The Vanishing Red by Robert Frost: Summary and Analysis

The poem The Vanishing Red appeared in 'Mountain Interval' in 1916. The phrase 'the vanishing red' is often applied to indicate the gradual extinction of the Red Indians, one of the aboriginal tribes of New England. In this poem, Frost tells us about a Red Indian, John and his dreadful murder by a white, Miller. Racial and tribal clash of 1910s America is presented through this incident of murder.

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

John is said to be the last Red Indian in Acton. And the Miller is said to have laughed - if one may call such a sound, as he made, a laughter, for he very soon turned serious as if he wanted to say, `whose business it is where he laughs, and no one should talk around the barn. For laughter is his tactics to get his work done with.' The reader can't guess all about the Miller's thought. It is a long story to go into. One should have rather lived beside him and seen all with one's own eyes. Then one could have the idea as to who was responsible for creating the tension between the two races of New England, the Whites and the non-Whites.

While moving about the mill, the Red Man gave out a peculiar exclamation of surprise over the great, big pounding and ruffling mill-stone and this made the Miller quite contemptuous of him. For the Miller thought that the exclamation came from a man who had no right to express surprise over such things. So he (having decided to murder the Red Indian to silence his exclamation forever) invited John, the Red Indian, to come with him and see the wheel-pit to satisfy his curiosity.

The Miller took the Red Indian down below a cramping rafter (a part of the machine) and showed him, through an opening in the floor, the water in difficult and narrow passages like the mad or hysterical Salmon and sturgeon (two varieties of big fish), beating their tails hard against the shallow and narrow straits of water. Then he closed the door with a slam and this created a noise harsher and louder than the general noise. He then came upstairs alone, and laughed an ironical, sinister laughter, and whispered something to the man with a meal-sack which the man did not follow then. But, of course, the Miller had succeeded in showing the wheel-pit to John, i. e., he had brutally murdered him.

The poem is one that hovers around mystery, for example, nothing explicitly has been stated about the killing of John, the Red Indian. This is how his death has been reported:

And said something to a man with a meal sack That the man with the meal-sack didn't catch-then. Oh, yes, he showed John the wheel pit all right.

Indirectly we know that the brutal murder was committed by the Miller in the "wheel-pit." The poem has a grimness and a sense of tragedy that is totally in contrast with the light mood of Brown's Descent.

Even the very title suggests the terror of the poem - "the gradual decline of the Red Indian." The tragic elements are but natural in a story dealing with the extinction of a race, or the fall of a great empire. And John is certainly the center of our sympathy, as he is the last of his race in Acton. Simply his expression of surprise at seeing a very big thumping mill evoked the hatred of the Miller and sent him to the brutal deed - is something like the tale recounted in medieval romances when the feudal system was at its height. But a story like this placed in the modern world of machine is certainly highly disgraceful and unbelievable.

The poem presents a social picture of New England, which no sensible man can approve of. It is a closely knitted poem, poignant with feelings. In it the poet has employed the direct method of narration to strike home the intensity of the situation and the irony of John's fate.

Frost projects the white supremacy during the colonial time in America. At that time, the non-whites and the Red Indians became "targets of attack". The interests of the Whites and non-Whites clashed. To establish themselves, the Whites had to fight them out. Many non-whites were killed brutally in order to solve the colonial problem. The so called whites used to think that the non-whites do not deserve to live, so in this way, the brutal and inhuman murder of the non-whites were justified. John was brutally murdered by the Miller for no apparent mistake. The Miller being white thinks himself superior and calls John ‘Red man’ thinking that he is not respectable to be called by his own name. John, moving about the mill, gave a "guttural exclamation of surprise, which so disgusted the Miller that he asked him to go with him and "see the wheel pit." The credulous John followed the Miller, not knowing that he was going into the pit of death. The Miller's action was something typical of the prepared plan of the Whites to eradicate the tribe of the Red Indians. The miller became the representative figure of the whites of 1910s who used brutal force to cover their mistakes.