Themes and Meanings
The most obvious theme of the story is found in the narrator’s emphasis on feeding, on giving of oneself to satisfy others. The old woman’s job was always to feed others—the German farmer and his wife, her own husband and son, the animals that surrounded her. “Horses, cows, pigs, dogs, men”; the narrator numbers them off, the men undifferentiated from the beasts in the woman’s mind.
One aspect of this “feeding” is sexual in nature. Certainly the farmer’s desires for her are basic, brutal, and animal-like. He tears away the top of her dress, paralleling the action by the dogs in the clearing—although, ironically, the dogs treat her with greater respect than do the humans. When she runs off with Jake Grimes, she tells him that the farmer never actually possessed her, but she gives herself to Jake without resistance, at least in the narrator’s imaginative reconstruction of the scene. Sex is, for the woman, simply another form of feeding, and she is relieved when, grown bent and wasted by hard work, she is no longer attractive to Jake and no longer has to satisfy him in this way.
In her deathly transformation, however, the woman once again regains her youthful sexuality. She becomes a young girl, untouched and pure. When the body is discovered, and as the young boy and his brother watch, the woman’s breasts are revealed. The narrator remembers that he “saw everything” and that his body “trembled with some strange mystical feeling,” which he attempts to attribute to the cold. Still, it is clear that at least part of the reaction is sexual. The boy sees and feels an aspect of existence that has heretofore been hidden from him. The weird connection of sex and death is ironic and, no doubt, disturbing, but, as the adult narrator realizes, there is an unknowable quality, a shared “mystical” reality in them both. At this moment, the boy gains awareness. He cannot truly understand what he feels, but his life is forever changed by the experience. He can never return to his own innocence; he can only wonder at the mystery of life and death.