Lorraine Balint--- Introduction to Literature--- October 27, 2003

1.) In this poem, Frost seems to place the blame for the boy's death on, first, the saw that "leaps" out at the boy's hand, and then, on the boy, who "must have given his hand". Who is to blame for the boy's death? Who do you think Frost holds responsible? Explain.

Perhaps the sister's abrupt announcement of suppertime distracted the boy, and made it look as though he was putting his hand to the saw. Perhaps the boy was very tired as well, more so since he had been denied that paltry extra half-hour of liberty at the end of the day. Perhaps the gears which held the saw in place had become loosened by the volume of work done that day, making the accident almost inevitable.

However, the final lines, "...And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs" obviously put the onus of guilt for the accident upon whatever adults owned the sawmill, and those who were working with the boy, and supposed to be maintaining the saw. It seems obvious, given the lack of shock and grief at his death, this wasn't the family of the boy and his sister. This poem, having been written in 1916, in an era before child-labor laws and OSHA regulations, especially in rural and forested areas where a sawmill would have been a fixture in the community, indicates that both young people were working for strangers, he in the sawmill, she in the kitchen. They might have been orphans, though children from poor families frequently took up adult occupations before adolescence, and, if illiterate, could not communicate any complaints about their treatment, as if it was something the parents could have helped them with, anyway.

The lines about the boy holding up his "spoiled", almost-severed hand, in an attempt to keep from bleeding to death (apparently, his companions didn't even know, or care enough, to apply some kind of tourquinet), while also observing that his blood had stained the lumber, is especially poignant. The lumber (not to mention the inconvenience of a missed dinner) was more important to the adults around him, and, though probably already dying, he knew it. He begs not to lose the hand, though it was, for all intents and purposes, "gone already"---- not only for his own sake, but, one can be almost certain, because he would lose his means of earning a living, for both himself and his sister. Everything in his existence that matters has been "spoiled".

Only the "watcher at his pulse"--- a nurse, co-worker, or more likely, the sister--- "takes fright" at its sudden halt. If a co-worker, he might have been more frightened for his own sake, or felt a tinge of guilt, though lawsuits and / or arrests in these cases were unheard-of in that era, and the boy appeared to have none but his sister, a humble kitchen worker, available to hold anyone responsible. It seems rather more likely that his pulse-taker WAS his sister, because "No one believed" her at first. The doctor might have overdosed the boy with ether, since he had probably deduced that it was a hopeless case by the time he arrived. But it was the employment standards of that time which really snuffed out the boy's "brief candle."
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2.) The title echoes the famous stanza from "MacBeth" that begins "Out, out, brief candle." See p. 750 of the text for the full quotation. What clues do the lines from Shakespeare's play provide the reader in trying to interpret this poem?

It's a double meaning, if the Shakespeare quote is also intepreted in the context of the play from which it is derived. This is the latter part of the soliloquy of Macbeth himself, when told of the suicide of his queen, who had gone mad after goading him to murder, and, in fact, herself, performing bloody murders, upon all rival claimants to the throne of Scotland--- including innocent children. The famous speech, "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day", expresses Macbeth's sorrow and resentment at the untimely AND inconvenient end of Lady Macbeth (in spite of having loved her in his own way), his despair at the cost of the power he had gained, and his utter weariness and growing cynicism at the meaninglessness of it all (which attitude eventually contributes to his own undoing.)

So, the portion of the speech, from the point of "Out, out, brief candle" IS very appropriate to the senseless, wasteful death of a hard-working, conscientious, and very young man--- who remains an anonymous "poor player" whose death "signifies nothing" except, of course, to his sister. But if one goes back to the earlier portion of the original speech, it is also quite fitting to the actions of the boy's employers, who exploited the labor of children, then let the messy passing of one of them inconvenience them for only the briefest possible time. "No more to build on there" (in the loss, not only of the boy's potential, but his exploited labor, AND the disturbance in the production of the lumber that day) could also be translated into Shakespeare's line: "(S)He should have died hereafter; there would have been time for such a word."
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3.)How does Frost relate the events that occur in "Out, Out---"? Is he involved in the action? Is he a person present at the accident? Explain by referring to lines from the text to support your repsonse.

Frost writes as an omniscient narrator, yet as one who might have witnessed a similar incident, or had heard a first-person account of such an accident (which was common enough in those days, and still occasionally happens, though, in the USA, not involving children.) Indeed, Frost, though born in San Francisco, spent most of his latter life in rural areas, and would likely have had business with sawmills (this was written after he had returned from 3 years of farming in England, and had settled in New Hampshire; the poem mentions the mountain ranges "under the sunset far into Vermont.")

There are details that might suggest his presence: the vivid "snarl and rattle" of the saw, describing the "sweet scent" of the freshly-cut lumber; the knowledge that those in charge denied the boy a half hour's early dismissal from work; the illusion of the saw and hand moving towards each other ("Neither refused the meeting") ; the boy's desperate, futile plea ("Don't let him cut my hand off... sister!") , the description of his lips "puffed out with his [last] breath", witnessed by a "frightened", inexperienced attendant.

Frost also passes judgment upon those whom, it seems, that he has good reason to hold personally responsible for what, in the the eyes of the larger world, is a minute tragedy. "I wish they might have said / To please the boy by giving him the half hour / That a boy counts so much when saved from work." That half hour before the announcement of supper, before the boy, who, though used to "Doing a man's work" was still a "child at heart", inadvertently moved his hand to the blade. He implies that the boy was just as concerned with the blood upon the lumber, as he was with stanching his bleeding, anxiety that could only have been inflicted on him by his employers, though they, themselves, apparently did nothing practical to solve either problem before the doctor arrived.

Then, the anonymous young worker dies--- "Little--less--nothing!--- and that ended it. No more to build on there"--- probably to be buried in a potter's field somewhere, his sister left to fend for herself in the kitchen. As a rebuke to the adults involved, Frost refers to "them" as an equally anonymous, ambiguous unit--- "they" who "were not the one dead", though in their seemingly callous return to "their affairs", might be implied to be as dead in their souls as the boy was now, in body.

Frost COULD, of course, be speaking as one of the older sawmill workers, who felt put upon by the bosses or owners, who had befriended the boy and would have understood his need for a little more freedom, his lack of experience; his terror at losing his hand, his living, and his life, and who, not the sister, had been the one minding the boy's pulse. A fellow worker could have been more resentful of "their" indifference; the sister, depending on her age, might have been more bewildered, intimidated, and grief-stricken to have such organized thoughts about this sudden loss.

His description of the boy's reaction demonstrates that he might well have witnessed something of the kind: the fact that the boy in the poem doesn't shriek with pain and agony, but with a "rueful laugh"--- it takes some time for the shock to subside and the actual pain to begin, but unless one has had this experience, or seen it first-hand, he or she might conventionally write about the victim writing in agony immediately, and those in the vicinity going into a panic or engaging in heroics..

(I myself witnessed an industrial accident, years ago, where a young woman got her thumb stuck in a revolving vise. The digit was half torn off before she started muttering "my finger is stuck, my finger is stuck" for a couple of minutes, and before even those closest by her understood what was going on, and the set-up man rushed to free her. One woman who had been working at the machine next to the girl later said "I could have lived without seeing that." And even then, the pain didn't kick in for a few more minutes, certainly not while the girl was still in the shop--- still in shock. Her hand WAS eventually repaired at company expense, and she went on disability right away, so she didn't sue--- everyone, including her mother who also worked there, knew that she had been wearing a Walkman and not paying attention; they were spared having to testify about it.)


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