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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, “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 “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 “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.