Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Man”
Robert Frost’s classic poem captures the essence of the home as a place of belonging and hospitality where a person experiences love, welcome, care, worth, and dignity and where he comes to know the value of both justice and mercy which the home instills in its unique combination of love’s gentleness and firmness and blend of mercy and justice. Silas, the hired man, returns like a prodigal son to the place he regards as home even though it is not his family. No matter how wayward his life or irresponsible his behavior, Silas never fails to appreciate the home as the center of life and the source of life’s greatest bonds of affection. Not every person is a hired man who strays from his work on a farm and then returns unexpectedly, but every person has the same universal human needs that Silas communicates when he returns home to die—the only place where he matters, where he is remembered, and where he is cherished, not for his accomplishments, talents, or virtue but for who he is—a person who needs the love of a family and the virtues of the heart that only homes instill.
Silas, the undependable hired man, has once again returned to Warren and Mary’s farm where he has been employed many years ditching the meadow and building a load of hay. However, Silas has earned the reputation of an unreliable farm hand that leaves when most needed in the busiest season. Warren has given his ultimatum: “I told him so last haying, didn’t I? /If he left then, I said, that ended it.” But—despite Warren’s stern words—Silas once again returns to the farm and claims he comes to do the usual chores as if Warren did not expel him. However, this time it is a different occasion. Mary, Warren’s wife, senses the real reason for Silas’s sudden reappearance: “‘Warren, he has come home to die: / You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.’” Because the farm is not Silas’ real home and Warren and Mary are not related to him as family members, Warren is startled to hear his wife say “Home.” Warren then offers his definition of home using the language of justice, duty, and obligation: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, /They have to take you in.” However, when Mary insists “Be kind,” Warren forgets his ultimatum and receives Silas with welcoming hospitality, realizing the truth of Mary’s definition of home: “I should have called it something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” A home is not a reward for work or a privilege that follows the fulfillment of requirements but a grace or gift that does not depend on merit.
Warren and Mary wonder why Silas in his final days returns to their farm rather than goes to his affluent brother’s home: “Why doesn’t he go there? His brother’s rich, /A somebody—director in the bank.” Mary’s explanation indicates that Silas does not feel a sense of belonging or welcome because he is “just the kind that kinsfolk can’t abide,” and “He won’t be made ashamed to please his brother.” Though a vagabond who comes and goes with no settled life or constant work, Silas needs the validation of human dignity and worth that only Warren and Mary’s home offers. Silas has chosen the farm as his home and has come there to die because Warren and Mary have provided Silas the blessings of a home that satisfy all a person’s most human needs. First, Mary, sensitive to the sufferings of the body, cares for his physical state when she sees him asleep by the barn door, “A miserable sight, and frightening, too—.” Feeling pity for the old man, Mary offers hospitality, offering Silas tea, encouraging conversation, and preparing a bed for him.
Second, Mary intuits Silas’ emotional needs of acceptance, the desire to be among people who treat him with affection and esteem and who appreciate his skill as an experienced hired man. Despite recognizing Silas’s desperate plight as a dying man, Mary patiently hears the ostensible reason for his return—to ditch the meadow—while she understands the real motive: “Surely you wouldn’t grudge the poor old /humble way to save his self-respect.” Even though Warren discharged Silas for his negligence, Silas knew he received his just deserts and does not desire false pity. Just as Mary treated Silas with mercy, kindness, and unconditional maternal love (“something you somehow haven’t to deserve”), Warren treated Silas with justice, integrity, duty, and conditional paternal love (“when you have to there, / They have to take you in”). The home provides the most personal and sensitive of touches and senses a person’s needs without explanation.
Silas goes home to die because no person wants to end his life alone, rejected, or forgotten. On the farm Silas proved his worth and received the praise and appreciation he deserved for his talents, whether it was his gift for finding water with a hazel prong or building a load of hay: “He bundles every forkful in its place,/And tags and numbers it for future reference.” Silas returns to the farm he identifies as home because he was accepted for who he was, not as a great success by worldly standards or special accomplishments: “He never did a thing so very bad./He don’t know why he isn’t quite as good/ As anybody.” At Warren and Mary’s home Silas received the kind, forgiving heart of Mary’s caring maternal love and the honorable, manly justice of Warren’s plain dealing. Just as Mary provided food, shelter, and comfort when she welcomed him in his destitute condition, Warren always dealt with Silas by straightforward, manly directness. Silas receives both love and discipline, mercy and justice, unconditional and conditional love. All of his human needs are met as he is welcomed, appreciated, and forgiven, and he receives affirmation and compliments for the good work he produces. Silas returns home weak, dependent, and helpless: “how much he’s broken. / His working days are done. I’m sure of it,” Mary notices as she urges her husband to comfort him in his dying hours. As much a baby needs a loving home at the moment of birth, a dying person needs the same tenderness, care, and special attention in his last moments.
At the moment just before Silas’s death when Warren announces he has passed away, Mary notices a natural event in the sky she relates to the episode at the farm. She wonders if “that sailing cloud will hit or miss the moon.” When the cloud hits the moon, a direct line unites the objects in the sky to the observer: “Then there were three there, making a dim row, / The moon, the little silver cloud and she.” This trinity of moon, cloud, and woman provides the natural image of the family in which love always multiplies as two become three or more in the love that is given and received both as “something you somehow haven’t to deserve” as well as “the place where, when you have to go there,/ They have to take you in.”
These greatest of human needs and these greatest longings of the heart go unfulfilled in the culture of no-fault divorce, fatherless families, and neglected children who also need the sense of security, identity, and importance that Warren and Mary provide for Silas with their acts of kindness that offer stability, forgiveness, purpose, and bonds of affection that affirm the oneness of the family and the inestimable value of each person’s humanity.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Haymaking,” painted by American artist Dwight William Tryon (1849–1925).