Death in the Woods, Sherwood Anderson - Essay

Sherwood Anderson


(Short Story Criticism)

“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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life 1919

The Triumph of the Egg: A Book of Impressions from American Life in Tales and Poems 1921

Horses and Men: Tales, Long and Short, from Our American Life 1923

Death in the Woods, and Other Stories 1933

The Sherwood Anderson Reader 1947

Short Stories 1962

Windy McPherson's Son (novel) 1916

Dark Laughter (novel) 1925

Tar: A Midwest Childhood (autobiography) 1926

A New Testament (poetry) 1927

Beyond Desire (novel) 1932

Kit Brandon (novel) 1936

Jon S. Lawry (essay date 1959)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Death in the Woods’ and the Artist's Self in Sherwood Anderson,” in PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association, Vol. 76, No. 3, June, 1959, pp. 306–11.

[In the following essay, Lawry argues that “Death in the Woods” is concerned with the self, the artistic imagination and creative act, and the narrator's creation of meaning.]

Sherwood Anderson's autobiographical works attest his continuing absorption with the incidents and the form of his short story “Death in the Woods.”1 In his Memoirs he says that he tried to write the story “a dozen times over as many years.”2 It appears in a tentative...

(The entire section is 4663 words.)

Mary Rohrberger (essay date 1962)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Man, the Boy, and the Myth: Sherwood Anderson's ‘Death in the Woods’”, in Midcontinent American Studies Journal, Vol. 3, No. 2, Fall, 1962, pp. 48–54.

[In the following essay, Rohrberger offers a symbolic reading of “Death in the Woods,” which, according to Rohrberger, alludes to ancient myths of death and rebirth, as the narrator's recollection of past events harkens back to a prehistoric antecedent and the depths of civilization itself.]

Sherwood Anderson's “Death in the Woods” is, as Irving Howe notes, “bare as a winter tree,” but “marvelously rich in substance,”1 for beneath the surface level of narration and by...

(The entire section is 3187 words.)

Sister Mary Joselyn (essay date 1967)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Some Artistic Dimensions of Sherwood Anderson's ‘Death in the Woods’” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 4, No. 3, Spring, 1967, pp. 252–59.

[In the following essay, Joselyn discusses the various transformations that occur in “Death in the Woods,” and argues that the story is unified through the interweaving of these metamorphoses.]

Although Sherwood Anderson's “Death in the Woods” is widely regarded as the author's masterpiece and has been closely studied by at least two critics, its depths have not yet been plumbed. It is not the claim of this short paper to do so, either, but rather to indicate some dimensions of the story that so far have...

(The entire section is 3437 words.)

Wilfred L. Guerin (essay date 1968)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Death in the Woods’: Sherwood Anderson's ‘Cold Pastoral’”, in College English Association Critic, Vol. 30, No. 8, May, 1968, pp. 4–5.

[In the below essay, Guerin argues that “Death in the Woods” is a story about writing. The key to the story, according to Guerin, is the revelation that the narrator experiences at the sight of the woman's dead body.]

Like Wordsworth's and Keats's sonnets on the sonnet, like MacLeish's “Ars Poetica,” like Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, Sherwood Anderson's “Death in the Woods” seems to be among that wide and interesting mass of creative literature written about literature....

(The entire section is 2669 words.)

Ray Lewis White (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Death in the Woods’: Anderson's Earliest Version,” in The Winesburg Eagle, Vol. 7, No. 2, April, 1982, pp. 1–3.

[In the following essay, White discusses a 1916 version of “Death in the Woods.”]

The Sherwood Anderson devotee is surely pleased that “Death in the Woods” has achieved status as the author's story outside of the Winesburg cycle most often anthologized and given scholarly attention. Without disparaging “I'm a Fool,” “I Want to Know Why,” and “The Egg,” one delights to see “Death in the Woods” become to the public the typical, the standard, the representative single Anderson story; for the texture, the...

(The entire section is 1206 words.)

William V. Miller (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Psychological Stasis or Artistic Process: The Narrator Problem in Sherwood Anderson's ‘Death in the Woods,’” in The Old Northwest, Vol. 15, No. 1–2, Spring/Summer, 1990, pp. 29–41.

[In the following essay, Miller traces the genealogy of “Death in the Woods” through an examination of relevant documents, noting that the final version of the story relies upon oral narration and the ordering of events as epiphany.]

The recent discovery of still another fragmentary version of Sherwood Anderson's “Death in the Woods” corroborates Anderson's assertion in his Memoirs that it was a story he “tried to write at least a dozen times over many...

(The entire section is 5123 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Chamberlain, John. “A Story Teller Returns.” The Saturday Review of Literature, 9, No. 41 (April 1933): 561.

Criticizes Anderson's writing for lack of unified perspective and inconsistent quality.

Colquitt, Clare. “The Reader as Voyeur: Complicitous Transformations in ‘Death in the Woods.’” Modern Fiction Studies 32, No. 2 (1986): 175–90.

Explores the male-female polarity in the story.

Kennedy, Thomas E. “Fiction as its own Subject: An Essay and Two Examples. Anderson's ‘Death in the Woods’ and Weaver's ‘The Parts of Speech.’ The Kenyon Review 9, No. 3...

(The entire section is 314 words.)