Study Guide

Toads Themes

By Philip Larkin

  • Dissatisfaction

    In "Toads," it isn't too tough to tell that the speaker is dissatisfied with his life. He might not say the words, "I feel a great sense of dissatisfaction when I look at my life," but there are plenty of other clues letting us guess that's probably what he's feeling. (Perhaps the biggest clue is the fact that this is a poem by Larkin—his speakers are dissatisfied with something most of the time.)

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. What is the primary cause of the speaker's dissatisfaction? Do you think he's justified in feeling this way? Why or why not?
    2. Which line or word gives you the greatest sense of the speaker's dissatisfaction? Why?
    3. Is there anything about the poem's form, structure, or style that adds to the poem's sense of dissatisfaction? What is it and how does it express the feeling?

    Chew on This

    The speaker's sense of dissatisfaction is so profound because it comes from external as well as internal sources. If it were just one or the other he might have a shot at a fulfilling life, but as it stands, there's no hope. Yay.

    Societal expectations are the primary source of the speaker's sense of dissatisfaction. If the speaker didn't have to spend "six days of the week" working to provide himself with basic necessities, he would be able to fill his life with more fulfilling pursuits. In other words: quit your day job, dude.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    The speaker in "Toads" is feeling stuck for a couple of different reasons. First of all, he's got that ugly toad (work) squatting on him. It keeps him from getting what he wants out of life. He feels confined by it and he wants to find a way free from it. The trouble is, he's got one of those toads in him as well. (What, did he swallow it or something?) It turns out that getting free from both of these toads might not be possible.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Do you think the speaker's confinement is real or imagined? Is he making a big deal out of nothing? Why or why not?
    2. Can you relate to the speaker in terms of feeling confined by societal expectations? If so, give an example. If you can't relate to the speaker's feelings of confinement, why not? 
    3. Larkin uses the image of a big, heavy, ugly toad squatting "on [the speaker's] life" to represent the sense of confinement and feeling trapped under a societal obligation to work. Gross, right? What are some more common images or metaphors associated with confinement and loss of freedom? Would those have worked in this poem? Why or why not?
    4. Are there any structural elements in the poem that reinforce the sense of confinement or lost freedom? How do they reinforce this sense?

    Chew on This

    Relax, fella. The speaker's sense of confinement is all in his head. It is a personality flaw. Societal demands and obligations are not to blame.

    No escape—the form and structure of "Toads" mirrors the sense of confinement that the speaker feels.

  • Cunning and Cleverness

    The speaker in "Toads" seems to think his one shot at getting rid of the metaphorical toads that torment his life comes in the form of wit. He figures maybe, just maybe, he can use his smarts, his cleverness, to "drive the brute off." He has lots of evidence to support wit's power against the amphibian foes, but in the end even wit proves useless for our poor speaker. Oh, well—good try?

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. Why does the speaker think wit is the way to get out from under that squatting toad (work)? 
    2. Despite all the evidence the speaker provides of people who "live on their wits," why doesn't it work for him? Why can't he use his wits to get free of those toads?
    3. If wit isn't the answer, what is? Is there something the speaker could use besides his wit to free himself from those toads?

    Chew on This

    Nice try, guy, but the speaker's argument that "lots of folk live on their wits" is flawed. All of the examples he gives of people living on their wits actually involve real work of one kind or another. It is just the speaker's perception of these other lives, and a "grass is always greener" mentality, that makes it seem to him like they've got it made.

    The speaker can't get free of "the toad work" because he is a coward. Wit has less to do with it than bravery, gang.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Big plans? Hopes and dreams? We've all got 'em. Unfortunately, as the speaker in "Toads" discovers, things don't always work out the way we'd like or the way we plan. He wants to have a fulfilling life. He hopes for the Big Three: fame, fortune, and someone to share it all with. But instead he gets a bunch of toads. How unfair.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Do you feel like the speaker is unusual or typical in regards to his inability to realize his dreams?
    2. The speaker complains that he will never get "The fame and the girl and the money / All at one sitting." Do you think he's shooting too high? Shouldn't he just be happy with one or two out of three? Why or why not?
    3. Do any of the poem's structural or formal elements mirror the speaker's sense of dashed hopes and dreams? If so, how? If not, why not?

    Chew on This

    Sorry, but the speaker's realization that he will never achieve all he hoped and dreamed of is nothing new or particularly special. It is symptomatic of a common condition: being alive. Most people are, like this speaker, prone to disappointment.

    "Toads" presents a problem of perspective. The speaker feels unfulfilled because he can't get everything he hopes for: fame, fortune, and love, all at once. (He doesn't ask for much, does he?) But the poem implies that he can have these things separately. Sometimes, like the poem's speaker, we are too stubborn to realize that we have in fact achieved our goals, just not exactly as we had envisioned we would.