What are some instances of ambiguity in Robert Frost's "Out, Out—," and how do they add to the poem?

Instances of ambiguity in Robert Frost's "Out, Out—" include the question of whether the saw leaped or whether the boy gave his hand to the saw and the question of why the boy holds up his arm after the fateful event. These instances of ambiguity underscore the arbitrariness of one's choices compared to the forces of chance.

Expert Answers

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

In "Out, Out—," there is a significant ambiguity in the speaker’s description of the moment when the boy in the poem accidentally cuts into his wrist with the chainsaw he is using. The boy’s sister approaches him to tell him that “Supper” is ready, and

At the word, the saw, ...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

In "Out, Out—," there is a significant ambiguity in the speaker’s description of the moment when the boy in the poem accidentally cuts into his wrist with the chainsaw he is using. The boy’s sister approaches him to tell him that “Supper” is ready, and

At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting.

The ambiguity is created by the speaker’s uncertainty about whether the saw, now personified, “leaped” at the boy’s hand or whether the boy had “given the hand.” Whichever way it happens, however, neither saw nor hand "refused the meeting." It seems, then, that there is no resistance when the saw severs the boy’s hand, and it occurs so quickly as to make it difficult to discern causality.

Another example of ambiguity is created when the speaker describes the boy’s response to seeing his hand nearly severed from his arm. The speaker says that

The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling.

The ambiguity here arises from the boy’s uncertain reaction when he sees what has happened to his hand. It seems that he may be holding the hand up as if to mutely ask for help from bystanders. Or, he could be holding his arm (with its nearly-severed hand) up in order to prevent himself from losing more blood than necessary. Or, the "rueful" boy may be expressing his regret and hopelessness. All three possibilities may coexist.

These ambiguities seem to draw attention to how arbitrary one's choices and actions often are in the face of chance. The men could have let the boy off work early, but they did not. His sister might have come a moment sooner or later, when the boy was not holding the saw at quite the same angle. It is but the outcome of an unfortunate, ill-timed moment that a boy loses his hand and his life. Further, the ambiguities seem to emphasize that the details of even this terribly sad event do not ultimately matter, for they do not provide answers. Moreover, the other people in the poem, those who haven't died, have responsibilities to meet and so they "turned to their affairs." The details of the boy's death, emphasized by the ambiguity, are irrelevant to those who must go on with life.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team