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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.