time, Hal asks the older man’s advice; what should he really do? “There can’t anyone break me but I can break myself. Shall I do it or shall I tell Nell to go to the devil? Come on, you tell me. Whatever you say, Ray, I’ll do.”
Ray cannot even reply; tears spring to his eyes and he strides off to the barn. He knows what he should say: accept your responsibilities and marry the girl. But he has been in the same predicament himself, and following that course has stunted his life. Later on that evening, he realizes that the most heroic act of his life might be to tell Hal the truth. Tearing off the ratty overcoat that symbolizes his ruined life, Ray runs off through the fields, yelling that “[Children] are the accidents of life, Hal….They are not mine or yours.”
By the time Ray catches up with Hal, however, Hal has already decided to propose to his girlfriend. But he senses what Ray has come to tell him, and so the message in effect got delivered without Ray having to say anything—which is good, because Ray concludes that whichever message he delivered would have been a lie. For some people, getting married is a blessing, and for others it’s a curse; life doesn’t operate by uniform rules. Each individual has to follow the course that is right for him- or herself; no one else’s example has any relevance.
“The Untold Lie” can be found in Anderson’s collection Winesburg, Ohio.
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