Answer: The title of the poem, “The Death of the Hired Man”, may seem confusing, because the main character of the story, Silas, the old servant of Warren and Mary, does never appear; he always seems to be in the background. We learn things about him from the conversations between Warren and his wife. The reader may question if the old servant is the main character, why he does not appear even before the reader or audience. If so, how far can it be justified that the poem is titled on his death?
In order to answer this question, we need a brief sketch of the story. Silas was Warren’s old servant. When Silas came back to Warren, Mary found him huddled at the barn-door, utterly miserable. Mary told Warren to be kind to Silas, and drew him down to sit beside her on the wooden steps. She told Warren that Silas was asleep beside the stove. When she came up from Rowe’s she found him there, “huddled against the barn-door fast asleep.” It was a miserable sight, a frightening sight. She also told Warren that he did not tell her anything regarding where he had been; he merely kept nodding off to the questions she asked. He, a poor old man, had his humble way to save his self-respect. He came merely to clear the meadow. Warren told her that he had never been anything but kind to him, but he would not have the fellow back.
He had told him so last “haying”. He was of little worth, and not dependable enough. He went off when he needed him most. He wanted to earn a little pay, but Warren could not afford to pay him any fixed wages. Silas told him someone else could, so he left him in haying time when any help was scarce. In winter, when he was not needed, he came. Mary told Warren that Silas had come to die, and he did not need to be afraid he would leave him again that time. Warren did not agree that theirs was Silas’s home. But Mary said,
“I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
Warren said Silas should have gone to his brother, a rich man. Mary said his brother ought to help him of course. But she would see to it later. For the moment she urged upon Warren to have pity on Silas. Mary told him to go and see what he could do for Silas. She made the bed up for him there that night. He was much broken; his working days were over. Warren left. When Warren had gone to see Silas’s condition, Mary was sitting alone waiting for her husband to return, and to see if the “sailing” in the sky would “hit or miss the moon”. It hit the moon ultimately, and dimmed the world; and in the funeral light of the covered moon, there were three in a row—Mary, the silver cloud, and the moon. The bright light of the moon symbolizes the life of Silas, and its being covered by the cloud symbolizes Silas’s death. This indicates that Mary was apprehensive of the death of Silas. She had a mental struggle with herself to ascertain whether Silas was dead or alive. Warren returned too soon, slipped to her side, caught up her hand and waited. When asked about him, he answered, “dead”.
Thus, Frost has titled the poem on his death. The death of the hired man is the main topic of the poem, and the incidents narrated in the poem centre round his death. The poet perhaps wanted to keep Silas in the background because his intention was to uphold the dignity of a man as man, however small he may be in the social scale. It may be the poet’s point of criticism that people like Warren who belongs to a social class which is above the class to which Silas belongs neglect the dignity of a human being. And perhaps it is because of such neglect that lower-class people sometimes face misery, and even death. By keeping the main character in the background, the poet makes his theme more effective than if he brought him to the forefront of the story. His death in the background becomes all the more poignant because of the way the poet has treated him. So the title of the poem seems appropriate for his purpose.
From another point of view the title appears appropriate. Warren and Mary’s talks about their hired man or the old servant occupy the whole of the poem. Though Silas does not appear in the forefront of the scenario, the attitudes of the couple, Warren and Mary, provide sufficient material for enjoyment of the poem as a work of art. Mary has all sympathy for the old, infirm servant; she wants to accept Silas as a member of her family. She even goes to the extent of advocating the case of Silas to her husband. Warren objects to Mary’s attitude of considering Silas a member of their family. Altercations take place around the topic of who is a member of a family, or who should be the member of a family, and who is not a member of a family. Warren retorted Mary’s conception of home, saying—”Home is the place where, when you have to go there.
They have to take you in.” It means that when the question arises as to whether a man be accepted as a member of a home, his position should be such that when he comes home, the other members of the home are rather bound to accept him. That means he deserves to be accepted as a member of that home. But Mary’s idea is quite the opposite. According to her, a home is one where a man is accepted whether he deserves it or not. It is not a question of being worth of the home. Mary wanted to mean that though Silas was of little worth, though he did not deserve to be a member of their family, they should accept him as someone who belonged to that home. Mary’s arguments seem to be consistent with her philosophy of life, so do Warren’s arguments with his. Both are right from their respective perspective. The reader is all the while caught up in this web of arguments and counter arguments. Ultimately, they remain firm on their own stand regarding Silas though Mary tells her husband to go and examine Silas’s condition where he did lay. When Warren leaves her for the time being in order to see for him the condition of the old servant, Mary observes ominous signs in nature from which she has a premonition of the death of the old man.
From the discussion above, we see that the subject matter of the poem is concerned with Silas and the circumstances leading to his death, and the couple Warren and Mary take different stance towards him. Though Silas dies of infirmities of age and poverty, the matters relating to his life form the main topic of the poem. The poet has purposefully kept him a shadowy figure in the whole story to indicate how neglected he was, how human dignity was trampled down by cruel people like Warren, and how and why deaths of poor, helpless people like Silas occur in callous society.