Even ants have families. ‘Family’ stands for many things, and it is ironic that many times, the rational human being, blessed with the propensity to value emotion and the intangible, should claim that family or the home does not exist or is immaterial.
More discouraging than ironic is the fact that this concept of family and the home definitely exists, but because of certain human conditions, it looses significance.
Many times it is not the physical family or home that humans find value in but the concept that these physical establishments represent; this concept exists on various levels and, unfortunately, for some, these levels are all but cherished or treasured. In Robert Frost’s lyric poem, ‘The Death of a Hired Man’ a farm couple, Mary and Warren, argues over the return of a hired hand, Silas.
During their conversations various impressions of Silas emerge clearly giving meat to how Warren or Mary perceives this return and Silas in general. There are reasons in the poem indicating why Silas returns to the couple after quite a while, and the reasons given all fall apart in the end when Mary vindicates her statement that Silas has ‘come home to die’ (114) because true to her words, Silas does die in the end.
While there is very minimal reference as to the kind of person that Silas is, one thing is clear in the poem – that Silas did not return to the couple to do any more work but because he considered the couple as his only family; hence, the poem, lends a deeper meaning to the concept of family.
The word ‘family’ comes from the Greek word ‘famulus’ which means ‘servant’ or ‘servant of the household’; despite this literal meaning of the word being quite unorthodox in comparison to the modern definition of family, Frost’s poem allows a different level of interpretation of this word in his poem through the relationship between Mary and Silas.
If the Greek literal meaning is to be considered, with Silas being the hired help or the ‘servant’ in the poem, this literal meaning is given more significance in that Silas considered the farm couple to be his family. Mary considered Silas to be part of the family as well. This can be easily proven from lines in the poem that show this unlikely relationship between the servant and the ‘served’.
There are two concepts of ‘family’ referred to in the poem if Mary’s and Silas’ situation is closely analyzed – one would be that while humans would consider the physical ‘family’ as representative of the concept of ‘blood-related ties’, the poem alludes to the possibility of the development of the concept of ‘family’ beyond what would be allowed by simple blood relations.
The second concept that emerges from the poem is that ‘family’ is more of a concept that is dependent on the individual than it is a concept resulting from the inevitable consequence of relation, whether by blood or affiliation.
Winston Churchill once said that, “There is no doubt that it is around the family and the home that all the greatest virtues, the most dominating virtues of human society, are created, strengthened and maintained”; here, Churchill admits to the fact that certain things in a person are developed within the ‘physical’ family. In reference to this quote, it is quite easy to conclude that ‘family’ as a concept, and not the ‘physical’ family, might as well be one of the concepts that is developed in a person.
This idea is as well clearly illustrated in Frost’s poem in two ways; first in the way Mary perceives the person of Silas; and in the other way around, in the way Silas’ actions, as narrated by Mary, prove that the man has developed a ‘family-sense’ for the farm couple. Initially, when Mary went out to meet Warren, this particular ‘favor’ for Silas is shown in the lines, ““Silas is back.” / She pushed him outward with her through the door / And shut it after her.
“Be kind,” she said.” (5-7). Mary here, knowing that Silas was sleeping inside the house, rushed to warn her husband, but the warning was not out of concern for what would happen to her husband, but out of her assumption that her husband would not be happy with the arrival of Silas, and concern for what unfavorable act her husband might do to Silas, hence, she says, “Be Kind,”. (7) As early as these lines, Mary is now shown to have a soft heart for the hired hand who had returned. This ‘developed affinity’ of Mary to Silas is ground by Frost in the lines, “I sympathize.
I know just how it feels / To think of the right thing to say too late.” (79-80) and “Poor Silas, so concerned for other folk, / And nothing to look backward to with pride, / And nothing to look forward to with hope, / So now and never any different.” (102-105). In the first set of lines (79-80) Mary invokes sympathy as her reason for developing a certain closeness to Silas; her admission that she ‘she knows just how it feels’ (79) indicates that she identifies herself with Silas and so considers herself to have had the same life-changing experience as Silas.
This denotes that the development of the closeness was because of a commonality of experience of which sympathy is simply a consequence. In the second set of lines, the idea of the development of family in Mary’s perception of Silas is further reinforced by Mary’s virtuous perception of Silas, hence, Silas is ‘so concerned for other folk’, (102)