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In Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" what does “Good fences make good neighbors” mean?...

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dk123 | Student, Grade 11 | eNoter

Posted February 1, 2010 at 1:39 PM via web

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In Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" what does “Good fences make good neighbors” mean? Why does the speaker disagree?

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mrs-campbell | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted February 1, 2010 at 2:18 PM (Answer #1)

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In "Mending Wall," Frost writes a contemplative poem based on the activity of going out with his neighbor each spring to mend the stone wall that divides their property.  Frost himself doesn't really like the wall--he feels it is unnecessary, unfriendly, outdated, and a bit rude to have.  However, his neighbor, who seems to be steeped in tradition, says, "Good fences make good neighbors."  This is an old saying that seems to imply that you can be better neighbors if there are boundaries; that way, you don't end up fighting over what property is whose.  It helps create lines, which eliminates potential conflict.  So, for example, if there is a tree that is kind-of in-between two houses, who has to rake the leaves every fall?  Without a fence, neighbors might argue about this issue, or just silently seethe with rage as the leaves build up and the neighbor doesn't rake them.  With a fence, the tree definitely belongs to a certain person; they are responsible, and the potential problem is solved.

So, that is what the quote means.  Frost, however, disagrees.  He gives several reasons for this in his poem, but the main reason is that their properties don't really need them.  He has apple trees, the neighbor has "all pine," and, as Frost says,

"My apple trees will never get across and eat all the cones under his pines."

Trees don't need to be fenced in or out--they don't steal or interfere with anyone, like someone's dog would, if unchained or fenced.  He also mentions that sometimes fences are put up to keep the cows in, but, "here there are no cows."  They don't have animals to keep in or out, and no property disputes.  He also asserts that there is something ominous and unkind in a wall--he says that a wall implies you are keeping something dangerous away, or dangerous in, and that's not very pleasant.  In the end, he even compares his wall-loving neighbor to "an old stone-savage," symbolically indicating that keeping walls is a rather savage ritual that is only needed in more dangerous times.

I hope that those thoughts helped; good luck!

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coachingcorner | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

Posted February 1, 2010 at 7:40 PM (Answer #2)

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In the poem 'Mending Wall' by Robert Frost, the poet considers the value or otherwise, of boundaries. In contemplating whether good fences make good neighbors, he is including all barriers and boundaries in that - including walls. He is concerned that the saying may be becoming so popular - and spouted so often - that it is fast becoming trite. He wonders whether properties are always of sufficient threat to each other as to always demand some kind of barrier. Apples are no threat to cattle for example, or corn to forestry trees. However, others may feel different - it depends on what's on the property and what the neighbor believes. Some believe that it's pointless to wonder what your neighbor's like - just throw up a wall and be done with it - that way everyone's happy. There are no incursions and therefore no disputes. Frost wonders whether there's another way - particularly perhaps in relation to world issues like the Cold War.

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted February 1, 2010 at 2:08 PM (Answer #3)

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The phrase that you mention is usually taken to mean that people, by their natures, want to have some barriers between themselves and other people.  It means that people can get along better if there are such barriers between them.

The speaker and his neighbor seem to be disagreeing about whether it is necessary to have the wall there in the first place.  The speaker thinks that there is no need for walls -- he notes that nature tries to knock them down.  But the neighbor keeps insisting that "good fences make good neighbors."

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epollock | Valedictorian

Posted February 1, 2010 at 6:35 PM (Answer #4)

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daniellek123,

Some readers applaud the neighbor in Frost’s “Mending Wall,” valuing his respect for barriers. The main idea of this poem is that the neighbor wisely realizes—as the speaker does not—that individual identity depends on respect for boundaries. This view makes the poem a Browningesque dramatic monologue like “My Last Duchess,” in which the self-satisfied speaker unknowingly gives himself away. 

This makes the interesting point that it is not the neighbor (who believes that “good fences make good neighbors”) who initiates the ritual of mending the wall; rather, it is the speaker: “I let my neighbor know beyond the hill.” This suggests that “if fences do not ‘make good neighbors,’ the making of fences can,” for it makes for talk—even though the neighbor is hopelessly taciturn.

At the center of the poem is a contrast between two ways to regard mending a wall. The speaker’s view is announced in the first line; the neighbor’s is repeated in the last, by two different types of people—and both are right. A hard-working farmer to whom spring means walls to mend, the neighbor lacks fancy and frivolity. Spring is all around him, yet he  moves in darkness, as though blind.

Lines 30–40 compare him to a man of the Stone Age. A conservative from habit, he mends walls mainly because his father did. The speaker, full of mischief and imagination, is presumably a poet who wants to do no more hard labor than he can help. The speaker enjoys having some fun with the neighbor, telling him that apple trees won’t invade pines. Mending walls is a kind of spring ritual, and the speaker likes to pretend there is magic in it: using a spell to make stones balance, blaming the wear-and-tear of winter upon elves—or more exactly, upon some Something not to be offended.

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user8453503 | eNoter

Posted September 10, 2014 at 12:38 AM (Answer #5)

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     I think it means that you need your own privacy from other people and it will just put you at ease so that's why i have a barrier at my house it put my whole family at ease and we love it so yes put a fence up and be done at ease :)

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user8453503 | eNoter

Posted September 10, 2014 at 12:39 AM (Answer #6)

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     I think it means that you need your own privacy from other people and it will just put you at ease so that's why i have a barrier at my house it put my whole family at ease and we love it so yes put a fence up and be done at ease :)

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