“Death in the Woods” Sherwood Anderson
American novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and journalist. The following entry presents criticism on Anderson's short story “Death in the Woods” (1933). See also Sherwood Anderson Literary Criticism.
One of the most influential and imitated American writers, Anderson is famous for his short story collections, especially Winesburg, Ohio (1919), and was a major proponent in the revitalization of the American idiom in fiction. “Death in the Woods” is considered one of Anderson's most distinctive stories, displaying many of the ingenious narrative strategies, especially point of view, Anderson cultivated in his short prose. In his fiction, Anderson strayed from established literary forms, preferring to call himself “story teller” rather than author; yet his prose methods are technically laudable, experimental, even avant garde for the time, and well fit for the sentiment of his fiction. Anderson had an unique fondness for “Death in the Woods,” and continually rewrote and revised it, as evidenced by the various versions of the story. Anderson's short fiction, which portrays American small-town life, is deceptive in its simplicity. The mastery with which he interweaves multiple narrative perspectives—depicting a prosaic, external reality and the psychological, metaphysical depth beneath its surface—has gained Anderson a lasting prominence in the American short story.
Plot and Major Characters
“Death in the Woods” is told in the first person by a narrator who is inherently unreliable, due to the fact that he was witness to only part of the story being recalled and also that his subsequent experiences have colored his anamnesis of the event. The plot of the narrator's tale is increasingly disassembled and unconventionally paced, as it is constructed of a series of related incidents—some fabricated—and what he actually did see is further confused. As a boy, the narrator was partial witness to the death of an old farm woman named Ma Grimes who, upon returning from town, froze to death in the snowy woods. The narrator is present when the woman's naked body is found—having been encircled by dogs and dragged to the center of a clearing—and turned over. What the narrator sees here is the thematic crux of the story itself, as it calls into question notions of perception and witnessing. The boy sees not a spiritless, deceased old woman, but a frozen beauty, an illuminated figure of romance. Accordingly, the narrator undergoes an epiphany informed by this experience in youth and his later recollection of past events. As an adult, the narrator states that it may have been the white snow and ice that made Grimes look so lovely and metaphysically transfigured. This mis-perception can be applied to the narrator's vision of divinity through Grimes' death; the snow both glorified and extinguished her earthly life, her innate worthiness and beauty now free from the squalor of her individual reality and lonely existence.
The fact that the narrator admits what he saw was illusionary allows Anderson to explore the concept of perception by rearranging real and imagined in an attempt to articulate truth. “Death in the Woods” is a first person account of an incident which eschews the usual attempt in fiction of witnessing narrators to relay the truth objectively. The narrator apprehended a boyish chimera, something which is not objectively witnessed; yet this epiphany contains an importance equal to that of the inferences, hearsay, and parallel perspectives which also form the story. According to the narrator, this epiphany is the “foundation for the real story I am now trying to tell,” it is an illuminating moment for the character, commonplace in many of Anderson's stories. “Death in the Woods” addresses the question of what it means to see, as the act of witnessing is challenged in the story, and Anderson probes the asperity of locating the authentic truth in memorable events. There are two concurrent stories and themes in “Death in the Woods”: the tale of a woman's life and death; and the story of the narrator's maturation as an artist. To the narrator, the woman in this story is not an individual, she is the archetypal farm woman of the time, who is characterized as grotesque, another common character motif in Anderson's fiction. The narrator does not know Ma Grimes personally, he only comprehends her in a generalized, representative way. He constructs the narrative of her existence from details and observations he has made of the lives of similar townsfolk. The narrator defines Grimes as both exploited and mythic, an organic mother-figure necessary for the small farming community's survival. It is ultimately with himself that the narrator must reconcile the fantastic appearance of Grimes in death. He must rectify the appearance of frozen beauty with the decay and drabness of actual existence. The narrator is frustrated by his own struggle for artistic expression, as he collects differing aspects of the story and his experiences, in pursuit of a truth: the perfection of Ma Grimes' unified life purified in death.
Though predominantly recognized as one of Anderson's most notable stories, the critical reception of “Death in the Woods” is a mixed one. Anderson's works are frequently underrated, with some critics finding his writing inept. William Troy, an early critic, wrote in 1933 that the pieces in Death in the Woods, and Other Stories were a retrogression on the part of the author, whose triumphs, Troy wrote, were merely accidental, and he singled out the title story as disappointing. Though a moving tale emotionally, Troy felt, it was marred by Anderson's self-consciousness. Similarly, T. S. Matthews, in a review of the same collection, evaluated Anderson's work as clumsy and uneven. Another critic, John Chamberlain, also gave Anderson's writing a negative evaluation. While finding the title story to be the most unobjectionable of the collection, Chamberlain said that many of Anderson's stories were wanting in consistent quality and an integrated outlook. Yet many of the features critics find fault with in Anderson's stories are precisely those that others claim make the stories interesting. The crux of a typical Anderson story is often found in the stance of the narrator, whose process of recollection and imagination used to compose the narrative are the essence of the work. Critics have praised the mastery with which Anderson's seemingly simple prose gradually reveals the self-consciousness intrinsic to the art of fiction; and in disclosing his own fictive techniques, transcends the limits of the form, giving an added dimension to—while investing with grandeur—the prosaic life he portrays. Critics often note that many authors, such as Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner, were influenced by Anderson's fictive innovations and style.