Working has become part of the norm in today’s society for both men and women in the American culture. People waste so much of their life and time in their occupation, that it seems that is the only part of their life that is significant. Jobs revolve around the world and people are so caught up within them. Human beings are turning away from love and family, focusing on their work and not human life that is meant to be spent with loved ones. This theme of work over family has become a major issue and theme within a few poems.
This idea of choosing work over life is evident within the poems “The Mill” by Edwin Arlington Robinson and “The Secretary Chant” by Marge Piercy. Both of these poems discover what working is to that individual and how it affects every individual around them. In “The Mill”, life is affected tremendously because of the idea of work no longer being offered to one character of this poem. However, before the investigation of how an occupation affected a married couple, it is important to focus on the basics of the story-which is the summary of the poem. The Mill” is an interestingly beautiful, but melancholy poem that tells a story of a wife, waiting for her husband to return from work. Her husband orks at the mill, and his wife is often called, “the miller’s wife” while her husband is addressed as “the miller. ”
It is quite interesting that these characters do not possess actual names; however, if they do, the audience is not exposed to them. Furthermore, as the miller’s wife waits for his return, she begins to worry for her husband. She thinks back to the depressing words that he spoke to her before he left for work. He told her that there “there are no millers anymore. The reason for why there are no more miller’s is unclear, but it could be assumed that her husband would lose his job soon, especially since he is o concerned with the idea of the scarcity in millers. After waiting much longer, the wife decides to search for her husband. She arrives at the mill and finds her husband “hanging from the beam. ” He had hanged himself in the place where he had worked.
The miller’s wife, for unclear reasons, drowns herself. She commits suicide and the poem concludes with the description of her death-which seems peaceful and almost sleep like with the beautiful descriptions Robinson provided. Black water, smooth above the weir / Like starry velvet in the night, / Though ruffled once, would soon appear / The same as ver to the sight” (Robinson 149-149). The characters in “The Mill” seem complex to the sense that they do not have names to identify themselves. Names are known as something personal, especially with names having a special meaning. However, these characters do not have that. As mentioned before, they are only addressed by their occupation.
The man in the poem is identified as “the miller” and the woman in the poem as “the miller’s wife. Now, in today’s norm, being a wife is not an occupation; however, in the time period that this poem was written, it certainly was. “The Mill” was written in 1920, and uring that time period, women were mostly housewives and took care of their husbands, their children, and their homes. The miller’s wife had this occupation and she was to follow it, just like husband had to follow his occupation as working and bringing money home. Since there is this idea of the characters in “The Mill” not being addressed by personal names, but their occupations, it suggests that the characters are their jobs and their jobs are them.
There is no separation between their personality and their occupation. They are combined together and create these characters that Robinson designed. Since these haracters seem aloof to each other and impersonal, it gives the feel that their roles are what matters. Yes, the miller’s wife went in search of her husband after he was missing for hours; however, she did that out of being his wife, when the role of the wife is to take care of your husband. It is also interesting of how distant both the miller and his wife really are.
They seem to live in this repetitive world where the miller does his job and the wife does hers. The miller goes to the mill and works long hours and the wife stays home, cleaning the house and cooking dinner. From the lack of communication, it just gives this idea nd feel that their roles/occupation are what keeps the world revolving. Nevertheless, their jobs continue to separate them and they stay divided because of that. However, the idea of their occupation seems shattered when the miller reveals to his wife that “there are no millers anymore.
The miller obviously cares and the scarcity of millers provide the idea that the miller may no longer be a miller anymore. Perhaps the miller thinks that he is no longer a miller, then he will no longer be anything. Possibly, he believes that he will lose himself. This could be the reason why the miller would commit suicide in the irst place (148). Many people kill themselves when they feel that their life is not worth living or they are not in the right state of mind. Perhaps to the miller, his job was what gave his life some certain meaning, not his beloved wife.
It seems that a job was more important than his wife who took care of him. Instead of speaking to his wife and explain more about the lack of millers, he instead kills himself and leaves his wife to deal with the lack of an occupation as well. The miller, perhaps, was being selfish and possibly did not think of his wife. What is even more interesting is where and how the miller killed himself. He hanged himself, something so tragic and violent. He hanged himself in the place where he worked presumably every day of his life: in the milI.
In a spiritual sense, his job meant so much to him that he did not even want to part with it in death. He made an impact with the mill, with his soul forever fluttering within the walls of it. Now, the miller’s wife’s death and job is quite more different than of her husband’s. It could be suggested that the miller’s wife did care and was fond of her husband. That is suggested through her actions of searching for her husband when she feared that something was wrong with him. She fulfilled her job as a housewife in searching for her husband when he should have been home a while ago.
