Death in the Woods - Thematic Explication

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Our universe is an ever-turning wheel that maintains a beautiful balance of life. On the spokes of this wheel the existence of all things is assured; life is given, bodies and souls are fed, each position on the wheel is cultivated by the next, and then one day we will pass away, only to start the circle again in another mysterious way. Take a moment to look around you and see the many cycles that exist for the sole purpose of keeping our wheel in motion, and then recognize how little these great givers of life are celebrated, or even noticed. Without a second thought we will all at one time or another dishonor the same things that pay tribute to us. But that, too, is a part of the cycle. It's not good, nor is it bad. It just is.

In his story "Death in the Woods," Sherwood Anderson demonstrates mankind's ability to take for granted the gifts received through our Mother Earth, aptly symbolized by an old woman with no name. He also reveals to his reader the beauty that lies within the ceremonies of life and death that are constantly taking place all around us and within us. The story is broken into 5 different parts, told in first person, and although the narrator is not the main character, he lends significant importance to the symbolism that takes place throughout the tale.

In the first part of the story our nameless storyteller introduces his reader to an old woman; one that everyone sees, but nobody knows. Demonstrating society's lack of concern for such an old woman, the narrator states, "People drive right down a road and never notice an old woman like that" (23). In this first section he uses the words ‘old woman' eight times, and yet we know he considers her to be strong, not frail like the people that we usually associate with the condition of being aged. Our first clue of this takes place in the first and second paragraphs where she is diligently working to make a few eggs and hens trade into enough food to feed a farm. This is her job, and she does it without complaint. Somehow, she is able to make the impossible work. In the fifth paragraph he describes himself as "a young and sick boy with rheumatism" (23), and then in the next sentence depicts her carrying a heavy pack on her back- one that he could probably not manage on his own. In that pack on her back she carries the burden of feeding and caring for those that depend on her, and yet she manages the load without any glory. Her burden is both physically and symbolically heavy, (reflected in her drooping shoulders), and yet she never lets anyone down. The cows, horses, dogs, pigs, and men somehow always get fed despite her limited resources. She manages it simply because she must; it is her role just as it is the role of our Mother Earth.

In the sixth paragraph we are introduced to the old woman's neglectful and abusive husband and son, undoubtedly the embodiment of the worst traits in all of us. They treat her with complete disrespect, and yet expect her to continue serving their endless needs. For instance, if the old man were to come home and find no food on the table, "…the old man gave his old woman a cut over the head" (25). Of course, she continues to feed them, and every other mouth on their pathetic farm. Interestingly enough, if they would only give her more to work with, (i.e., more money, more hens, more love, more respect), she would undoubtedly be able to provide much more for them in turn. The men are hurting their own cycle of sustenance. This is so painfully symbolic of our relationship with our caretaker, Mother Earth. Even though we repeatedly abuse the source of our nourishment, she continues to provide for those that give so little back.

After we are introduced to her husband, in paragraphs nine through fourteen Anderson flashes back to her youth in an abusive foster home, as well as her short courtship and abrupt marriage to an equally cruel husband. Even as a young girl she is fulfilling her role as...
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