The Robert Frost poems “Mending Wall and “The Ax-Helve” present different interactions of the narrator with their neighbors. Neither encounter is a particularly violent or confrontational one – in fact, the neighbors in question all at least have the appearance of amicability with one another. However, “Mending Wall” sees the narrator questioning the building of a wall between them, despite their apparent goodwill towards each other, implying a hidden animosity. On the other hand, “The Ax-Helve” sees the narrator coming to a greater understanding of his intimidating French neighbor whom he was afraid of before. In this essay, we will examine the ways in which the narrators deal with their neighbors, and how they are alike and different.
In “Mending Wall,” two neighbors continually rebuild a wall that separates their farm after nature deteriorates it. One neighbor is all but happy to do it - “He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’” (Frost, 1914). However, the other neighbor (the one who narrates the poem), wonders why that is necessary, because there is nothing they own that really needs to be separated. When he asks the neighbor this, the neighbor just says the phrase again. Therefore, the neighbors in the poem force these restrictions and barriers on each other for no real discernable reason.
In “The Ax-Helve,” the narrator is taken in by his odd, French neighbor Baptiste, who criticizes the use of a poor ax helve (handle), and invites him into his home in order to make him a new helve that would last a lot longer. The narrator does not know much about Baptiste, and is rather doubtful in the beginning as to what his intention was in taking the ax from him in the first place. “There might be something he had in mind to say to a bad neighbor / He might prefer to say to him disarmed” (Frost, lines 15-17). Before the events of the poem, the narrator and Baptiste were practically strangers, as he “didn’t know him well enough to know / What it was all about” (Frost, lines 13-24). However, Baptiste just wanted to good-naturedly chide him on the inefficient ax handle he had, and offer to fix it for him.
Even after the whole experience with Baptiste and the ax-helve is over, the narrator still questions the neighbors’ intentions. “Was I desired in friendship, partly as someone / To leave it to, whether the right to hold / Such doubts of education should depend / Upon the education of those who held them?” (Frost, lines 91-94). Either way, though, he leaves the home of Baptiste with a greater understanding of the man, having a much better knowledge of his neighbor than the narrator of “Mending Wall.”
In conclusion, the narrators of “Mending Wall” and “The Ax-Helve” are both supremely suspicious and distrustful of their neighbors and their intentions or attitudes; however, the narrator of the latter story is given the chance to learn more about his neighbor, and come away from the experience enlightened, as well as equipped with a better axe. “Mending Wall”’s neighbor, on the other hand, offers no other indicator of his motivations or character than “good fences make good neighbors.”
Frost, Robert. “The Ax-Helve.” Miscellaneous Poems to 1920. Bartleby.com, 1999.
Frost, Robert. "Mending Wall." Poets.org. 1914. Web. 16 Aug. 2011.