Death in the Woods

dog pack for death in the woods

Sherwood Anderson

The narrative voice is a key feature of Anderson’s strange tale of the old Grimes woman and her death. He repeatedly says that she is a typical old woman, most people would know ‘such old women’ and that she ‘was nothing special’. Yet he tells her story in such a close and detailed way that it goes beyond what the storyteller could possibly know. In life as in death, the old woman exists in a bleak, hard world, the deprived world of rural America which the narrator remembers from his boyhood.

A Life of Abuse 

Her entire history is recalled as one of use and abuse, first a ‘bound girl’, essentially an unpaid servant, to a German farmer. As the narrator says, ‘bound children were often enough cruelly treated… slaves really’. The farmer also subjects her to sexual advances. Though she escapes with Jake Grimes, the narrator’s language presents her as a commodity – Jake ‘got his wife off a German farmer’, as if she is some kind of goods, and ‘He got her pretty easy himself’, as if her sex too is just something to be gained. The first part of the narrative ends with two men fighting for their claims over her. The picture emerges of a very male-dominated world where women are chattels.

Although freed from the German farmer, the second section shows that life has not improved enormously for her. This part focuses on her role as a supplier of food – if her drunken husband comes home and finds there is no food in the house, he ‘gave his old woman a cut over the head’. She has had a life of feeding; she ‘fed the pigs, the horses and the chickens’ and now Jake Grimes ‘had to be fed.’ At the end of the section, the narrator emphasises this in a paragraph comprising just a telling single sentence fragment: ‘Horses, cows, pigs, dogs, men.’ Though a male narrator, and a male author, this list plainly equates men with animals and puts them last. It is, though, the butcher who takes pity on her, speaking to her in ‘a friendly way’ and slipping some extras into her bag, explicitly for her rather than her husband or son.

The Death Ceremony

It is in the third, central part that the narrator describes the old woman’s death, which he narrates in detail despite there being no witnesses. There is something soft and almost dreamlike about the scene as she sits to rest by a tree, ‘closed her eyes’ and ‘slept for a time’ while snow falls and the moon emerges. While dangerous, the language choices suggest tranquillity, though there is a tone of ominousness in the dogs which have followed her, as ‘some old instinct, down from the time when they were wolves and ranged the woods in packs on Winter nights, comes back to them.’ But in the narrator’s telling, or his imagination, the dogs are no threat to her. They are the dogs she has spent her time feeding and in a bizarre ritual, they ‘run in circles’ around her ‘under the snow-laden trees and under the wintry moon’, making ‘no sound’. In the paragraph, ‘circle’ is repeated three times, and ‘round’ or ‘around’ four times, the patterns of repetition in Anderson’s language mimetic of the movement of the dogs. He describes this movement as a ‘death ceremony’. The style of this section is interesting, as the narrator mixes certain, detailed narration with assumptions and guesswork, with phrases like ‘It may have been…’ and ‘Her dreams couldn’t have been…’ and he claims he has his own understanding about the behaviour of dogs in such a situation, having once witnessed dogs ‘waiting for me to die’. He does not elaborate, but it gives some grounds for his ability to reconstruct the scene of the old woman’s death. Her death is described using the same soft language as the scene-setting; she ‘died softly and quietly.’ The stripped-back style returns, however, with the acknowledgment that the butcher’s gift made her pack ‘a big haul for the old woman’ and again an isolated sentence: ‘It was a big haul for the dogs now.’

It is men who find the body in the fourth section, including the narrator and his brother. The woman has been transformed, seen as ‘the body of some charming young girl’ and ‘a beautiful young girl’ by the man who stumbles across her first. In death she has been paradoxically transformed. The narrator too has ‘some strange mystical feeling’ and comments that the ‘frozen flesh’ made her ‘look so white and lovely’. Transformed too is the attitude of men towards the old woman. Although she is dead and it is a freezing night, the blacksmith respectfully covers her body with his own overcoat and ‘gathered her into his arms’ as one might a small child, to carry her to the undertaker’s.

Telling a Story

The story’s final section is about story-telling; it questions the narrative, pieces it together and tries to determine the point of it. This part is mainly made up of short paragraphs as the narrator examines his own experience and the old woman’s story – the short paragraphs are rather like the ‘fragments’ of the story he puts together. It seems his reconstruction has come partly from such ‘fragments’ and ‘notes’ and partly from his own experiences, not only of dogs, but of meeting a girl on a farm owned by a German, and a visit to Mrs Grimes’ derelict house. Some of the elements of the story have come from the narrator’s own imagination and the ‘real story I am now trying to tell’ is therefore as much about himself as it is about the old woman. Even in the final paragraph, where he acknowledges again his dissatisfaction with his brother’s version of the story years ago, it is still not quite clear what it means to him, though he is ‘impelled to try to tell the simple story over again.’


Narrative methods to consider:
  • First person narration
  • Self-conscious narrative
  • Unreliable narrator
  • Structure