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The Lonely Voice: 'Death in the Woods' by Sherwood Anderson

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Sherwood Anderson
Sherwood Anderson

The narrative voice in “Death in the Woods” by Sherwood Anderson is an important element of this classic story. From it, we receive the strange, sad story of a woman he describes as rather typical and common—the type of person who is “nothing special” and whom we all know in our own lives.

And yet, the story itself is told in such a close way, brimming with details that go beyond some kind of mere distant familiarity we have with someone random.

The woman had lived in extremely difficult and bleak circumstances for her entire life. We learn this from what the narrator shares. And yet, we wonder how he could possibly know the intimate details of her life—or even of the way she dies.

That becomes one of the most important things to talk about—and admire—in this story.

The story has been so often anthologized. Perhaps we receive the story in brand new ways with each new reading. And this is how it is with a story such as this one. That is, that it is one—as the narrator reminds us—that must be told slowly and with care—over time.

We receive a story in brand new ways with each rereading. Maybe we need to read this one again when we are older and when we can examine the motives of the two young brothers in the story and the ways they retell the story at the exact same time that we are receiving the story from the narrator (one of the brothers) when he is older, and some time and distance have passed.

As we read the final of the story’s five sections, we come to realize that the story is about storytelling. It parses the idea of narrative, breaks it apart, puts it back together. It’s fragmented, but it is a composite whole.

It’s reconstructed—and rooted in imagining what could have happened. So some of this comes from the narrator’s imagining. And yet, as he tells us, he is trying to tell us a “real” story—one about the woman, one about himself as a storyteller—one for us all.

Yvette Benavides can be reached at bookpublic@tpr.org.
Peter Orner is the author of the essay collections Still No Word from You and Am I Alone Here? His story collections are Maggie Brown and Others, Esther Stories, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge. His novels are Love and Shame and Love and The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo. He is a professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College where he directs the creative writing program.