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.