First published in American Mercury in 1926 and later in Sherwood Anderson’s collection Death in the Woods in 1933, “Death in the Woods” is his most frequently anthologized story, and Anderson considered it his best. Readers find it bleak, because it depicts the unrelenting hardship of Ma Grimes’s life and death, and instructive, because the death of this farm woman is described by a man struggling to understand and express the reasons it has haunted him since boyhood. Although interpretations of the story are diverse, primary readings see it from Künstlerroman, Bildungsroman, and Feminist perspectives.
The story opens as Ma Grimes trudges into town to buy provisions for her husband, her son, and the farm animals. This act is self-defining because, as the narrator repeatedly tells us, her role is to “feed animal life”: “horses, cows, pigs, dogs, men” (384). She speaks to no one and carries the load of food without help: “People drive right down a road and never notice an old woman like that” (390, 380). We learn that Ma Grimes, as both girl and woman, is a composite of various farm women the narrator observed while growing to manhood. She was an orphan, a “bound girl” beholden to a German farmer, a slave to him and later to her husband and son. She has suffered sexual abuse at the hands of the men, whose coarse habits have taught her to remain silent; throughout the story, she never speaks.
Although we learn that she is not yet 40 years old, she is consistently referred to as “the old woman.” On her way home, she is followed by a pack of dogs, whom the men likewise “kick and abuse” (385). As she sinks wearily to the ground and dies soon afterward, it is the animals who define her by imprinting a circle around her. And they never touch her, despite the narrator’s emphasis on their descent from wolves. Dogs, not men, outline her circular space as though she were a goddess who, freed from her imprisonment, has finally risen to her rightful place, leaving behind a body transformed from that of an old woman to that of a young girl. After the hunter accidentally stumbles on her corpse, a variety of men go together to look at her, from an aged Civil War veteran to the boy narrator and his brother.
It is the sight of her frozen white partially clothed body that so impresses the narrator that, as an adult man, he feels impelled to tell the story over again. “A thing so complete has its own beauty” (390), he says. Numerous critics see his reactions as those of the artist who creates beauty out of ordinary or even degraded circumstances. Certainly, there inheres in the gaze of the boy and his brother an awed baptism into the mysteries of sex as they gaze at the half-clad body that now looks youthful and beautiful. This scene may also be viewed as an example of male voyeurism and the story as one more instance of a male writer’s finding poetry in the “Death of a Beautiful Woman.” Whatever the reader’s interpretation, with each rereading of the story, Ma Grimes is freed from her death in the woods to live again for us and to give us pause.
Anderson, Sherwood. “Death in the Woods.” In American Short Stories. 4th ed. Edited by Eugene Current-Garcia and Walton R. Patrick. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1982.