Themes and Meanings

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Larkin’s “Toads” can be seen as a humorous criticism of the illusion produced when one believes in romantic ideals. Striving to get the “fame and the girl and the money” (line 31), one works six of the seven days of the week. Rather than the glorious result one had hoped for, there is only enough money for “paying a few bills” (line 7).

Worse than the general tragedy of being forced to work is the inability to stand up to the system and leave, to assert that one’s own choices are more important than the approval of society. The second toad in the poem, passivity, is even more tragic because it is an inner rather than an outward force. In the final stanza, the lack of individual choice becomes more than the problem of a single person. It is not only the narrator who cannot make the leap; all humankind is affected. All human beings squat in their own little lives, unable to move, unhappy to stay.

In a way, then, “Toads” is more than a poem about the unfair proportions of work and play; instead, it is a poem about taking a chance. What is it that keeps one from following one’s dreams? Is it the way society is structured (toad 1) or, instead, something inside each individual, some action-freezing fear of the unknown and untried (toad 2)? Although he refuses to assert a definite relationship between the two toads, Larkin speculates that perhaps “one bodies the other’s spiritual truth” (lines 33-34). Perhaps the system represented by society was invented for and built to support humankind’s own inner fears; perhaps work is only a physical representation of insecurity.

The possibility also exists that there is no escape from this dilemma. If one body [is] the other’s spiritual truth, perhaps it is impossible to escape. Those who do escape the toad work, for example, become “toads” of another sort: worthless, flawed individuals. Yet “Toads” does not seem intended as a depressing piece of existentialism. Perhaps, rather than bemoaning the tragedy of humanity, “Toads” pokes fun at humankind’s romantic idealism and shows the reader once again that “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” The author describes fulfillment of his dream as “blarney my way,” suggesting jovial flattery as the answer to success. This spurt of fun runs throughout the poem, culminating in “Stuff your pension!”—hardly the conscientious shunning of the problems of contemporary society.

Thus the humor in “Toads” seems to suggest Larkin’s mock seriousness or his paradoxical merging of the serious with an attitude of playfulness. The dilemma is real, but so is the ambivalence of the author. Work is a “brute,” but it is also a vital necessity; passivity is harmful, but it does keep the world rolling smoothly. Larkin advocates recognizing these facts, but he does not deny the inevitability that both will remain to trouble him.

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