Discuss the interpretation of "The Mill" by Edwin Arlington

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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“The Mill” by Edwin Arlington Robinson was written in 1920.  Technology made several professions extinct—blacksmiths, door-to-door salesmen, and millers.  Times are hard when people lose their profession.  The technological advances in mass production and machinery replaced the miller, who once was busy because people needed their grain crushed and made into flour.

Before going further into the poem, the approach to literary criticism that probably is best for this poem would be the process expressive literary criticism.  This allows the critic the freedom to give the interpretation to the poem that best fits for the reader as he sees the work. It is important to note that the meaning of this poem is controversial.  Some readers and critics believe that the miller and his wife both commit suicide in the poem. Others believe that everything that happens in the poem is in the mind of the wife, who remembers an ominous statement that her husband made before he left for work. 

1st stanza

As she sits and waits on her husband, her tea has grown cold and the fire has gone out.  Actually, the fire is referred to as dead which may be irony for the actual death of the husband.  The wife’s thoughts control the poem.  She remembers the last words that her husband said as he left: ‘There are no more millers anymore.’ [The question to ponder is has he lost his business or is he referring to the possibility of going out of business.]

2nd stanza

The wife is sick with fear, which is formless yet no less worrisome. She remembers the smell of the mill; the aroma is one of a warm, fragrance which reminds her of the past.  In her mind, she seems to see something hanging from a beam in the mill.  This is not what she wants.  She would never want to find her husband hanging in the mill. 

Other critics indicate that in the second line of the 2nd stanza when the wife says that “she was there at last…” that she has gone to the mill.  Another interpretation states that she is there in her mind.   She appears so calm that it is hard to believe that she has actually found her husband dead.  It is more likely that these are her thoughts on what might happen if her husband were to lose his profession.

3rd stanza

The third stanza goes on to picture what she would do if the previous events were to occur. She begins by using the phrase “And if” which would indicate the possibility rather than the actual events.

‘And if she thought it followed her,

She may have reasoned in the dark

This one way of the few there were

Would hide her and would leave no mark…’

What would she do if her husband committed suicide? She decides that she would kill herself.

This last stanza portrays what the wife would do if she were to find her husband hanging from a beam. She imagines that she would drown herself in the dark water used for the grist mill.  The water would hide her body and leave no mark on her. 

She describes the water as black, smooth above the dam.  The water is compared by the wife to the stars in a black velvety night sky.  This water was once ruffled by the mill as the wheel turned it using the water for its power.  Now, the water is silent because the mill has gone out of business.

It is up to the reader to make the decision if the poem is all in the mind of the miller’s wife.  On the other hand, the poem may tell the story of a double suicide. 

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