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Friday, July 29, 2011

Literary Criticism of “Road Not Taken”

Robert Frost is recognized as one of America’s most popular poets.  (Seattle Post-Intelligencer 1)  What made him standout from the rest was his ability to tell his poems and relay a particular image and voice which at first glance may seem trite and common.  Upon careful reading, however, the readers will discover the skepticism and irony in his style and find out that it is not as old and common as what they first seem.  This is the case in his poem “Road not Taken.”

Robert Frost was born in San Francisco California in 1874.  He was named after Robert E. Lee, the Commander of the Confederate Armies during the American Civil War.  (MSN Encarta 1)  His father was William Frost, a journalist and a Democrat, who was very strict to Robert Frost as he was growing up.  His mother, Isabelle Moody, was described as a schoolteacher who was very protective of Robert Frost.  After graduating from high school, Frost briefly entered Dartmouth College.  While studying he preoccupied himself by having numerous jobs such as working in a textile mill and teaching Latin while at the same time writing his poems.  Frost married Elinor White after proposing to her for the second time.  It was said that Frost was rejected by Elinor White the first time he proposed to her.  (Seattle Post-Intelligencer 1)  They had six children.  Among the difficulties Robert Frost suffered were the early demise of his wife, and four of his children.  Because of the many problems he encountered, Frost suffered depression and self-doubt.  His first few years as a poet were not very successful as he was rejected by publishers.  He achieved his first success after he moved to England where his book of poems, A Boy’s Will (1913), was published.  This was followed by North of Boston (1914).  Among the honors Frost received during his lifetime were tributes from the US Senate (1950), the American Academy of Poets (1953), the New York University (1956) and the Huntington Hartford Foundation (1958)

Literature Analysis of “Road Not Taken”
In the first stanza, Frost provided his reader with an image of a traveler who was wandering alone.  The traveler had been walking when he suddenly saw two roads in front of him.  The traveler knew, however, that he could not take both roads.  The traveler attempted to look down the road as far as his eyes can see for quite some time trying to decide which road to take.  Forks are always used not only in poems but also in short stories to symbolize choices, crises, and decisions.  This is something that we can all relate to since making decisions and choices are essential part of life. 

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In the second stanza, the traveler made his decision.  He chose one road over the other.  The traveler made his decision to take one road because he initially thought that the other road was more worn out than the other.  The road was still grassy indicating that it was seldom used by other travelers.  However, as the traveler continued walking, he quickly realized that the path he had chosen and the path he did not choose were essentially the same.  It would seem that in this stanza, Frost was talking about the traveler choosing to do something that is contrary to what others do.  It is as if Frost wanted to emphasize freedom from social pressures.  Frost wanted us to think that this poem was all about individuality and self-identity.  The last two lines however should be read together with the first three lines the meaning of which will be clarified in the succeeding stanzas.

In the third stanza, the traveler continues with the realization that there was not much difference between the first and the second road.  The leaves appear to have fallen very recently which indicates that both roads have seldom been traveled.    The traveler immediately thought about the possibility that someday he would go back to take the other road.  Yet, the solitary traveler also realized that it is also possible that he may not be able to come back.  He may not have the opportunity to take the other road.  This stanza confirmed that both roads are essentially the same.  It is also here that Frost starts to confuse his readers.  If the poem is about freedom and individuality why does it seem that the traveler is having second thoughts about his choice?  Why would he want to come back if he was happy with his decision? 

In the fourth stanza, the traveler tells us that in the future he will be telling his story to other people.  Someday he will share to others that he came upon two roads in a wood and that he made the decision to choose that which was less traveled. 

A keen analysis of the poem will reveal that it is not actually about how one person breaks away from and transcend social expectations.  While it may appear that we should celebrate because the main character from the poem is able to express his own self and decide on his own, the last stanza will reveal that the poem could be interpreted negatively in the sense that the traveler appeared to be regretful about the choice he made. 

There are several evidences for this interpretation.  The first is the title.  The title itself is worded in the negative indicating regret, sorrow, frustration, disappointment and sadness.  If the traveler felt fulfilled after making the choice then consistency demands that the title should also be worded in the positive.  One of the possible titles could be “The Road Taken” which gives more emphasis on the actions taken by the traveler not on what the traveler failed to do. 

The second evidence is the statement in the third stanza about the traveler looking back and wanting to take the other road the next time.  Even before he completed his journey the traveler was already unsure of himself.  He already wanted to go back and change his decision.  This emphasizes hesitation instead of the self-fulfillment. 

The third evidence is the last stanza where the traveler uttered the word ‘sigh’ which could be a sign of regret.  In saying that his taking the road less traveled was the one which “made all the difference”, the traveler impliedly said he regretted making that decision in life. 

The fourth evidence is Robert Frost himself.  Other literary critics say that the poem was about his friend Edward Thomas with whom he had walked many times in the woods.  Being a master of irony, Frost could also be taking about himself in this poem.  He may be talking about the regrets and disappointments in his life.  Some biographers of Robert Frost say that he had financial and emotional insecurities in his life.  (Seattle Post-Intelligencer 2) He was an oversensitive boy as a result of his father who was a heavy drinker and his mother who was over protective. (Seattle Post Intelligencer 1)  He came from a poor family.  He was denied by his wife the first time he proposed.  His wife died very early and his children either died or succumbed to mental illness.  He had a lot of failures in his life despite his success.  It must be emphasized that this poem was published around 1917 at which time he was still a struggling and lesser-known poet.  It could be inferred that at the time the poem was written he was having second thoughts about his career.  All these evidences prove that it is also possible to interpret the poem in the negative. 

Whether the traveler made the right decision or not and whether he was happy or regretful is something that nobody can answer.  That is life.  Nobody knows whether we have made the right decision or not.  As Frost had said the choices in life we have are essentially the same.  We do not know which the better choice is until we have made the decision.  Ultimately, I think “Road not Taken” is about people making decisions and avoiding procrastinations.  When we over think trying to make the best decision we forget that oftentimes we have no control over the events that happen in our life.  In the case of Robert Frost, he had his personal battles from the time he still young until he became an adult.  Yet he did not give up his dream of becoming a poet.  He made the decision, he struggled and persevered.  That is all that makes a difference.

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