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A Death in the Woods

Sherwood Anderson

Important Quotations Explained

The Grotesque

How to Cite This SparkNote

1. She had got the habit of silence anyway—that was fixed.

This description of the old woman appears in Part II, as the narrator describes her life with Jake Grimes. He offers this “habit of silence” as a reason why the old woman doesn’t interfere with her husband’s and son’s violent arguments. The woman’s silence functions as a protective shield, keeping other people at bay—people who have proven to be nothing but abusive. The woman’s silence also prevents her from establishing any close relationships with other people. In this woman’s world, verbal communication—normally a source of comfort and intimacy—has become painful and harmful, and her choice to give it up is unfortunate but understandable. The quotation leaves the cause of the woman’s silence ambiguous. On one hand, it seems as if the harsh realities of her life have ground the words out of her, transforming her into just another mute beast of burden. On the other hand, her silence may also be an active decision that she makes to disengage herself from a life that has damaged her. The woman’s retreat into a purely internal state may represent an attempt to preserve an element of humanity in an otherwise animalistic existence.

2. Starve, eh? Well, things had to be fed. Men had to be fed, and the horses that weren’t any good but maybe could be traded off, and the poor thin cow that hadn’t given any milk for three months.
Horses, cows, pigs, dogs, men.

In these lines, which appear at the end of Part II, the old woman reacts with “a look of mild surprise in her eyes” to the butcher’s admonishment to keep the meat he has sold her from her husband and son. The passage represents the extent to which the woman has come to accept her position in life. She no longer questions or is surprised by her fate: she understands that, no matter how futile her attempts, she cannot stop feeding those who depend on her to do so. The final line of the passage emphasizes how, in the absence of any demonstrable love or affection from her husband and son, the two men have ceased to become fully human in her eyes: nothing separates them from the animals in her care.

The reference to the “horses that weren’t any good” and “the poor thin cow” with no milk also reminds us that the woman, like the farm animals, is a creature defined by her ability to perform work. Like these animals, the woman cannot (or perhaps chooses not to) look beyond her given role, and her resolute dedication to her responsibilities is both pathetic and admirable. The harsh nature of Mr. and Mrs. Grimes’s shared existence ends up dehumanizing each of them in turn.

3. A thing so complete has its own beauty.

This line appears near the end of the story, when the narrator claims that both he and his brother were too young to really get the point of the old woman’s death. It is unclear what exactly the word thing refers to in this sentence. On one hand, it suggests the woman’s life, which has now been “completed.” Although the woman’s existence was one of pain and suffering, death gives us perspective on her life. By taking a step back from the harshness of her day-to-day existence, we can better appreciate the woman’s essential humanity. Previously, her life was characterized by intense lack. As a complete entity, however, it achieves a wholeness and integrity that makes it both perfect and beautiful.

The word complete implies something that is closed off and, therefore, fixed and unchangeable. Death becomes a protective barrier for the woman, who finds peace when she is no longer subject to the abuse of others. The image of the woman’s corpse—the same image that has lodged in the narrator’s memory and that he has spent years trying to make sense of—can also be understood as a “complete,” sealed object that possesses “its own beauty.” The story’s central symbol remains mysterious and cryptic and therefore alluring to the narrator. The fact that the image seems to keep its own secrets lends it an air of beauty.

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