Death in the Woods by Sherwood Anderson is a gripping tale that deals with the themes of struggle, isolation, misogyny and selfishness. This story was published in Anderson’s short-story collection “Death in the woods and other stories”, in 1933. This is a compelling story about an old woman’s miserable life. The author uses an unreliable narrator to create a mystic and intriguing plot. Anderson collects from his own experiences to create an enchanting and powerful tale.
Death in the Woods | Summary
The author says that there are often some insignificant old women seen around all over the country who are mostly ignored by everyone. He then talks about the story of one particular old woman who used to walk into the town, selling eggs and in exchange for supplies. She used to be followed by a couple of large dogs. That woman was named Grimes; she lived with her husband and son in a small cottage near a creek, a few miles out of town. Her husband had a bad reputation, the narrator recalls his encounter with Jake Grimes and how his thrilling glance made him afraid.
The narrator then goes on to describe how the old couple got married. Jake used to work at a German’s farm where he meets a young servant girl, the narrator says that she is a “bound girl”. The girl is being sexually harassed by the German and decides to leave with Jake. The German and Jake get into a fight and the girl manages to escape with Jake. The girl and Jake get married and have two kids. The daughter dies while the son lives. He grows up to be just like his father. They both get drunk and don’t work much. They sometimes go away for weeks without telling the old woman. The poor woman has to take care of all the livestock and make sure that everyone gets fed. She has no money and has to find ways to make things work by selling eggs.
One cold winter day the old woman goes into the town along with her dogs. She sells her eggs in exchange for a few groceries and goes to the butcher to ask for scraps of meat. The butcher is annoyed at the old woman’s husband for making her do all the work. He says he’d rather see her husband and son starve, the woman gets mildly surprised at this reaction. As the woman makes her way back home, she decides to take a shortcut through the woods. She straps the pack of grains and meat onto her back and crawls over a fence. Exhausted she finds a clearing and sits down under a tree to rest. She falls asleep and eventually dies. Her dogs along with a few more farm dogs start to run silently around the clearing and put their noses up to the woman’s face.
The narrator says that a cold, clear night lets some old instinct take hold of these dogs as they circle around in “a kind of death ceremony.” The narrator knows these details because years later as a young man he found himself in a similar condition in the woods and the dogs doing the same thing. When the woman dies the dogs drag her body out into the clearing trying to snatch the pack of meat tied to her back. They accidently strip her clothes. A hunter finds her body after a while, frozen in the snow her body looks like a young girl. The townspeople go into the woods to examine the body. The narrator and his brother also tag along. They go home and his brother tells their family what they witnessed. The narrator only remembers the image of the woman’s body in the clearing. He says that somehow that scene has become “the foundation for the real story I am now trying to tell.” In a disconnected fashion, he describes how, as a young man, he worked for a German farmer whose hired girl feared him. He recounts how, as a child one summer day, he and a friend went to the old Grimes house, which had been abandoned except for a pair of tall, gaunt dogs. He believes his brother did not tell the story correctly and that’s why he is telling the story over again. The narrator compares the woman’s story to a piece of faint music, heard from far away, which needs to be listened to slowly before it is truly understood.
Death in the Woods | Analysis
There are a lot of sad and disturbing elements in the story. The story is narrated in first person by an unmanned narrator, the narrator appears to be greatly fascinated by the old woman’s story and as we learn later he may not be completely reliable. He creates his own fiction to fill in the gaps in the old woman’s story about which he had no knowledge. The dead body of Mrs. Grimes appears “white and lovely” to the narrator, like a marble statue. That image fascinated him and troubled him for a long time. The narrator wasn’t present to witness a lot of the things; he had little idea about Mrs. Grimes’s life. He was also very young when he witnessed her death. As an adult, he couldn’t find all the facts to join the story thus he invented some parts using his personal experiences. He used his imagination to create this story. The story is also about the narrator gaining a better understanding of himself.
He was the man working at a German’s farm who witnessed a servant girl being harassed and he also saw dogs circle in the woods while he was on the verge of death. He took these incidents and added them into Mrs. Grimes’s story since he was not present to witness what really happened with her. However, it is still evident that Mrs. Grimes had a depressing life. Her only role in life was to constantly take care of men and animals. She had nobody to support her or help her out. The butcher is the only person we see to have shown any pity to her. Mrs. Grimes knows she has no option but to live a life full of servitude, thus she never complains about the way she’s mistreated.
Talking about Mrs. Grimes the narrator says “every moment of every day ….was spent feeding something”. The author uses “feeding” as a symbol of how women are constantly forced to sacrifice themselves in order to satisfy what men need. Mrs. Grimes used to feed “horses, cows, pigs, dogs and men”, everyone was dependent on her but nobody took care of her. All her life she struggled for the well-being of others. She sacrificed herself without complaining. These constant demands from others left her exhausted and she ended up dead. The way the dogs took the bag of meat off her dead body is a symbol of how men greedily took from her. The German, her husband and even her son, all harassed her and never showed her any care. They were all selfish and only took advantage of her.
No matter how much she suffered, Mrs. Grimes endured a lot and kept going on in life. She has to fight one battle after another but eventually gets beaten by life and dies. Her family only thinks of their own needs and never cares to ask her what she wants. She dies in her sleep; in a sense death finally provides her with some peace and relief. It was the only escape from the all suffering she had to go through.
Death in the Woods | Themes
Misogyny – This is a story about an old woman who is abused all her life. The men in her life treat her miserably and constantly harass her. Misogyny is the central theme of this story as it talks about the struggles of a woman. Mrs. Grime’s struggles represent how all women have been mistreated all throughout history. The man she works for sexually abuses her, her husband abuses her and treats her like a servant, the same goes for her son. No one ever shows her any mercy and she receives no help from an outsider either. Her naked dead body being found at the end symbolizes how all her life was sucked away from her; she had nothing left in her. She used up all her life to serve others. The narrator says she was a “bound girl”, she was an orphan and sold as a slave, thus right from the start she had no power or anybody to protect her. She had nowhere to go and had no options to make her life better. We never even learn her name in this story; this emphasizes how she had no identity. She was a nobody to the townspeople and even her own family didn’t care for her. She also has no dialogues of her own in the story, except for only the ones the narrator invented. This again highlights how she lacked a voice; she had no opinion of her own. She did not have any significance in other people’s eyes and even her own. The poor woman even dies alone and her dead body is harassed by dogs. Even in death she was “feeding” others, as her role in life demanded. Even in death she was giving and getting abuse in return.
Isolation – Mrs. Grimes lived an isolated life. Not only did she live far from the town but her own family also isolated her. She isn’t even forty but she talks to herself, muttering to herself about all she has to do. This highlights how lonely she was. She had no friends and hardly anyone ever talked to her. No one being able to identify her dead body symbolizes how she didn’t mean much to anyone, nobody was close to her. Mrs. Grimes’s life was full of poverty, isolation and suffering. She might have survived the poverty and sufferings if she had someone to rely on but unfortunately she had nobody. Lack of love and affection made her life more miserable. Even in her death, she was all alone. Nobody was by her side while she was dying. Isolation therefore becomes a powerful theme that animates the story.
Death in the Woods | About the author
Sherwood Anderson (1876 –1941) was an American writer. He strongly influenced American writing between World Wars I and II. Due to family issues, he dropped out of school and self-educated himself. He was a successful businessman before taking up writing. One day in 1912 he suddenly left his office and wandered off, turning up four days later in Cleveland. This “nervous breakdown” led him to abandon his business and become a writer. He’s also called “writer’s writer” and have influenced prominent figures like Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Winesburg, Ohio (1919) is one of his well-known works.