Study Guide

Out, Out Themes

  • Men and Masculinity

    If there's one thing Robert Frost works on constantly, it's the theme of masculinity. He works on it from a different perspective of a Thoreau or a Whitman, but there are still those basic, meaty questions of work, mortality, loss, and man in nature. Hefty stuff, but Frost chooses to tackle these issues through his own experiences in New England. Man's role here is always a contested one—trying to stay warm, finding your path, building relationships with neighbors, working on your mustache, that kind of stuff. In "Out, Out," it's not a man, but a young boy doing man's work—with tragic consequences.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. How does the boy relate to the only female character? Whom is this poem meant for? How do you know?
    2. Is the boy's adolescence or boyhood a factor in the accident? Is he just a klutz? Why do you think so? 
    3. How do we reconcile the boy's work with his environment? That is, does the boy need to be doing work? Why or why not? 
    4. What does it mean that the boy dies? Does it mean anything? Why do you think so?

    Chew on This

    The boy's lack of maturity probably caused the accident—don't do work too late at night, y'all.

    The boy's value as a worker makes his family only feel the loss of his work potential when he dies. Bummer.

  • Strength and Skill

    What's the point of chopping wood? (Other than to measure how much wood a woodchuck could chuck, we mean.) Seriously, these farmers cut wood for their stove to keep warm. It's an essential activity to survival, and the saw helps make that work easier. Keep your eyes open, folks—this is an important one in "Out, Out." There are skills necessary to survive, and the amount of strength you can use as a farm boy indicates how valuable you are.

    Questions About Strength and Skill

    1. What's the relationship between work and family here?
    2. Who's doing the work, the saw or the boy? Why do you think so? 
    3. Is the family's primary concern the boy's ability to do work? How can you tell?
    4. What's the link between good work and maturity?

    Chew on This

    The boy's work is essential to the family's survival. Go, boy, go (and watch your fingers while you're at it).

    The boy was too young to do the work he was doing. For shame, strangely silent parents.

  • Technology and Modernization

    This is a little more specific than just "work." Machines help people do their labor, but they can be deadly instruments. In the case of "Out, Out," we're talking about a saw. There's a lot of blending here between man and machine; machines take on men's work, and so become an extension of man. This is all Singularity-type stuff, people…

    Questions About Technology and Modernization

    1. What is the role of machines in a rural setting?
    2. Are machines (other than the Terminator) necessarily deadly?
    3. Does the boy seem old enough to work with machines? How do you know? 
    4. Is the saw conscious in the poem? Does it have a conscience?

    Chew on This

    The saw kills the boy in the same way that machines will replace our pre-technical innocence. Once we start using them, Frosty is telling us (and wagging his finger), there's no going back.

    The saw is just a dumb tool. The real tragedy here is that the boy is viewed by his family as a machine to do labor. Sad, right?

  • Death

    We know, "Out, Out," just gets more and more cheerful, doesn't it? Fear not, though. We're here to guide you through the dark path. Death is an ever-present part of life, but in this poem Frost considers to what degree death haunts work. The boy works to stay alive, and in that effort he dies. Many people think that the poem is an expression of the sentiment that dust returns to dust, and the Macbeth title (along with line 2) reinforces that. One could also read the poem as a commentary on the value of human life amidst industrial production—World War One was raging at the time Frost wrote the poem, and it's certainly possible he had that needless loss in mind.

    Questions About Death

    1. Is work simply a way to delay death? How would the speaker answer that question? 
    2. Does the boy's family seem to care about death emotionally? Why or why not? 
    3. When Frost says, "nothing happened," is that still true at the end of the poem? Does death appear natural to the speaker? What parts of the poem support your ideas? 
    4. In what ways could this be a commentary on WWI?

    Chew on This

    Frost is doing his own building work here. He constructs death and work as similar in that both are natural parts of life.

    From "the other hand" department: death in the poem is an unnatural force that disrupts the family's life and work.