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  • Good Neighbors Make Good Fences: Frost’s “Mending Wall”
  • Zev Trachtenberg

Defenders of the institution of private property have considered at length its benefits to individuals: for Aristotle it allows for the practice of certain virtues; for Hegel it allows for the expression of free human personality. 1 Property is also, of course, seen as the foundation of political society: for Locke men form government to enforce their property rights; for Jefferson property enables citizens to participate in their institutions of self-government. 2

But there is a level of human experience between simple individuality and the formal rules and rights articulated and enforced by society. I have in mind the more immediate form of human association evoked by the word community. Let me offer a rough-and-ready distinction. The social contract tradition prompts us to think of society in terms of the cooperative human enterprise of protecting individuals’ interests; the concept of society calls to mind formal voluntary agreements and associations, contracts, the economy, ultimately laws and rights. 3 We can think of community, by contrast, in affective terms; it calls to mind the direct human relations of people who share a place and mode of living. 4 A society has laws and a government; a community has customs and a culture.

In this essay, then, I want to explore the relationship between property and community. It is, I think, an ambiguous one: property can be accused of corroding the human connections that constitute community life, but the maintenance of a property regime can also be seen as itself a communal enterprise. 5 This ambiguity is displayed vividly in Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” 6 Reading the poem can help us see the complex ways in which property and community are intertwined. [End Page 114]


“Mending Wall” has two characters: its narrator and his neighbor, owners of adjacent farms, who meet each Spring to repair the stone wall that stands between their properties. The narrator, at first glance, seems to take a somewhat skeptical attitude toward property. (We shall see that his attitude is in fact more complicated.) The poem opens with his words “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”—a phrase he repeats later, making it a kind of slogan for the position on property he personifies. That position seems to reject human attempts to inscribe the arbitrary divisions of property holdings on the land. The narrator sees in natural processes an attempt to cast off this artificial imposition: that which doesn’t love a wall “sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, /And spills the upper boulders in the sun.” He recognizes that asserting a separation between the two parcels of property by erecting a wall is futile. For, he recognizes, the two parcels are one, connected underneath the wall by natural forces that work unconsciously but actively against human efforts to divide them.

The neighbor, by contrast, speaks for an individualistic belief in the value of marking property holdings. “Good fences make good neighbors” are his only words in the poem, repeated in the last line like a counter-slogan to the narrator’s. The neighbor first offers his slogan in response to the fact that the wall is not needed for the practical purpose of keeping his and the narrator’s goods separate. Their goods do not need a wall to be kept apart: they have no cows to wander back and forth across the line, and the narrator’s “apple trees will never get across/And eat the cones under [the neighbor’s] pines.” For the neighbor, that is, the utility of the wall is not economic. Rather it serves to define the sort of relationship he wishes to have with those who surround him: his slogan expresses an ideology of human separation. In the neighbor’s eyes, apparently, all that makes a neighbor is the mere fact of owning an adjacent farm, hence what makes a good neighbor is his separateness. For what else could characterize the goodness of neighbors who are made good by fences?

The neighbor thus personifies a position on property that disvalues community. Property is marked by walls, whose main function in his view...

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pp. 114-122
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