The Death of the Hired Man by Robert Frost: Summary and Critical Analysis

The Death of a Hired Man is a typical poem by Frost in which an ordinary man and his wife turn into a philosophically significant debate. The wife represents love and sympathy, emotion and imagination, and evaluates 'human beings' not in terms of reason but emotion. The husband is a 'practical' modern man who regards and respects people in terms of their work, worth, contribution and so on. In other words, the husband represents reason, intellect, utilitarianism, practicality, rationality, and the like.

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

The ‘hired’ man of the title is an old laborer who roams and stays in one place for a few days and goes away without considering how and when he can be of the best ‘use’ to others, or even to himself. He has become old and almost unable to work. He has got a brother who is a director in the bank, but he probably prefers dignity to a well- to-do brother. He probably prefers a free and independent life most of all. He doesn’t satisfy anyone he works for; and we never know whether he is satisfied, or even conscious, or not. He becomes an issue of debate between the couple of one of his employers.

He comes to this couple (Warren and Mary) once a year and stays for a time. Warren’s complaint is that this old fellow goes away precisely when he is most needed; he comes in ‘off season’ and goes when the time arrives for work. But the old man doesn’t seem to understand that, though he has been told it. But Mary-probably symbolizing motherhood, or even Christ’s or humanity’s mother –insists that the man must be loved and cared, for he is dying, and that no external reason is necessary to love and care for a man. These two people represent two poles of attitudes, two philosophies and two ways to look at fellow beings or even life. The old man, Silas, has come for the last time- he is exhausted and is dying. He cannot even speak to reply what the woman asks. The reader is stuck between the two attitudes of the couple.

The poem is set in an evening when the husband is due to arrive from work and “Mary sat musing”. The old man, Silas, has arrived again and Mary is worried due to his extreme bad health. When she hears the footsteps of her husband, she runs down the passage to receive him and to tell him that the old man has arrived. She whispers in his ear, “Silas is back”. She pushes him outward and shutting the door behind, lest the old man hears what her merciless husband says, requests him to “Be kind”. This “Be Kind” is Mary’s philosophy, for which no reason or justification is necessary. But her husband is himself: he replies with an almost irritated, “When was I ever anything (else) but kind to him”. He means that he has always been kind to the man; but his idea of being ‘kind’ is obviously different from that of Mary. “But I’ll not have the fellow back”, he adds, because he had warned him not to leave the place the previous time. The man had left! “What good is he? Who else will harbor him at his age for the little he can do?... Off he goes always when I need him most… I can’t afford to pay”. Warren is not to be convinced by what Mary says. What he objects to most about the reckless old man is that he is not responsible towards himself either. Why doesn’t the stupid old fellow better himself, even if he doesn’t care for others?

“Sh! Not so loud: he’ll hear you”. Mary is so sympathetic that she is worried about the man hearing her husband’s cruel word and feeling insulted. But her husband says, “I want him to (hear)”! She says that the man is “worn out”. When he arrived that afternoon, he looked a miserable sight’. Warren smiles to her this; Mary tells him not to! She didn’t recognize him. She tried to talk to him, but he wasn’t able to answer; “he just kept nodding off’. Warren laughs at the man’s case by asking whether he said that he had come to make a ditch in his meadows. Mary speaks more strongly this time: “Surely you wouldn’t grudge the poor old man/ Some humble way to save his self-respect… Warren…. he made me feel so queer –To see if he was talking in his sleep”. Now she is swept away by emotion to recount several incidents when the poor old man impressed her by the way he worked and talked in the past. But it all sounds only funny to the heartless husband. It is not that the old man is bad at work; in fact as Mary remembers he has always been a skillful hard-working man. Besides, he is such an honest and simple man to the extent of hating young boys whom he calls “fools of books”. Poor Silas is very concerned for the people and he has nothing to look forward with hope, or to look backward with pride. That is why he never takes life seriously. Warren picks up a stick of wood and broke into two; this suggests his violence in contrast to the tenderness of Mary.

The effect of sympathy begins to down in Warren’s heart. Frost has dramatically created a natural setting in which outside atmosphere corresponds to the inside affair. The appearance of the moon signifies the generating of sympathy and love in Warren’s mind. Marry is overwhelmed with pity for the poor man which is symbolically represented by the moonlight falling upon her lap immediately, the reader is caught-in an emotional tone of the poem as Mary declares that Silas has come home to die. Frost’s essentially emotional expression blended with philosophy find its expression through Mary who defines ‘home as the place where, when you have to go these, they will take you in’. This sentence is a crux of the whole poem. Instead of going to his rich brother at the time of problem and sickness, Silas has tracked back Warren’s house.

Warren’s heart has now melted and he admits ‘I can’t think ever hurts anyone.’ Mary is so troubled to see the deteriorating condition of Silas’ who is on the verge of collapse that she advices Warren to watch the dying man. When Warren returns, Mary asks, “Warren?” anxiously. Warren only replies in his typical heartless manner, “Dead”. He is probably not yet touched! The significance of this sequence of dialogue and events is self-explanatory once the basic thematic tension is understood. Thematically “The Death of the Hired Man,” which dramatizes the isolation of the individual and the difficulty of communication, is memorable for its poignant portrait of Mary’s mercy overwhelming Warren’s judgment, as she persuades her husband to let the hired man return home. The conflict between them ends as they finally come close to each other, thereby emphasizing that reconciliations are of central importance to Frost because they provide one of the few sources of sustenance in a stark world where God is inscrutable and not always benevolent. Despite his skepticism regarding society and government, Frost did not believe people could stand alone and thrive. Although they should maintain their individuality, people need each other. And they can live together successfully – but only if they are not completely unyielding and allow their individuality to be subsumed by love.

Cite this Page!

Shrestha, Roma. "The Death of the Hired Man by Robert Frost: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 27 Nov. 2013,