Her job continued to be fulfilled when she found him hanging from the beam, but then it was shattered in the realization that he was dead. His death and love for his job affected the wife within the sense that her job as a housewife became irrelevant because in that moment she became a widow. She no longer had a role to play, so perhaps drowning herself was her only way to escape from this idea of abandonment of her job. “And if she thought it followed her, / She may have reasoned in the dark. That one ay of the few there were / Would hide her and would leave no mark” (148-149).
The miller’s wife wanted to hide her death and wanted to leave the world unmarked like her husband did. Perhaps it is because the miller’s wife wanted to be more than a miller’s wife, but never got a chance until her death and his? This idea of the miller’s wife wanting to leave the world unmarked by her death, reflects back to the beginning of the story when the miller’s wife was doing her job of waiting long. She had made tea, but it was cold. She had made a fire, but it was dead. Perhaps the miller’s wife was sick of waiting. It is also possible hat the tea and the fire reflected to the characters of this poem and their deaths.
In line two, Robinson wrote, “The tea was cold, the fire was dead: / And there might yet be nothing wrong / In how he went and what he said” (148). Robinson’s diction consists of melancholy words such as “cold” and “dead. ” One to describe the tea and the other to describe the fire. These are not happy words. That being said, that is the scene that Robinson is portraying in this poem, and it is the tone throughout the poem until the very end. Since the miller has such fondness for his job, he may feel that he slowly dies as a fire slowly dies out.
When oxygen around the fire becomes scarce, the fire will begin to slowly die down. In this case, the miller is the fire. With the tea, however, that could reflect the miller’s wife. With tea, you do not know if it is cold if you check it. It could go cold without you knowing, just like how the wife died. She drowned herself and her body would not be found until one would search the water. Also, the water would be cold. “Black water, smooth above the weir / Like starry velvet in the night” (149). Now, if we compare tea to fire, the fire is obviously the more “violent” term or “violent” idea. This is just like the iller’s death.
He has a violent death of hanging himself, which you could find right away because it is there in the open. When a fire is dead, you know it died out, because of the smell of smoke. With the miller’s death, you know he died because you would find his body. “What else there was would only seem / To say again what he had meant’ And what was hanging from a beam / Would not have heeded where she went” (149). It is an interesting concept with the possible idea of Robinson showing us that if there is a life spent on an occupation and always depending on that occupation you will die out, becoming that ccupation until the day you actually die.
This concept is also revealed in “The Secretary Chant. ” Just like “The Mill”, “The Secretary Chant” features a character who is not identified by name, but identified in items that make her the person she currently is: a secretary. The poem is told in first person, and the narrator compares herself to common supplies that a secretary would use or would need for this job. “My hips are a desk. / From my ears hang / chains of paper clips. / Rubber bands form my hair. ” The narrator symbolically transforms into these items as the metaphors continue throughout the poem.
The narrator is becoming into her job as a secretary and her body is becoming the supplies to succeed or continue this job. What is most interesting about these comparisons are the body parts that are considered to be the more dominant features of a female are compared to these objects (Piercy 151). Her “hips are a desk” and “rubber bands form [her] hair” and her “breasts are wells of mimeograph ink” (151). These metaphors and the symbolic meaning behind the writer’s diction reflects the idea that the parts that make this person a female are becoming irrelevant as she continues to focus her life on her job as a ecretary.
She is no longer a human being, but her job. Just like “The Mill” there is no mention of a loved one or some sort of communication with beloved people within the narrator’s life. It leaves a sad feeling throughout the poem, but a comical laugh at the end of the poem. For the last stanza of the poem, lines 20-23, the narrator says, “File me under W/ because I wonce / was / a woman. ” This comical note is extremely important. The word “wonce” is an antiquated word. Not many people use it and the decision of using that word perhaps suggest that this job does not make her a woman, but something that she once was.
Her job has no become her and she is no longer human, but a working machine (101). For unknown reasons, the narrator focuses her life on her job and allows it to become her. This reflects back to the idea of people allowing their jobs to control them and take away from actually living life. Their life becomes their job and then they become their job, In the poem “What Work Is” by Philip Levine, the conclusion that real work is not something that provides money, but something that involves family. Real work is family, and this is a major theme in “The Mill” and “The Secretary Chant” lack.
Characters in “The Mill” had a family, but there was lack of communication and death because of the termination of their jobs (145). The woman in “The Secretary Chant” may have a family, readers do not know, but it does not matter because time is wasted on work. Both of the characters in these poems see, unhappy. Perhaps it is because the lack of family and the increase of work. Or maybe it is because people no longer come to the conclusion of the importance of family. Either way, it leaves audience sad and questioning what really matters in life: work or family?