What is the main theme of the poem "The Death of the Hired Man," by Robert Frost?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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One important theme of Robert Frost’s poem “Death of the Hired Man” – the theme of mutability, or change – is suggested by the very title of the work.  The word “Death,” of course, suggests the ultimate and most unsettling kind of change, while the phrase “Hired Man” suggests a man whose job, earnings, and social status are unstable. Anyone who has been hired can easily be fired, and indeed the question of whether or not the once-hired man should be rehired is one of the chief issues the poem’s two main characters discuss.  This poem would be off to an altogether different kind of start if it were titled “Death of the Tenured Professor.”

Mutability is already implied as a significant theme at the very beginning of the poem. Mary is waiting for her husband’s return (a kind of change), and Silas has already returned (another kind of change). A main focus of the poem’s plot emerges after Mary urges Warren to be kind to Silas, and then Warren replies,

“When was I ever anything but kind to him?

But I’ll not have the fellow back” . . . . (11-12)

Here again the issue of change or mutability is implied: Mary thinks Warren has changed, and so she wants to change his attitudes and behavior in a different way.  In fact, she wants to reverse the change that has taken place in him. Warren, however, protests that his attitudes toward Silas have never changed, even though he seems to believe that Silas himself has changed in unappealing ways. Apparently Silas had quit the job Warren had once given him (yet another kind of change), and in fact Warren insists that he had warned Silas not to make such a change, or he would in turn have to change his treatment of Silas: “‘If he left then,’” I said, ‘that ended it’” (14). Warren then alludes to another kind of change – the fact that Silas has aged:

Who else will harbor him

At his age for the little he can do? (15-16)

In addition, Warren then explains yet another sort of mutability that makes Silas (in Warren’s opinion) not worth re-hiring:

What help he is there’s no depending on.

Off he goes always when I need him most. (17-18)

Meanwhile, line 30 refers to three different kinds of change (the change of the seasons; Silas’s return; and Warren’s rejection of the idea of hiring him again): “In winter he comes back to us. I’m done.”

Within a mere 30 lines, then, Frost’s poem has touched on numerous kinds of change, as well as on Warren’s refusal to change again now that he has already changed his views of Silas.  Mary will try to convince Warren to change his mind, and Warren will resist such change until close to the very end of the poem.  Then, unfortunately, he will discover that the ultimate kind of change (death) has descended upon Silas and thus made any further change in the relations of these three characters impossible.

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