Thomas Hardy’s “The Workbox” centers on the connectivity between life and death. The author shows the elusive nature of the confines of our lives (as they relate to death), as well as the abruptness in which these boundaries intertwine. Hardy shows this connectivity through the symbolism of the timber, whose components (a work box and a coffin both constructed of the same piece of oak) represent life and death respectively. Hardy stages a forum on the discussion of mortality in the poem by showing the husband to have a more open attitude, while establishing the wife as a more stubborn and closed minded character.
The timber in “The Workbox” represents the continuum of life and death, or in other words, the timeline of the soul. Hardy writes, “The shingled piece that seems to cease against your box’s rim, continues right on in the piece that’s underground with him. ” (Lines 12-15) clearly stating his belief that, upon physical death, that while life may appear to end, it actually continues on. The connection is implied; the piece of the workbox is the mate of the piece that is buried in the ground, separated by but a mere saw’s width.
Although the station and function of each piece may indeed vary, they nonetheless originate from the same piece of timber, in as much as though life and death vary greatly between each other, the same soul still occupies each state. In fact, Hardy alludes to the dependency of life on death, by having the workbox constructed from the scraps of a coffin. If it were not for the death of young John Wayward, the workbox would not have had the opportunity to exist.
Hardy continues this theme throughout the next stanza, in which the narrator states, “It made me think of timber’s varied doom: one inch where people eat and drink, the next inch in a tomb. ” (Lines 17-20) referring to the brevity of human life, as well as the abruptness in which it ends. He illustrates the unpredictable nature of human life by stating that timber’s “doom” is varied, that is, we never know exactly how long we really have left. By describing life in inch increments, Hardy is commenting on how fast our lives seem to pass us by.
By using inches as the unit to which life is measured, he is making a direct connection to the close proximity of passing away. Hardy continues on to touch upon the great irony of life, “It shocked you that I gave to you one end of a piece of wood whose other is in a grave? ” (Lines 30-32) the irony being, that from the moment we are born, we start with one foot already in the grave, and before we know it, mortal life (the first inch) ends and death (the second inch) begins.
In addendum to his symbolic use of the timber to express his opinion of the human condition, Hardy uses the relationship between husband and wife to show the connection between life and death as well. The husband has a clear perspective of life. He is responsible for the construction of the workbox, as a “joiner, of village life” (Line 3). He speaks about the nature of the work he has created, the oddities and pitfalls that are intrinsic in the material from which it comes. Through his understanding of the workbox Hardy demonstrates an understanding of life in the character.
The man is open to deliberate in things pertaining to life and death. By constructing the workbox from a “scantling”(Line 10) scavenged from a coffin workshop, Hardy is showing the comfort the husband has with death. Had he any preoccupations about death he most likely would not choose a coffin as his source of scrap material. Whereas the husband meets the issue head on, the wife tries her best to side step the issue. Upon her unearthing of the nature of the box, the husband asks her ” why do you look so white, my dear, and turn aside your face?