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 caretaker and feeder. She fulfills the basic household needs, puts food in everyone?s mouths, and satisfies the German farmer?s more primal appetite for sex. Of course, sex is frequently not an issue of lust, but rather an issue of control for mankind, and of fertility for Mother Nature. It is in a struggle for this control that the young girl lucks into marrying her husband. Anderson tells us that he wouldn?t have married her if ??the German farmer hadn?t tried to tell him where to get off? (24). Neither of the men loved her, but both fought for the control of her body, her new suitor being the victor. So, away goes the trophy to the winner.
In part two there are no less than sixteen references to the old woman feeding someone or something in her daily life. The narrator depicts her feeding meager supplies of food to the cows, dogs, pigs, horses, chickens, the German couple, and her husband as well as her son. He even makes reference to the old woman at one point having to feed her husband ??in a certain way? (25), though she stopped doing that after the children were born. It is well established that this is her role and duty in the circle of life, and it doesn?t seem to bother her. She just accepts it. But under the weight of her duties her slender shoulders become stooped. At this point she is no longer a young woman, but has become old in appearance. She wanders around her farm muttering to herself, trying to figure out how she is going to get everything fed. The burdens of her life have aged her. Equally ?yoked,? our Mother Earth has begun to age prematurely as well.
In the 19th paragraph the narrator states, ?She had to scheme all of her life about getting things fed?? (25). She is responsible for making sure that all trades are equal, that her husbands shortcomings are compensated for and the lack of food is stretched far enough to sustain everyone concerned, whether it is deserved or not. Once again, this symbolizes our equal opportunities for survival, although our chances for abundance increase with every ounce that we invest back into the cycle of life and nourishment.
Over and over throughout the story we see her struggling to protect the cycle of life on her farm. The narrator states that ?The stock in the barn cried to her hungrily?? (26), for they know she is their benefactor of life. She watches over the eggs in the barn to be sure they don?t freeze. She worries about the cows that don?t give milk anymore. She understands the importance of feeding the horse that isn?t good for anything, but maybe could be traded off. Even her abusive husband has a purpose in her world, and she knows that she must keep him fed, too. Everything has value, and she must care for it. Her survival depends on their survival.
As the transition from the second part of the story into the third part occurs, the narrator describes her last journey into town to trade her meager goods for food. It is in this part of the story that the narrator?s understanding of the old woman is changed. He is now connected to the mystical qualities that take place in her end of life.
The butcher that she visits in town does not understand her compulsion to feed those that hurt her, and cannot see her place in the scheme of things. He does not have the insight that she is gifted with. What she understands innately, he takes for granted. Someone must care for the flock, although the flock rarely appreciates the effort. It is fitting that a man who slaughters animals for a living is critical of one whose role is to feed those same creatures.
As the old woman starts back for the farm, followed by the dogs that depend on her scraps, it is growing late and cold. It is here that we are witness to the beautiful ceremony that takes place in the transition of life and death on the wheel of life. As she slowly passes away under a tree in the woods, we can see through the narrator?s eyes the ceremony that takes place all around her. The dogs run in circles, and the moon shines in a full circle. Round and round the dogs run in quiet ceremony in a sacred clearing of the woods. All of this comes together to symbolize the great circle of life that we exist in. The narrator knows this and appreciates it because he has experienced it as well. He states, ?I knew all about it afterward, when I grew to be a man, because once in a woods in Illinois, on another Winter night, I saw a pack of dogs just like that. The dogs were waiting for me to die just as they had waited for the old woman that night?? (28). His story is deeply important to him because he understands the ?mystical? quality of it all. That is a powerful word; one that is used when no other word will suffice in description of the spiritual nature of life. He used it a total of three times, making the impact even stronger.
Throughout life the old woman fed those who depended on her, and she fulfilled this role in death while the dogs feed on the food in her bag. The narrator understood that this was simply her part in this world: ?She died in a clearing in the woods and even after her death continued feeding animal life? (31). Even beyond that, she will eventually lay to rest in the ground where she will feed back into nature. She has come from the earth, and now she completes the circle to return back to the earth. Once again Anderson symbolizes the all-important cycle of life that we all must exist within.
In her death our narrator is able to see her beauty when the weight of her responsibilities are lifted from her shoulder. She is a young and innocent girl once again, and she is finally given her due respect in death. Unfortunately, when the weight of our burdens finally does our Mother Earth in, we won?t be able to mourn her and put her to rest with ceremony. Our own circle of life is far too dependent on hers. Most likely, the animals on the old woman?s farm will die within days of her passing, since there will no longer be anyone around to fulfill their needs.
In the fifth and final part of the story the narrator recounts how the details all come together for him since the time of the old woman?s death. He slowly collects the pieces of information throughout his life in a quest to understand the meaning of it all. For some enlightened people, the search for understanding of our place in the universe is very much like that. We gather together the clues that our Mother leaves us and slowly come to respect the important nature of life and death. We begin to see the rituals, appreciate our roles and recognize the signs of our Mother?s wellness, or illness. The cycle of life and death is dependant on our cooperation, or lack thereof. We decide how much we want to invest into its abundance.