Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 931
“Death in the Woods” ostensibly concerns a farm woman, Mrs. Grimes, who, although only in her early forties, seems old and probably demented. She has no first name in the story, and, indeed, very little is known about her at all. The narrator, a man who remembers and re-creates the story’s events from his childhood, tries to put together the few things that he actually does know. Through this re-creation, he searches for meaning and for completion. He needs the events to make sense.
“The old woman was nothing special,” the narrator remembers. “She was one of the nameless ones that hardly anyone knows, but she got into my thoughts.” In her youth, the woman had been a bound girl, practically a slave to a harsh German farmer and his wife. Her job was to feed the stock and to cook for the couple. Her life with them was very unhappy. “She was a young thing then and scared to death,” the narrator says. In addition to the demands of her work, she was sometimes the victim of the farmer’s sexual advances. One day he had chased her into the barn and torn away the front of her dress before he was stopped by the sound of his wife’s returning. In such a situation, the girl looked desperately for any means of escape. Thus, when Jake Grimes, the wastrel son of a failed sawmill owner, offered to marry her, she accepted.
The woman’s new life, however, was hardly an improvement over the former. Settled on a new farm, she again became a servant, first to her husband and later to her son. She soon withdrew into silence and routine, a deadly existence in which she was abused by her family and ignored by all others. “They left everything at home for her to manage and she had no money,” the narrator says. “She knew no one. No one ever talked to her in town.”
The central episode of the old woman’s story occurs on a cold winter day. As is her custom, she makes her solitary trek into the village for the meager supplies for which she can barter and the scraps of liver and dog meat that the butcher sometimes gives her out of pity. On her way home, toward the end of day, the snow begins to fall, and by the time she reaches the woods, she is exhausted. Struggling along the forest path, she comes to a clearing and stops there to rest, despite the danger of the cold. Soon she falls asleep and slides quietly toward death.
Accompanying the woman on her journey are a pack of dogs. As the night comes on and the moon rises, these animals undergo a change. “Such nights, cold and clear and with a moon, do things to dogs,” the narrator says. “It may be that some old instinct, come down from the time when they were wolves and ranged the woods in packs on winter nights, comes back into them.” The scene takes on a magical quality as the dogs begin to run in a circle in the moonlit snow. If the old woman awoke before her death, she would have seen that queer, wonderful sight, or so the narrator imagines. She soon dies, however, and then all rules, all expectations and unspoken agreements between human and beast conclude. The dogs nudge, then tear at the backpack containing the meat. They drag her body into the center of the clearing, and, in doing so, rip away the top of her dress so that she is exposed to the night. Not one of the animals touches her body, however, and she is left undisturbed in the snow.
When the body is found several days later by a rabbit hunter, he is mystified and frightened. In town he tells everyone that he has seen a “beautiful young girl” dead in the snow. A crowd of men led by the town marshal hurry to the site, and with them go the narrator, then a young boy, and his brother. Together they follow the men into the woods. It is again night when they reach the clearing. Standing by the tree under which the woman died, the two boys see the body, now magically transformed by the snow and the moon. “She did not look old, lying there in that light, frozen and still,” the narrator remembers. “One of the men turned her over in the snow and I saw everything. My body trembled with some strange mystical feeling and so did my brother’s. It might have been the cold.”
The town blacksmith respectfully covers the old woman’s body with his own coat and carries her gently into town. The next day her body is identified, and she is again soon forgotten, except, that is, by the boy—now the man telling the story. He has listened to his brother recount the events that they have witnessed, but this telling has not seemed sufficient. Facts alone do not adequately explain the mystery of the events. “The whole thing, the story of the old woman’s death, was to me as I grew older like music heard from far off. The notes had to be picked up slowly one at a time. Something had to be understood.”
Thus, he returns to the story again and again, mystified, compelled to probe at the essence of the woman’s life and death. “A thing so complete has its own beauty,” he says, and it is that beauty that haunts him.