Death of the Hired Man

by Robert Frost

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What is the significance of the symbols in "Death of the Hired Man"?

Quick answer:

The significance of the symbols used in the poem is that they relate to the brooding presence of death. For instance, the lamp flame we see in the opening line will soon die, just like Silas, the hired man.

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The various symbols used by Frost in "Death of the Hired Man" represent death, which is a brooding presence throughout the poem. As well as the information given to us by the title, we sense from the very outset that old Silas doesn't have much longer to live. And the symbols used by Frost reinforce this initial impression.

In the very first line, we have the symbol of the lamp flame on which Mary muses as she sits at the table. The lamp flame symbolizes both the transience of life and the imminence of Silas's death. Just as the flame will soon die, so too will the old man.

Then we have the "darkened passage" along which Mary runs on tip-toes when she hears her husband Warren return. Mary has news for Warren: "Silas is back." But unbeknownst to her, Silas himself will soon be making his way along another darkened passage, the one that links this world with the next. Once again, Frost uses symbolism to prefigure Silas's imminent demise.

The fragility of life can also be said to be symbolized by the stick that Warren snaps in his hand and casually tosses away. This act can also be seen to represent the somewhat callous attitude that Warren displays towards Silas throughout much of the poem. He wants to get rid of the old man, to cast him aside, just like a broken stick.

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