In the poem, "The Death of a Hired Man," Robert Frost outlines the traditions of duty and hard work. As he does in many of his poems, Frost uses the technique of blank verse which is unrhymed iambic pentameter.
A synopsis of the poem begins with a husband and wife talking on their farmhouse porch. The wife tells her husband that an old farm worker Silas has returned. She found him "huddled against the barn door, fast asleep..." The old man wants to make things right by completing his obligation to Warren, the husband. Warren states that he will not take him back because he is not dependable. Finally, the husband quiets down and goes into see the old man and discovers that he has has died.
Abandonment, work ethic, death, and aging-- these are intertwined in the theme of the poem. Signally the importance of fulfilling a contract, Silas represents the kind of man who feels a sense of responsibility and satisfaction in his work. Although the old man came back to his "home" where one must be taken in, Silas dies alone suggesting what often happens to the elderly when death conquers them. Even when Warren announces Silas' death, the old man's isolation is emphasized by the one word, "Dead."
Characterization is important to this poem's success. Mary's character is shown from the first line. She is kind, firm, and resolute in her treatment of others. Although the day has been busy enough that she and her husband had to go different directions, Mary is anxious to see him. She does not dare miss Warren at the door so that she can prepare him for what he will find in the kitchen believing that she can advise him in the treatment of Silas.
On the other hand, Warren is more cynical. He has put up with so much from this worthless old man. For many years, he has allowed him to leave and come back and accepted him. Warren now decides that Silas should be someone else's problem. In the end, the reader knows that Warren feels empathy and sadness from the death of the hired man.
Although the old man never speaks, he is at the heart of the poem. The reader learns that he has a disliking of education, never stays with a job for long, and always thinks the grass is greener somewhere else. Most troublesome is his making promises that he cannot keep. Silas has been the "unreliable hired hand." Ultimately, Silas is now old and in need of a place to rest.
A major theme in the poem is that of the home or homecoming relationship. The conflict between Mary and Warren reaches a climax when they differ in the meaning of home. He feels that home has to take a person in; however, Mary thinks that one should not have to deserve home. The poem ends with the three main characters well developed, mostly through dialog but also through a minimum of actions.
In creating this contrast between Mary and Warren, another theme point to the stereotypical view of woman versus man evident in Frost's era. Mary follows the model of Christian forgiveness that expects her to help Silas because he needs it, not because he deserves it. Warren does not believe that they owe anything to Silas and that they are not bound to help him.
The impact of this epic poem belies itself in the fact that it is one of the most read and studied poems in American literature. In almost every literary anthology, "The Death of the Hired Man" represents the timelessness of Robert Frost's work.