The Housekeeper by Robert Frost

Dec 9, 2019
folder_opencategory: Literature

The poem titled “The Housekeeper” by Robert Frost is about a man, John, whose social life disintegrates due to a difference in interests between him and his housekeeper who is also his sexual partner. Despite the future life of his housekeeper Estelle not being implied to be better than when she stayed at John’s house, the future life for John seems to have taken a turn for the worst. Choices he makes relating to how he handles Estelle appear innocuous to him, but have consequences that will make a great difference in his life without her.

The poem is about social integration and human relations in a home based on individual interests. It begins with a neighbor coming to visit John whom he has missed and instead finding Estelle’s mother alone in the kitchen. The old woman starts complaining of her diminishing ability to do physical work (like answering a door and sewing), which bothers her since she is no longer able to take care of John. She reveals that her daughter has left and will not come back. At this point, it is clear that the relationship that has existed between John and Estelle is that of master and servant. Though they have stayed in the same home for fifteen years, John has maintained the notion that she is just a servant and nothing more. It is such treatment that makes the old lady consider leaving the place since her frail physical state makes her unfit to do all the work.

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The main point of disagreement between John and Estelle is John’s unwillingness to marry her and give her children. In the old woman’s conversation with the John’s neighbor, it emerges that she has tried to convince John to marry her daughter and prevent her from becoming resentful. She also wants grandchildren. Unfortunately, John has refused, saying that the old woman is too old to expect grandchildren. On the issue of marriage, he refuses and instead poses a question of ‘why should they?’. He has been content with Estelle doing the housework plus most of the outdoor work, but has never regarded her as somebody he can marry. Indeed, she has been his sexual partner though she was supposed to be only his housekeeper. This treatment may have been the source of immense frustration for Estelle, which may have contributed to her decision to get married to someone else and leave John alone to handle his needs. The lack of marriage has also contributed to disrespect with which the old woman addresses John towards the end of the poem. Having returned home with the intention of having a talk to the neighbor, John tells the old woman the he will talk to her later after giving the neighbor news, to which she replies: ‘Who wants to hear your news, you--dreadful fool?’. She regards him as a fool for having let Estelle leave when he had the chance and ought to have married her.

Despite John and Estelle having different views on how they should relate, there are some areas in which their interests are similar. In the conversation, the old woman reveals that both John and Estelle are fond of nice things. This is shown in how they deal with the poultry that they keep at the farm. John is so keen on how birds are treated that he has prohibited carrying them with their heads down when moving them from one place to another and instead insists on carrying only two at a time, one on each arm, irrespective of the distance to be covered and a number of trips to be made. In turn, Estelle insists on their poultry being the best that there can be within their area of residency. Indeed, she is depicted as being very meticulous in preparing for the show (‘you never saw this room before a show’). It is his fondness for his poultry that prevents him from selling any of them instead preferring to keep them even after receiving the best offers with his only argument being that if they can fetch much on selling, then they are much more for keeping. He has even imported an exotic breed from England, for which he has rejected an offer of 45 dollars. His only pleasure is to brag on how much he has received as an offer for a certain cock (Kearns).

John is an emotional man irrespective of being depicted as an emotionless and uncaring person. The way he handles the poultry is a proof that he sees them as creatures that need to be taken care of. This is ironic given that he does not display such affectionate emotions in his interactions with Estelle and her mother. He is also shown as very emotional when he tries to hoe for the old lady. Out of frustration at his inability to handle the task at hand, he throws the how into an apple tree and leaves it there. Though his emotions are rather misdirected, he is an emotional man nevertheless.

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Description has been used to enhance development of the theme. The picture of the home as described by the old woman includes poultry, horses, hay making, and a small garden that can be seen from the kitchen. The emotional nature of John is captured in the description by Estelle’s mother on how John behaved after frustration with hoeing. He is also shown to be rather careless in the way he opens the door and orders the old woman to wait for a talk later on. The relationship between Estelle and John is revealed through a description given by the old woman and this is the major way how the main theme is developed in the poem.

Frost’s use of a dramatic form in this poem is highly effective in presenting the theme. The two characters have an uninterrupted examination of the John’s relationship with his housekeeper and her mother in a way that reveals the root of their disagreement, which results in his lover’s departure. It lets readers know even before John realizes it that the damage cannot be reversed and that Estelle is now married. Though it is not revealed what the neighbor wants to tell John and why John has been looking for his neighbor, despair expressed by his neighbor on the matter shows how seriously John will be affected. It is through this dramatic form that readers learn that Estelle’s mother has supported her decision of leaving John and getting married and that she is to leave soon even though John is not aware of such a plan.

Frost chooses a continuous structure for this poem. The structure is effective in linking all events in the poem and showing how one event or choice leads to the next one, as well as displaying actions and their outcomes. Such structure makes it easy for readers to follow the plot without losing grip of the major theme, as well as enabling them to foresee actions of the old woman after the departure of her daughter.

“The Housekeeper” is a thought-inspiring and thoroughly entertaining poem for all kinds of readers. It is pleasant because the author manages to keep the mood and tone of characters light despite a sensitive nature of the issue under consideration. Though the poem resembles an ordinary conversation between two neighbors, it still emphasizes ills that bedevil many people in domestic environments where each person has a different interest. Reading the poem makes one reconsider how they treat those they live with. It makes one ask oneself as to whether they take interest in what they hope to gain from the relationship and how they treat people without considering potential consequences of such actions. Indeed, some people end up being the miserable party as others find a way of attaining their goals without any help. Reading the poem is thus like reading a danger sign on the road or a box that warns against rough handling of the contents of the box or taking the wrong turn on the road. It significantly changes personal views.

Frost uses a common life encounter between neighbors, which everyone can relate to, and interaction at a family level in order to show that people should not take for granted those around them who take their time to ensure that their life is more comfortable. Careful and considerate handling of these people can avert many problems and help live in harmony as a family. Trying to understand each other’s hopes or intentions is crucial for people living together to avoid some people feeling used and disregarded. It is a poem that should be read by all living in a family or planning to start a family since it will prepare them to some things they have to avoid. Hence, it is a good poem for both lovers of poetry and common people. 

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