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Sherwood Anderson pushed American literature to new heights by emphasizing form over the more conventional plot as a method of structuring short fiction. Plot-based stories follow a linear sequence of events that eventually build to a climax and often conclude with a moral. Anderson found such stories to be contrived and unnatural. As he states in his autobiography A Story Teller’s Story (1924), “there were no plot short stories ever lived in any life I had known anything about.” In his attempt to write fiction that reflected real Americans’ lives and psyches, Anderson wrote in a naturalistic, colloquial prose style and experimented with story forms that emphasized theme, character, tone, and setting over actions and events.
“Death in the Woods” is a plotless short story. It narrates a sequence of events—the life and death of Mrs. Grimes—but ultimately, that tale is only a pretext for the story’s true narrative: the ways in which the narrator has become haunted by the image of the old woman’s corpse in the snowy clearing. The psychological journey the narrator undertakes to unlock the meaning of that image provides the form of “Death in the Woods.” We follow the narrator’s mental processes as he strings together a series of half-remembered, half-fictionalized images, skipping freely from the old woman’s history to his own, from past to present. Rather than standing back from the material and presenting it objectively, the narrator continually calls attention to the role he is playing in shaping the work. Early on, for example, he announces his tale by saying, “I have just suddenly now, after all these years, remembered her and what happened. It is a story.” This and other remarks make the narrator a vibrant, immediate presence. In the end, it is his psychological condition that we become invested in, not the silent Mrs. Grimes’s.