What are the themes of "Out, Out--" by Robert Frost?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Out, Out--" by Robert Frost, a great American poet, is representative of his poems that use many figurative language elements to achieve its effect.  Based on a real event from Frost's life, the scene appears quite charming and innocent.  As in most of Frost's poetry. there is a lesson awaiting the reader.

Beginning with the title, Frost uses an allusion to the Shakespearean play Macbeth.  In learning of Lady Macbeth's premature death, Macbeth speaks:

Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more.

Frost does not include the title words in his poem; however, in the end, the reader understands the title choice.  The brief candle is the nameless, young boy who really wants to play and rest, yet he must finish his chores.  Once born into Frost's world, boys bear a great burden about which they must understand, and they must learn to stand on their own. 

When his hand is so deeply cut, the reader wonders what will happen.  Then in the third line from the end of the poem,  Frost cleverly gives the answer:

Little--less--nothing! And that ended it.

The boy's heart stops and death takes him. 

Frost sounds so hard and cruel.  However, he has guided the reader toward the theme of the poem.  The boy is dead; nothing else will happen to him; and his life is gone like the brief candle blown out by the wind.  Frost was not being callous, but neither was he maudlin in his reaction to the boy's death. 

The theme speaks to this idea: Death is inevitable, and the living must go on.  In a world where a child must work with a chainsaw and has no time to play, it would not be unusual for the living to return to their work without much sentimentality. Life moves on, and those left behind must find a way to continue on.

Another theme of lesser importance in this poem which Frost often employs in his poetry is the impact of nature. The subtlety of nature and its beauty in the description of the setting ironically leads the reader to believe that this is just a pastoral scene with a boy at work on the farm in the mountains. Yet, as the poem progresses, the sunset dims the light, the chainsaw comes to life, and grabs the boy's hand. The boy, distracted by his surroundings, loses his life in the seemingly harmless tableau. Sometimes, nature is not cruel but complacent in the events of the human world.

Frost draws the reader in, leads us down the path of simplicity, and then grabs the heart with his poem's intensity. 

And nothing happened; day was all but done.

Call it a day...

The boy saw all---

He saw all spoiled.