Summary and Analysis: The October Country
There Was an Old Woman
Aunt Tildy's single philosophy of life is that death is ridiculous. She is sure that if she does not believe in death then she will never die. She has never married because she can see no future in living with a man who will eventually "up and die." When the story begins, she is entertaining a guest in her home: He is a dark and handsome young man, a man who she later realizes is Death himself. Death entices Aunt Tildy to climb into a wicker basket and go away with him, but she refuses to accept the advances of her gentleman caller. She says that she is too old to be made love to and she is not interested in his kisses. In fact, she has no time for him at all. She is expecting a visit from her granddaughter Emily today and has sewing to do. Her will to live is so strong that Death is forced to leave her indomitable spirit behind. He can only steal her body. Aunt Tildy is filled with wrath when she discovers what Death has done. With angry determination, she sets out to regain custody of her body. She horrifies the chief mortician and the three vice-presidents of the mortuary as well. Visibly shaken by the demands of this spirit woman, they grant her request. She steps into the wicker basket, and body and spirit are reunited. In a great moment of triumph, Aunt Tildy commands her granite-like body to come alive again. Having conquered death, she cries tears of victorious happiness. Even today, Aunt Tildy is delighted to entertain guests. She will even show them her long, blue scar where her autopsy was performed — if they are interested.
"There Was an Old Woman" has a profound resemblance to Emily Dickinson's poem "Because I Could Not Stop for Death." In both poem and story, the main character is an active individual, involved in too many labor and leisure time activities even to consider that life is drawing to a close. Likewise, Dickinson's poem and Bradbury's story both depict Death as a kind, polite, gentleman caller who stops by in order to take the protagonist on a ride. Of note here is Bradbury's mild and gentle way of characterizing death. Since Death's behavior is almost like that of an earthly lover, Bradbury obviously does not intend to horrify his readers with this physical description. Instead, he seems to direct his readers to Aunt Tildy. She is old now and, by her own admission, no longer able to move as quickly or see as well as she could in the past. However, she has unshakable faith, and this romantic belief in the value of faith is the central theme of the story. One of Bradbury's often recurring themes is the concept of faith as opposed to reason. In "There Was an Old Woman," Aunt Tildy uses reason to persuade the morticians to give her physical body back to her, yet faith and faith alone is that ingredient which permits her to command her dead body to return to life and have it respond. Nothing, not even death itself, can shake Aunt Tildy's faith. The surgery that she is so proud of displaying depicts the ultimate power that faith can generate.