One might say that any form of grief in which the bereaved stubbornly finds the world “evil” is not a very healthy one. One could also claim that the bereaved who never talks through his grief—who never speaks of it—is doing himself and others injury. But, again, the purpose of the poem isn’t really to determine the right way to grieve. Rather, it intends to portray a failure of empathy and communication. Each person fails to appreciate the other’s grieving process—fails to credit it, allow it, and have patience with it. And each fails to alter even slightly his or her own form of grief in order to accommodate the other.
Note how utterly the woman misunderstands the man’s actions. To her, the act of burying the child was one of supreme indifference, while to him it must have been one of supreme suffering—an attempt to convince himself, through physical labor, that this is the natural order of things; or an act of self-punishment, a penance befitting the horror of the loss; or simply a way of steeping himself in his grief, of forcing it into the muscles of his arms and back, of feeling it in the dirt on his clothes. Note, too, how the wife completely fails to grasp the meaning of her husband’s words: “ ‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’ ” Indisposed to see her husbands form of grieving as acceptable, she takes his words as literal, inappropriate comments on fence building. Yet they have everything to do with the little body in the darkened parlor. He is talking about death, about the futility of human effort, about fortune and misfortune, about the unfairness of fate and nature.
And yet, the man is also partially to blame. If he had any understanding of how to communicate to her, he would not leave everything unspoken. He would make some concession to her needs and articulate a brief defense. “You misunderstand,” he might say. “When I said that, it was because that was the only way I could say anything at all about our loss.” Instead, he lets her accusations float in the air, as if they were just hysteria and nonsense and not worth challenging. This displays a lack of empathy and a failure of communication as fatal as hers. When she describes his heartless act of grave digging, he says only, “I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed. / I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.” This leaves her free to believe that he accepts her accusation, that the curse refers to his hard-heartedness and not the terrible irony of her misinterpretation. He uses irony where she requires clarity. She needs him to admit to agony, and he can grant her no more than veiled references to a substratum of unspoken grief. And in the face of her griefs obvious persistence, he makes a callous—or, at very least, extremely counterproductive—remark: “I do think, though, you overdo it a little.”
How important a role does gender play in this tragedy? Certainly it has some relevance. There are the husband’s futile, abortive physical threats, as if he could physically coerce her into sharing her grief—but these are impulses of desperation. And both husband and wife acknowledge that there are separate spheres of being and understanding. “Cant a man speak of his own child he’s lost?” asks the husband. “I don’t know rightly whether any man can,” she replies. A little later he laments, “A man must partly give up being a man / With womenfolk.” He sees his taciturnity and his inability to say the appropriate thing as a masculine trait, and she seems to agree. (Yet she sees his quiet grave digging as nearly inhuman.) Additionally, it is fairly standard to assume that more outward emotion is permitted of women than of men—the tragedy of this poem might then be seen as an exacerbation of a pervasive inequality. Yet one enduring stereotype of gender distinctions is the man’s inability to read between the lines, his failure to apprehend the emotions underlying the literal meaning of the woman’s words. In this poem, husband and wife fail equally in this manner. A woman, perhaps, might be less likely to dig a grave to vent her grief, but she is just as likely to react to death by withdrawal or by immersion in quotidian tasks. The reader witnesses the breakdown of a marriage (the burial of a home, expressed in the title’s double entendre), but more basically, this is a breakdown of human communication.
Partly, that breakdown is due to the inescapable limits of any communication. Much of the literature of the twentieth century stems from an acknowledgement of these limits, from attempts to grapple with them and, paradoxically, express them. A great deal of Frost’s poetry deals with an essential loneliness, which is linked to the limits of empathy and the sense that some things are simply inexpressible. What can one really say about the loss of one’s child? Can one adequately convey one’s grief on such an occasion? Is empathy—always a challenge—doomed to fail under such particular strain?
We should note in passing—though it is not of merely passing importance—that Frost knew firsthand the experience of losing children. His firstborn son, Elliott, died of cholera at the age of three. Later, his infant daughter died. Two more of his children died fairly young, one by suicide.