Could someone explain to me the ballad "Get Up and Bar the Door"?

"Get Up and Bar the Door" humorously depicts the stubbornness of a wife and husband. The wife is hardworking and busy, while the husband is simply giving her orders. When a wind blows the door open, the husband orders the wife to "bar the door." The wife tells him off, as she is busy working, and he isn't doing anything. They make a deal that the first one to speak will be the one who has to bar the door.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Get up and Bar the Door" is an anonymous ballad, written in English with some Scots dialect, that appears to date from the seventeenth century. The poet recounts an argument between husband and wife, taken to absurd extremes, which the wife manages to win. Until well into the twentieth century, it was thought to be an intrinsically humorous situation that a wife should win arguments against her husband. The appearance of such strong and cunning women in comic writing, therefore, makes a point that is the reverse of feminist, since the whole point is that these women subvert the natural order of male dominance.

The humor comes first from the fact that both husband and wife spend far more time in arguing than it would take simply to bar the door. This absurdity is emphasized by the fact that it is cold (since the action occurs in November, around the time of Martinmas) and that the couple remain in this deadlock, in the cold and darkness, until midnight.

The fact that intruders come in and eat the puddings the goodwife has painstakingly prepared is an indication that someone should have barred the door. The joy of the wife at the end is ironic, as she cares far more about winning her argument than about being kissed by an intruder, and there is little point in barring the door now that the intruders are inside. This nonsensical atmosphere anticipates the poetry of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is a humorous ballad about the relationship between a husband and a wife. At the start of the pudding, the "goodwife" is busy at her chores: making puddings. The cold wind blows across the floor, and the woman's husband asks her to "gae out and bar the door."

The woman tells her husband: look, I'm busy. If he wants the door barred, he must bar it himself. The pair of them agree that whoever speaks first will have to get up and bar the door.

Then, at twelve that night, two gentlemen approach. They ask whether this is a rich man's or a poor man's house, but neither the husband or the wife will say anything. So the two gentlemen come in and eat the puddings the wife has been making, and neither husband nor wife says anything because of their pact.

Eventually one of the gentlemen says to the other that they should cut off the husband's beard and kiss the wife. One of them complains to the other that there's no water in the house; the second gentleman replies that there's nothing wrong with the "pudding-broo" or the boiled water in the pan.

This incenses the goodman, who angrily demands to know whether the gentlemen intend to kiss his wife in front of him and then scald him with pudding water.

His wife, far from being upset too, "skips on the floor" in delight at having won their argument—because her husband has "spoken the foremost word," he must now get up and bar the door himself.

The point of the ballad, essentially, is that husbands should know better than to try and tell their wives what to do; the stubbornness of women will usually outlast that of men.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"Get Up and Bar the Door" is a medieval ballad that presents a humorous look at domestic life. 

Though it was written during the medieval period, the beginning of the poem certainly presents a scene similar to one that might be often seen in our world today:  a wife working hard at her household duties and a husband sitting around giving her orders.  Strong winds enter the house through the open door, and the husband tells the wife to "Gae [go] out and bar the door." 

She, in summary, tells him to forget it.  She's the one who is busy working, not him. 

They make a pact that whoever speaks first will be the one to have to close and bar the door.  They are both stubborn, and stubbornness is really what the poem is about.  You could say stubbornness is the theme of the poem.

Both refuse to speak even when two strangers, both male, enter their home at midnight and eat more than is proper or appropriate.  The strangers, assuming the couple can't speak, apparently assume the husband and wife are stupid and helpless, and decide that one of them should shave the husband with scalding water and the other should kiss the wife.  Only then does the husband speak up to defend himself and his wife.

The wife, then, humorously, celebrates because she has won and her husband has lost--he spoke first. 

Humor in the piece comes from the stubbornness of the two, as well as the wife's ignoring the fact that two strangers are violating her home, and her celebrating because she has won the petty argument with her husband.

Of course, looking at the poem with our 21st-century minds, we see a problem with the strangers assuming the couple are stupid and helpless because they can't speak.  That is an obviously inaccurate assumption, of course, but probably typical of the medieval world.    

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial