“I Want to Know Why” is a short story by Sherwood Anderson from his 1921 collection The Triumph of the Egg. Here’s a summary of “I Want to Know Why”.
“I Want to Know Why” Summary
The narrator and three friends, all white teenage boys, come to town on a freight train from Kentucky. They head right for the racetrack and stables, where Hanley finds a black man, Bildad Johnson, who works winters with horses in their hometown. He hangs around the stable men and trainers, doing favors and talking about cooking, which he’s good at. During racing season, he always gets a job as a cook for some outfit. He’s around horses all year, which the narrator envies.
The narrator and the other three boys from Beckersville—Hanley, Henry and Tom—decided they were going to go to the big races in Saratoga, with the narrator being the ringleader. They saved some money and rode freight trains to their destination. They didn’t send any letters home for fear someone would come after them.
Bildad gets them some food and lets them sleep in a shed. Black people won’t turn you in, but white people will. He doesn’t know why.
In Saratoga, the boys see adults they recognize from home. Henry’s father is a gambler and gives him expensive presents. The narrator’s dad’s a lawyer, but not really successful. Hanley and Tom’s fathers don’t like that Henry’s is a gambler.
“I Want to Know Why” Summary, Cont’d
The narrator is writing this story because he’s confused about something he saw at the races.
He’s been crazy about horses all his life. He wanted to be a rider, but got too big. He wants to be a stable boy but his father won’t let him. Track horses are beautiful. Many times, he’s walked miles in the morning to the track to watch the colts and some older horses run. He can tell which ones are the winners. If he wanted to gamble like Henry’s father, he could. The stable boys will come out on the horses and there’s the smell of bacon and coffee in the air.
They were in Saratoga six days and didn’t get recognized by anyone from home. Bildad gave them some food for the trip back. The narrator’s mother was upset but his father didn’t say much. He told them everything except the thing he was involved in alone that upset him.
At night the boys stayed in the shed and ate with the black stable hands. Before every race, the narrator goes to the enclosure where the horses are kept. On Wednesday, two popular horses, Middlestride and Sunstreak, are in the race. The narrator knows their running styles and anticipates the race, as does everyone else. He doesn’t want either one to lose.
When he sees the horses before the race, he knows it’s Sunstreak’s day. He can feel the horses energy and knows it will win. The trainer, Jerry Tillford, seems to know too, and he and the narrator recognize the feeling in each other.
“I Want to Know Why” Summary, Cont’d
The race goes as he thought it would, with Sunstreak winning and Middlestride finishing second. He feels a strong connection to Jerry Tillford, knowing how much work he put into Sunstreak and how proud he must be.
That night, he leaves his friends and wants to spend some time with Jerry. He walks along the road in the direction he saw Jerry drive off in. Eventually he comes to the farm house, which he knows is a place for bad women. A car pulls up with Jerry, Henry’s father, two men from home and two other men he doesn’t know. They’re drunk and they all go in except for Henry’s father.
The narrator sneaks up to the house and looks in a window. The women are ugly and coarse. The place smells terrible and he hears filthy talk. He hears Jerry take the credit for Sunstreak’s victory. Jerry looks at one of the women with the shine in his eyes as he had earlier at the track and he kisses her. The narrator regrets coming and wants to kill Jerry. He cries and cuts his hands from clenching his fists.
He sneaks back home but can’t sleep. He doesn’t tell his friends what he saw. They leave the next morning.
It’s about a year later, and he’s been thinking about it ever since. He still goes to the track at home but it feels different. How could Jerry, who knows what he does about horses, see Sunstreak run like that and kiss a woman like that on the same day? It spoils the whole track experience for him. Why did he do it?
(End of “I Want to Know Why” summary)
I hope this summary of “I Want to Know Why” was helpful.