Study Guide

Design Themes

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: Existentialism

    This theme seems like a heavy-hitter, what with the big "ism" and all, but existentialism really boils down to a school of thought based on the idea of existence itself—not existence in our minds, but our living, breathing selves. In "Design," Frost examines life as he finds it in the physical world and wonders about all the big questions: Why are we here? Where did we come from? Were we made this way? Those aren't exactly multiple choice, kids.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: Existentialism

    1. In the first stanza, why does this scene spark the speaker to wonder about his existence?
    2. What is the effect on the reader of the series of questions in stanza two?
    3. What does the very last word of the poem say about the speaker's view of himself and the world?
    4. What does the poem's structure and design suggest about the possibility of a higher Intelligence at work in the world?

    Chew on This

    Frost is right on the edge of two extremes (and we don't mean a couple of these guys). Either the world is random and meaningless, or it is planned-out and harshly cruel.

    Our physical existence confirms what we already knew: appalling things happen and humans simply have to live in the midst of it. Tough jerky, gang.

  • Fate and Free Will

    We're big on freedom, sure, but everything has its limits. For thousands of years, humans have taken comfort in the idea that, while we might make our own choices, someone or something is still in ultimate control of the universe. We like the idea that not everything is just coincidence. It makes us feel like there's a good reason (even if we can't grasp it) why we missed our bus and got splashed by a passing truck in the process. But in "Design," Frost sees the scary side of that idea. If a creator is in control, that means that this god must have a hand in everything, including all the terrible stuff. It's not just saving kittens, after all.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. Why does Frost repeat the word "white" three times in the first several lines of the poem? Do you think this is a coincidence, or something planned out? Why?
    2. What is the contrast between the phrases "assorted characters" and "mixed ready"? What might those word choices say about the poem's view of fate and free will?
    3. What does the allusion to Macbeth in line 6 add to the fate debate?
    4. What do the verbs in lines 11-12 tell you about the speaker's belief in free will?

    Chew on This

    Frost is clearly outraged that God would meddle in the tiny affairs of the world in such a violent way. Harumph.

    The dark underside to the poem is the word "IF"—it is entirely possible that everything is random coincidence and we are here on our own. Yipe.

  • Fear

    "Design" isn't a ghost story. Really nothing all that awful happens. A spider gets ready to eat a moth. It's the circle of life—get over it. But the philosophical argument that Frost develops begins to play with some of our deepest fears. Frost moves from telling a story to asking questions, questions that become increasingly more urgent. It is as if he is slowly uncovering all the possible implications of the scene and he is terrified of what he discovers. And we're quaking in our loafers right along with him. (What? Don't hate—they were a Christmas gift.)

    Questions About Fear

    1. How does Frost create an eerie tone in the first three lines?
    2. What words or images from the first stanza are specifically connected with common human fears?
    3. What does Frost mean when he describes a "design of darkness to appall"?
    4. Do you see this poem as ultimately fearful, or hopeful? Why do you think so?

    Chew on This

    Frost works hard to make us fear this little scene by associating it with everything that makes us afraid—death, disease, spiders, even witches. (We're glad he left out heights.)

    Frost argues that God doesn't just control everything that happens in the universe; he rigs the whole thing just to freak us out. (Thanks a lot, big fella.)

  • The Supernatural

    In "Design" there's a lot of supernatural stuff going on. We've got the big guns of the supernatural world: God and the cosmic forces that control our lives. But we also have the small potatoes of the other-worldly realm—witches, overweight spiders, and pale flowers. The whole poem is about big things and small things and whether those big and small things are controlled by superstition, by God, or (hang on to your hackey-sacks) even by nothing at all.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. Why do you think Frost chose a heal-all as the flower for this scene?
    2. How does his reference to the "witches' broth" change what we previously thought about the scene?
    3. How do you think Frost would answer the rhetorical questions in lines 9-12?
    4. Does this poem view religion as something supernatural? How do you know?

    Chew on This

    The first stanza refers only to small superstitions (the spider, the heal-all, the witches' broth), but Frost takes his supernatural discussions to a cosmic level by the end of the poem. Far out, Frosty.

    Even though Frost makes plenty of references to the supernatural, at the end of the poem we still aren't sure whether he even believes that anything supernatural exists.