How are the themes of life, death and the fall of man treated by Frost in "After Apple-Picking" through various symbols?

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accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The poem "After Apple Picking" by Robert Frost is replete with richly symbolic imagery, and touches on the themes of hard work, success and satisfaction, or perhaps life and death.

"The great harvest" that was once valued by the speaker in this poem could be said to be the wealth, recognition and achievements that the speaker has laboured hard to gain throughout his life. It is interesting therefore, that the speaker says he is "overtired" of this great harvest that he once wanted. Perhaps this reflects that the speaker has too much of what he wanted and now feels neither joy nor satisfaction, but exhaustion, from his achievements. This can be seen to be symbolic of how mankind works very hard to get something, yet often when we finally have achieved our objective, we are not able to rest and relax - the act of possession robs the objective of its value, and we are left restless once more. It is interesting that the word "sleep" occurs often in the poem and there are lots of references to dreaming. This could be symbolic of the death that awaits the reader. Apple harvest is in autumn, and perhaps the speaker has reached the "autumn years" of his life and is now reflecting on his achievements over his lifetime, and awaiting death.

Other examples of symbolism which might fit into this reading of the poem are contained in this passage:

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree

Toward heaven still,

And there's a barrel that I didn't fill

Beside it, and there may be two or three

Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.

But I am done with apple-picking now.

The ladder pointing heavenward might symbolise thoughts of the afterlife or spiritual longins, and the unfilled barrel and apples might represent the unfinished tasks of life. It is clear, however, that the speaker is not going to carry on with his job - he is weary of the tasks of life.

kc4u's profile pic

kc4u | College Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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The central themes of life, death and the Christian myth of The Fall of Man are interwoven above and beyond everything into the guiding symbolic frame of the poem--the act of apple-picking, which stands for the series of actions, the triumphs and the failures, the joys and sorrows of life. The renunciation of it connotes for the narrator, the beginnings of finality and the semiotic import of the word 'apple' resonates with the myth of the Fall. Seen in this way, the renunciation might well be seen as a transcendental act of detachment (as in the Budhhist scheme) from the human condition as and in the act of apple picking, which reproduces mimetically the Original Sin.

The 'hoary world of grass' is also a Biblically oriented image that is set off as a reflector of the mystical vision that comes in the form of a dream-image. The unpicked apples symbolize the 'road not taken' in life while the bruised apples that were put into the "cider apple-heap". There is a dominant sense of exhaustion and thus also a feeling of life coming a full circle, but such is the paradoxic lure of life, the desire to go on just does not let go.

The most significant symbol of death comes right at the end with the reference to sleep, "death's second self" as Shakespeare would have said. The symbol is further extended with the image of the woodchuck. The poet says rather uncertainly, as if from within the dream which he sees, that if the woodchuck had been there, it would have been able to distinguish between sleep, temporary and permanent. Crucially however, the bird is not there, perhaps sleeping in its winter-hole. That is exactly what the essence of death is--unknowability. The voice that can reveal the secret of death is always already in a state of death.

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