The poem describes the true story of a boy whose hand was cut after a buzz saw accident in March 1910. The doctor tries to save the boy’s life, but the boy is bleeding so badly, that he his going into shock and dies of heart failure. Frost tells the story in much detail, appealing to all five senses, to describe the brutal way in which the short life was ended. The poem’s title refers the reader to a famous quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (“Out, out, brief candle!”), which implies that life is fragile and its end can come unexpectedly.
The story is narrated in the past tense and based on the observations of those who witnessed the event. The narrator refers to himself once (“I wish…”), stating his wish that the accident could have been avoided.
The incident takes place in a Vermont farmyard. The boy is cutting wood for stoves at dusk. Since he is “Doing a men’s work” during the late afternoon, it is sound to assume that he is tired and that his life as a countryside boy is far from glamorous.
The machine is very noisy and clearly dangerous, as the word “snarled” implies. The tired boy is clearly not concentrated: The poor illumination makes sight difficult and his nose is filled with the “Sweet-scented” timber. When the boy is suddenly distructed by his sister, he becomes an easy prey for the saw, which eventually “leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap –“ and the boy is making a fundamental mistake, as “He must have given the hand” to the blade. Since “Neither refused the meeting,” it is possible that the boy is doing it intentionally, perhaps willing to sacrifice his hand or even his life in order to end the hard labour.
Immediately after the accident, the boy sees his blood spilling from the injured hand. In his childish heart, “he saw all spoiled” – as he is worthless as an amputated farmer, he begs to his sister: “Don’t let him cut my hand off -/ The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!”
At the second scene, the boy is laying and the doctor anesthetizes him before the unavoidable amputation, but this is too late, as the boy’s heart is weakening and eventually stops (“Little – less – nothing!”).
The story’s resolution is irritating, as it seems that no one takes the death emotionally: the heart stops, “and that ended it.” The boy was probably only valueable as a pair of working hands, and now there is “No more to build on there.” There are no signs of grief among the family members, who “Were not the one dead,” and therefore “turned to their affairs.”
The narrator, however, is not cold-hearted: he sees the child that could have had better childhood (“To please the boy by giving him the half hour/ That a boy counts so much when saved from work”) and uses the circumstances of the event and the responses of the characters to the occurrences to emphasize the cruelty that surrounded the boy’s life and the sudden manner in which the short life has ended.
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