A Death in the Woods
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Development of the Artist
Although “A Death in the Woods” is ostensibly about the life and death of Mrs. Grimes, it is probably more appropriate to say that the short story’s true subject is the narrator’s own growth and development as an artist. The old woman’s death is a kind of artistic initiation, as the image of the corpse triggered an intense aesthetic reaction in the young boy. To him, the body was a beautiful object, more like a “white and lovely” marble statue than the shell of a formerly living human being. Years later, the image continues to fascinate and trouble him. Dissatisfied with the way his brother told the story when they were children, the mature narrator now tells the story again. He struggles to discern patterns and meaning in the factual details. What he doesn’t know, he invents, using his personal memories and experiences—even those unconnected to Mrs. Grimes herself—to fill out his fictions.
In his attempt to understand how the sight of the old woman’s corpse has managed to exert such a strong, mystical power over his imagination, the narrator blends fact, memory, and invention to create a work of art—namely, the short story “A Death in the Woods.” Just as the narrator reveals more about himself than about Mrs. Grimes, the true subject of “A Death in the Woods” is the short story’s own creation, not the titular event.
Throughout her life—beginning with the Germans and continuing through her married life and on through her death—the old woman’s energies were entirely focused on procuring food for the men and animals under her care. In its mindless relentlessness, the woman’s situation represents a cruel parody of motherhood. Mothers (and, by extension, women) are expected to be nurturing and nourishing figures, but this woman’s role has been limited to the simple, biological task of feeding, without any of the positive emotional or spiritual elements generally attached to the maternal role. Near the end of the story, the narrator claims that the woman was the “one destined to feed animal life.” The assertion that Mrs. Grimes was inherently “destined” to lead such an existence is debatable, but it is clear that the harsh events of her life have reduced her to this state. The story goes on to suggest that all women may, at some point, have to take up the role of feeder, as the narrator notes that if he and his brother arrive home late after viewing the dead woman’s body, “either our mother or our older sister would have to warm up our supper.”
Circles, which appear throughout the story, help develop the story’s mystical, spiritual aspects. On her way back to the farm, the old woman happens upon a round clearing in the woods. Despite the approaching darkness, the woman lays down to rest, an action that seems even stranger given the fact that we have never seen her rest before: indeed, her life thus far has been one of painful, slow, perpetual motion. The feeling that the story has reached an uncanny, mysterious crux is heightened when the pack of dogs begins running in circles around the woman’s sleeping form. The dogs revert to primitive, instinctual behavior, performing what the narrator calls “a kind of death ceremony.” The round clearing in the woods and the ceremonial circular movements become part of a strange ritual, the precise meaning of which eludes the narrator, although it seems to imply both a purification and blessing of the dead woman. Years later, when attempting to make sense of the cryptic event, the story he tells is circular as well. Rather than recounting the events in a straightforward, linear fashion, “A Death in the Woods” continually doubles back on itself, moving back and forth in time and between perspectives as the narrator finds himself returning, repeatedly, to the mysterious event from his childhood.
Each of the most noteworthy people and moments in “A Death in the Woods” are characterized by their pervasive silence. When the old woman dies in the clearing, for example, the eerie quiet that hangs over the scene—not to mention the townsmen’s stunned, reverential silence—heightens both the mystery and the significance of the moment. Similarly, it is partially because of Mrs. Grimes’s lifelong muteness that the narrator finds himself attracted to her in the first place. On one level, it emphasizes her dramatically harsh life and pathetic separation from the rest of human society, two elements that make the old woman a compelling and rich character. Yet her silence also creates an aura of mystery around her. The character of Mrs. Grimes doesn’t speak in the story, just as her dead body will not metaphorically “speak” to the narrator when he wishes to discover its secret, essential meaning. It is the silence of both the character and the corpse that the narrator finds so provocative and that prompts him to ritually retell the tale of the “A Death in the Woods.”
As the narrator constructs his version of the events, nearly all the characters become silent ones. There is little directly quoted dialogue in this story. When characters appear to speak, their dialogue is generally revealed to be an internal monologue that the narrator has conjectured and placed within quotation marks. Like an oral storyteller who acts out all the voices in a given tale, the narrator speaks for all the people in this story. The only character who has any true quoted dialogue is the rabbit hunter, who erroneously describes the woman’s corpse to the search party. The narrator makes this single exception so that he can then go on to discredit the hunter’s report, just as he will later reject his brother’s version of the night’s events, asserting his own tale as the truest, most accurate portrayal of the story.
Jake Grimes’s buggy, which makes two appearances in “A Death in the Woods,” is a constant reminder of his wife’s confinement. When, as a young woman, the future Mrs. Grimes is an indentured servant on the German couple’s farm, Jake arrives on the buggy seeking harvest work. He quickly convinces the girl to “go riding with him in his buggy”—a phrase that suggests both illicit sexual activity and the potential of a liberating romance. Later, he uses the buggy to carry the girl away from her abusive masters. The buggy offers the young girl the promise of freedom and a new beginning, but it soon becomes clear that in marrying Jake, she has only managed to trade one violent man for another. The buggy, formerly an optimistic symbol of progress and movement, ultimately reinforces the idea that Mrs. Grimes is doomed to repeat established patterns of abuse. This idea is emphasized when, many years later, Jake and their son drive away from the Grimes’s shabby farm in the buggy, leaving the old woman isolated and on the brink of starvation for days at a time.
The Old Woman’s Corpse
The old woman’s corpse represents artistic inspiration. As a child, the narrator sees the body, and many years later, as an adult, he finds himself writing stories about the fleeting yet haunting image. The story demonstrates how a true artist finds insight in the most unlikely places, as the narrator transforms an isolated, seemingly random event into a richly dramatic and significant piece of art. In its undeniable beauty, the corpse also represents the essential dignity of all human beings. Even though Mrs. Grimes was destitute and nearly invisible in life, in death she is revealed as possessing power and grace. When the townsmen come upon her body, they are each stunned into silence. Faced with the corpse, the narrator finds himself trembling “with some strange mystical feeling.” The image seems to be a hopeful one at first, as a cruel, traumatic life is redeemed by a final moment of beauty. But the fact that a living woman has become a lifeless object injects an ominous strain of darkness into the scene.