by Robert Frost
Lines 32-48 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
"Don't, don't, don't, don't," she cried.
- Well, now. Things sure are getting interesting. And dramatic.
- This is quite a violent reaction to her husband's mention of the child's grave. That tells us that this is a sore subject for her; she really really doesn't want to talk about it.
- Her tone changes from defiant to pleading. This can't be headed anywhere good.
She withdrew shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs;
- Here's the physical reaction that goes with her desperate verbal plea.
- In these lines, we see the man's arm on the banister, or railing for the stairs, above her. She draws back from him, away from underneath his arm.
- The use of the word "shrinking" in this line fits with the word "withdrew," in that she's both shrinking away from him and is shrinking in size, showing that he's overpowering her. For most of this poem, the woman has been shrinking and withdrawing, not just here in line 33. In line 8, we see her sinking into her skirts, and in line 11, she's cowering in fear.
- After she shrinks from the man's arm on the banister, she slides down the stairs. We wish we could say this means that she slid down the railing like a little kid, but we think it just means she slips under her husbands arm, and scuttles down those steps as fast as she can to get away from her hubby.
- The tables sure have turned, haven't they? We begin the poem with the woman at the top of the stairs, when she still has knowledge that the man doesn't have about what she sees out the window. This gives her power in the relationship, which matches with her position above him on the stairs.
- Then, in line 11, the man walks up the stairway, and the power begins to shift as the woman starts to shrink from him.
- Now that the man has found out what the woman was looking at, he has taken away all her power by taking his place at the top of the stairs.
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
"Can't a man speak of his own child he's lost?"
- The woman rounds on her husband, and makes him quake in his boots.
- Then, she gives him a look to make him quiver. The word "daunting" means intimidating, or frightening. So now, after she's done all of the cowering, she's scaring him with just a look. Whoa.
- His reaction to this look is to repeat himself, which he's already done several times in this poem. Here, though, it's almost as if he's stuttering or something. He repeats line 37 "before he knew himself," or unintentionally, because the look his wife just gave him made him just that nervous.
- The line he says not once, but twice, may have a question mark at the end, but it's really more of a statement than a question. And you know what that means, Shmoopers—it's a rhetorical question.
- The way he phrases the statement expresses his frustration; it seems like they've had this fight before.
- He says this child is "his own," reminding his wife that it's his loss, too.
- And that word, "lost" stands out. He says he's "lost" the kid, not that the kid's dead. By doing so, he sidesteps around the brutal facts of the issue, and makes the loss seem more personal to him somehow. We'll see what his wife thinks about the way he has dealt with this loss as the poem continues.
- Also note how he does not say, "Can't I," but generalizes the statement by saying, "Can't a man." Keep that in mind as you read the rest of their exchange.
"Not you! Oh, where's my hat? Oh, I don't need it!
I must get out of here. I must get air.
I don't know rightly whether any man can."
- The wife's answer to her husband's question is a big, fat N.O. In response to his general "Can't a man" speech, she says something along the lines of, "even if other men can talk about the loss of a child, you, hubby, most definitely can't."
- And then she changes the subject. Classic fight move. In fact, she actually seems to be talking to herself here on some level. That's definitely the behavior of a flustered, upset person.
- She's so frazzled by this confrontation that she just has to get out of the house. But, being a lady, she needs her hat, of course.
- And the fact that she needs some air tells us she's feeling trapped in this house.
- Once she's expressed her need to get out of the house, she returns to the issue at hand.
- She's already told the man that he can't talk about the loss of his child, in line 40, she questions whether any man can talk about such a thing. Perhaps she feels that in this situation, the loss for the woman involved is much greater than the loss for the man. Or she feels that people just shouldn't talk about loss at all, and stick to their own private grief.
- At this point, it's pretty clear to Shmoop that these two aren't going to successfully chat out their problems today. This woman seems desperate to flee her husband's company. And as we'll see in the next few lines, he's desperate to keep her around.
"Amy! Don't go to someone else this time.
Listen to me. I won't come down the stairs."
He sat and fixed his chin between his fists.
"There's something I should like to ask you, dear."
- A-ha. A name. In these lines, the husband pleads with his wife, Amy, not to go to someone else, presumably to talk about her grief. He wants her to stick around and listen to him instead. Yep, that's right—he wants her to listen to him. He's not promising to listen to her, though.
- He also refuses to compromise with her, saying that he won't come after her down the stairs. Instead, he sits on the stairs, and, in the image we picture, he puts his arms on his knees, moves his hands into fists, and uses them to support his chin.
- Imagine what the husband looks like now. He's making himself comfortable, settling into a position as if he expects to have a long conversation. He's still in the seat of power at the top of the stairs. But he's made himself smaller by sitting in what looks like a form of compromise, yet is also a way to show that he's serious when he says that he's not going to come down the stairs to her. He's sitting down, staying put. And that's just what he wants her to do.
- After he has put himself into a smaller, but more stubborn, position, he proceeds to try and appeal to her, calling her "dear" and then giving her a heads up that he wants to ask a question.
"You don't know how to ask it."
"Help me, then."
Her fingers moved the latch for all reply.
- The woman shoots her husband down, saying that even if he would like to ask her a question, he wouldn't even know how to phrase it. As we already know, she doesn't think too highly of his communication skills.
- But the husband isn't not trying. He asks his wife to help him ask his question, admitting that he's having trouble reaching her, and needs her help to do so.
- Alas, that effort fails miserably.
- The wife just ain't havin' it. Instead of responding to her husband, she just unlocks the door. Get the picture, hubby?
- Sure, she may not storm out of the room angrily, but she definitely dismisses him in no uncertain terms.