“Good fences make good neighbors” is such a famous line that it’s almost passed out of the realm of literature and into vernacular. In fact, it is so common that people may not know that it came from the pen of Robert Frost, one of the most celebrated American poets of the 20th century. To be exact, it came from the poem “Mending Wall,” which narrates two men struggling to mend the wall that separates their properties as part of their annual custom.
Interpreting “Mending Wall”
Like a lot of Robert Frost’s works, “Mending Wall” can seem simple and straightforward on the surface, but remain ambiguous because its content is neither simple nor straightforward. As a result, “Mending Wall” can be interpreted to mean a number of things.
For starters, it is important to note that one of the two men serves as the narrator, while the other is his neighbor, who is seen as both a mirror and an opposing viewpoint. “Fences make good neighbors” is a line uttered by the neighbor in response to the narrator, who is questioning the need to mend the wall after encountering a number of challenges in the process.
On the surface, this seems to suggest how people separate themselves from each other using all sorts of superfluous barriers. The narrator is the one who initiates the wall-mending but combined with his continuing persistence as well as a statement out of his mouth that walls can be useful sometimes, this suggests that he might not be opposed to wall-mending.
Of course, wall-mending is not just wall-mending but also a metaphor for bigger, more abstract issues. For example, the most obvious interpretation is that the wall-mending represents how people like to separate themselves from other people, though the poem remains ambiguous on whether this is right or wrong or even somewhere in between. However, it can also be interpreted as an examination of the contrasts in human nature, an examination of the fundamental futility of building boundaries, an examination of how boundaries can bring people together even as they separate them, and even more.
Assessing “Mending Wall”
“Mending Wall” has a good point about walls separating people as well as the constant need for labor with which to maintain them. However, it also has a good point about, “Good fences make good neighbors.” After all, a well-maintained fence makes it clear which neighbor is responsible for what by clearly marking their shared border while also minimizing intrusions onto their properties, thus making it that much easier to maintain a neighborly relationship.