Although the unnamed narrator of “Death in the Woods” appears only briefly as a character, his consciousness shapes the entire work. Whereas Mrs. Grimes remains silent throughout the story, we are constantly aware of the narrator’s voice, which is conversational, colloquial, and immediate. The narrator often refers to us directly, such as when he stops short of describing the cruel treatment that bound children receive by saying, “You know what I mean.” He also makes constant reference to himself and the functions of his own memory. By the end of the story, although we have learned few factual details about his life, we know the storyteller much more intimately than we know the subject of his tale, Mrs. Grimes.
Although the narrator never meets Mrs. Grimes while she is alive, the sight of her corpse has an intense and lasting effect on him. Seeing the woman’s body turned the boy into an artist. All the men in the search party were struck by her death, but the young boy was stunned even more deeply by the beauty and mystery of the scene. As the years pass, the image lingers in the back of his mind like faint, far-off music. Details accrue to that original vision, and the narrator begins linking fragments of memory and his own personal experience in an attempt to shape the strange experience into a comprehensible form. Hence, he emphasizes moments that resemble his own life, such as the time she spent with the German farmers and the incident with the dogs. These points of connection between the storyteller and subject make the woman’s existence seem more recognizable and familiar. The narrator’s dissatisfaction with his and his brother’s limited, childish understanding of the event compels him to return to the story in adulthood and tell it until he gets it right. In Freudian terms (Anderson was an early reader of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud), the image in the woods functions as a kind of primal scene: a key event witnessed as a child that shapes and informs the adult psyche.
Abused and ignored, Mrs. Grimes is a pathetic figure whose suffering is both cyclical and unrelenting. From her parents’ death (which is implied yet not described in the story) to her servitude with the Germans, and continuing through her difficult, loveless marriage, the old woman continually experiences fresh traumas as she trades one set of harsh circumstances for another. Each incident in her life seems to be evidence of a greater truth—namely, that she was born to suffer. The narrator further implies that Mrs. Grimes is only one example of a larger category of people. Early on in the story, the narrator insists that the woman is “nothing special” and that most people living in rural areas in America have encountered such a woman. By then going on to describe this supposedly insignificant woman’s harrowing life, the narrator implies that many more women like Mrs. Grimes exist on the fringes of society, unseen in their suffering.
As the narrator asserts, Mrs. Grimes is “destined to feed animal life.” In each situation, it has been the woman’s responsibility to feed the men and animals in her care. On the Germans’ farm, she is expected to feed the farmer’s sexual appetites. On her husband’s farm, she spends all her energy scraping together enough food to keep her husband, son, and animals from starving. Even in death, the old woman continues to feed others. In the dogs’ case, she literally feeds them, as they take advantage of her death to steal away the pack of meat she has been carrying on her back. Metaphorically, however, the old woman also feeds the narrator’s imagination, as the beautiful, cryptic image of her white corpse continues to fuel the narrator’s art long into his adulthood.