The critical tradition surrounding “The Red Wheelbarrow” has tended to see the poem’s speaker as Williams himself. Indeed, Williams spoke publicly about how the image captured in the poem was something he’d seen in a neighbor’s yard. Even so, the poem itself gives no explicit indication that Williams is the speaker. We may therefore interpret the speaker as an anonymous figure whose characteristics we must infer from what’s on the page. The first thing to note is that the speaker is a precise and deliberate observer of the world around them. Indeed, most of the poem consists of a series of concrete and closely observed images. Yet these images are also strangely detached from each other, as if to suggest that the speaker perceives the world in fragments rather than as a complete whole. As an example, consider lines 3–6:

     a red wheel

     glazed with rain

Although both stanzas refer to the same object, they relate distinct images: the first describes the wheelbarrow itself, and the second describes the rainwater glaze on the wheelbarrow’s surface. What’s notable here is how the speaker’s observation of the glaze is slightly displaced in time. This displacement suggests that on the level of perception, the speaker experiences the glaze as something separate from the wheelbarrow.

The subtle perceptual separation of the rainwater glaze from the wheelbarrow itself may help to explain why the speaker insists that “so much depends / upon” this scene (lines 1–2). The speaker never explains what, exactly, depends upon this red wheelbarrow. However, the intensity of their claim—“so much”—implies a strong emotional response. But why? One explanation might relate to the use of wheelbarrows in agricultural labor. If so much depends upon a wheelbarrow, it may be because the wheelbarrow was an essential tool for the manual work of farming. Here, however, it’s worth remembering that Williams wrote the poem in the 1920s, at a time when agricultural work was rapidly being mechanized. Hence, the speaker may see the wheelbarrow as a symbol of all that has been cast aside in the rush to industrialize every sphere of modern life. There’s an important irony here. If the wheelbarrow has become obsolescent, then little, in fact, depends upon it. Yet in a moment of sentimentality and wishful thinking, the speaker insists on the opposite claim. Put differently, they want to assert the persistence of the wheelbarrow’s meaning, even as their sense of meaningfulness has itself been shattered.