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In the character of the old woman, Anderson creates one of his most significant examples of the “grotesque,” which features prominently in his fiction. The concept was first elucidated in “The Book of the Grotesque,” the opening story in the collection Winesburg, Ohio (1916). Generally, the word grotesque describes something that is exaggerated or misshapen in a strange, disturbing fashion. Anderson used the term to describe a certain kind of character whom he felt had proliferated in the increasingly industrialized America of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Anderson’s grotesque figures are isolated, misunderstood people who become fixated on a particular way of thinking or behaving, thereby diminishing their existences and ceasing to be fully human.
Living on the fringes of society, ignored and detested by her own family, the old woman has become isolated to the point where even basic verbal communication with other human beings has ceased. Her entire existence has been reduced to the notion that she is “destined to feed animal life.” Beyond this single responsibility, the woman no longer has any discernible identity, an idea emphasized by the fact that she is “nothing special.” Mrs. Grimes remains trapped in this concept up until the very moment of her death. Because of this spiritual and emotional confinement, she is never able to become a fully realized human being. Still, Anderson treats the old woman with a measure of love and respect. Although she is pitied for her wretchedness, she is also dignified by her commitment and steadfastness. In the end, however, the narrator is far more taken with the old woman as an image or object than he is with her as a person. In death, the woman becomes beautiful, but she never becomes fully human.