Although Anderson wrote “A Death in the Woods” decades after the high point of American realism (generally traced from the Civil War through the turn of the century), the story demonstrates several hallmarks of the movement, whose goal is to faithfully and accurately represent reality. Its characters are ordinary people engaged in plausible activities; the language is common and vernacular, rather than heightened or poetic; and character and psychology are emphasized over plot and action. However, certain elements of “A Death in the Woods” depart from the realist model. Though none of the events are fantastical or supernatural, a strong current of mysticism runs throughout the story, as the narrator attempts to understand how an ordinary event—the sight of an old woman’s corpse—could become such an influential experience. This attempt leads him to imagine a surreal scene: a pack of dogs performing a mysterious death ritual. He even imagines dialogue between the dogs. Most realist fiction confines itself to objective observations as a way of capturing verisimilitude (the appearance of being true or real). However, by exploring the narrator’s internal thoughts, Anderson achieves a form of psychological realism, which depicts not how life appears from the outside, but how it is experienced from the inside.
“A Death in the Woods” fits more squarely in the realm of naturalism. Inspired by the work of Charles Darwin, naturalism is both a philosophical position and a literary movement. Naturalist writers believe that human beings are not substantively different from animals: people are simply animals of a higher order. In this worldview, humans are governed by instinct, not morality, and their lives are determined by external forces such as heredity, environment, and circumstance. Naturalist literature stresses the loss of individuality and the difficulty of exercising free will in an indifferent world. The story of Mrs. Grimes is a classically naturalist tale: reduced to the basic, biological task of feeding her family and her animals, she is reduced to a wordless beast herself. The fact that she dies in the woods, rather than on her farmstead or in the town, emphasizes the sense that the entire natural world contributed to her death. However, Anderson’s narrative style complicates the classification of this story as naturalist. Naturalist literature tends to involve a dispassionate, scientific study of humans. Although the narrator views Mrs. Grimes from a fairly detached perspective, he himself has a much greater freedom, which suggests that only the poor and wretched must suffer the cruelty of the natural world.
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