Analysis of Robert Frost’s The Vanishing Red

The Vanishing Red (1916)

He is said to have been the last Red Man
In Acton. And the Miller is said to have laughed—
If you like to call such a sound a laugh.
But he gave no one else a laugher’s license.
For he turned suddenly grave as if to say,
“Whose business,—if I take it on myself,
Whose business—but why talk round the barn?—
When it’s just that I hold with getting a thing done with.”
You can’t get back and see it as he saw it.
It’s too long a story to go into now.
You’d have to have been there and lived it.
Then you wouldn’t have looked on it as just a matter
Of who began it between the two races.

Some guttural exclamation of surprise
The Red Man gave in poking about the mill
Over the great big thumping shuffling mill-stone
Disgusted the Miller physically as coming
From one who had no right to be heard from.
“Come, John,” he said, “you want to see the wheel pit?”

He took him down below a cramping rafter,
And showed him, through a manhole in the floor,
The water in desperate straits like frantic fish,
Salmon and sturgeon, lashing with their tails.
Then he shut down the trap door with a ring in it
That jangled even above the general noise,
And came up stairs alone—and gave that laugh,
And said something to a man with a meal-sack
That the man with the meal-sack didn’t catch—then.
Oh, yes, he showed John the wheel pit all right.

Written in the gothic spirit of Edgar Allan Poe, this poem tells the haunting tale of John, the last “Red Man,” or Native, of Acton, Canada. The Miller, his murderer, is introduced with an eerie laugh, “If you like to call such a sound a laugh.” The Miller recalls the incident with a sort of frightening humor, but he gives “no one else a laugher’s license.” The Miller is the sort of man who has the attitude of “getting a thing done with,” as if what happened to John was something he needed to do. Contrarily, the speaker expresses an attitude that does not justify the actions of the Miller while claiming that we cannot really judge what happened. Instead he asserts that we “can’t get back and see as he saw it,” and “[y]ou’d have to have been there and lived it.” It was not “just a matter / Of who began it between the two races,” he says.

Robert Frost(1958)/Yousuf Karsh

There is some bitter rivalry between the Miller and John, but the speaker suggests it was not just between them but between their entire races, white and red. The Miller is physically “disgusted” simply by John’s “guttural exclamation of surprise” about the wheel pit. The physical reaction of the Miller suggests that the rivalry is instinctive rather than situational. The Miller feels that John is “one who had no right to be heard from” and essentially reacts with a sort of “You want to see the wheel-pit? I’ll show you the wheel-pit” attitude. The Miller’s invitation must have appeared benign to John, as he seems to go along willingly, without apprehension.

John is not given a name at first, only “Red Man,” until the last line. Keeping him nameless allows for the objectification of the Native; Frost frequently withholds proper names until precisely the right moment. John is surprised by the technology, and because of this the Miller thinks that John is not advanced and that he himself is therefore superior to John.

The last stanza is split into two independent thoughts. The first four lines are the Miller showing John the machinery, and the last six jump to after the murder takes place. The scene has something in common with Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” The Miller lures John down into the wheel pit and shuts him in there. When he comes up the stairs, he says something to a man eating lunch and gives the laugh that introduces the Miller at the start of the poem. What he said the man did not catch at first, but it was that “Oh, yes, he showed John the wheel-pit all right.”

Race and racism are not topics often encountered in Frost. He is not often gothic, either. Frost once revealed that the story was told to him by someone from Acton, Massachusetts, and perhaps that accounts for the departure (Cramer, 59). Frost’s attention to the subject matter and his approach here are surprising and partly account for the appeal of the piece. Not uncommon in Frost is the exposure of the deplorable in humanity, and that is easily found in this startling and moving depiction of “The Vanishing Red.”

The poem was first published in the July 1916 issue of the Craftsman and was later included in Mountain Interval.

Cramer, Jeffrey S. Robert Frost among His Poems: A Literary Companion to the Poet’s Own Biographical Contexts and Associations. Jefferson, N.C.: MacFarland, 1996. Faggen, Robert. “The Rhetoric of ‘The Vanishing Red,’ ” Robert Frost Review 13 (Fall 2003): 105–109. ———. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997, 120–122. Hoffman, Tyler. “Robert Frost’s ‘The Vanishing Red’ and the Myth of Demise,” Robert Frost Review 13 (Fall 2003): 101–104. Kilcup, Karen L. “Frost’s ‘The Vanishing Red’: Some Further Questions and Speculations,” Robert Frost Review 13 (Fall 2003): 110–111. Manson, Michael L. “Trying to Find the Right Genre for Genocide: Robert Frost and ‘The Vanishing Red,’ ” 13 (Fall 2003): 82–100.

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