Literary Criticism

New Criticism:
Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken centers on a narrator choosing between two
paths while walking in the woods. Upon one’s first reading, it may seem to serve as a
simple metaphor about decision making; however, it is a complex poem whose literary
devices and grammatical structures must be closely analyzed to determine its theme.
Through symbolism, tension, and irony The Road Not Taken proves to be a wistful
musing about the uncertainty and irreversibility of life’s choices.
The first two stanzas introduce the topic and launch the symbolism and tension of
the poem. The poem opens with the image of “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood . .
.”. This image not only provides a visual of two paths in the woods extending in different
directions, but it is also symbolic of two decisions that lead to separate courses, making
the roads concrete universals for alternate decisions that individuals encounter in life.
The speaker is unsure which road to take, or choice to make, as he reveals being “Sorry I
could not travel both . . .”. After only the first two and a half lines, conflict has been
established as there is tension between the speaker’s current circumstances and decision
and his future. The tension heightens as the speaker tells of looking down one path for a
“long” time and “As far as I could/ To where it bent in the undergrowth . . .” and then
looks down the second path. This shows that the speaker is unaware of where these roads
or choices will lead him. The second stanza is entirely devoted to the narrator’s appraisal
of the two paths. However, he is left unable to discern any differences between them, or
to see any indicators as to which one he should take. The second path is deemed “just as
fair” as the first, and the speaker decides that they are “really about the same.” By the
end of the second stanza, the topic of the poem is clear: making choices.
The last two stanzas fully establish the tone and irony of the piece and reveal the
universal significance of its theme. The third line of the third stanza is significant in
developing and conveying the speaker’s wistful tone and how he feels about the decision
he made. The speaker tells, “Oh, I kept the first for another day!” The line begins with
an exclamatory expression, and is the only line in the poem to end with an exclamation
point, relaying the speaker’s passion about his decision; however, whether this passion is
of rage or fervor is, at this point in the piece, ambiguous. It is then revealed, “Yet
knowing how way leads on to way,/ I doubted if I should ever come back.” The
conjunction “yet” shows the contradiction between the speaker’s intention and
knowledge; he expresses the intent to come back and try the other road, but knows that
chosen paths in life lead to other paths, leaving one unable to turn back. The irony of this
reasoning implies that the speaker knew that the choice he made might not turn out to be
satisfactory in the future.
The next line changes the tense of the poem from past to future, reading, “I shall
be telling this with a sigh . . .”. While there are positive and negative sighs, this sigh is
negative because, although the speaker has not fully experienced the consequences of his
choice, he has already expressed the insight that “way leads on to way,” showing that he
is en route to and understands the direction of where this path is taking him.
Furthermore, the title of the piece focuses on the road not taken, triggering a sense of
fixation and regret. In the fourth line of the stanza, the speaker tells that he took the road
“less traveled by . . .”; “the road less traveled” traditionally and metaphorically stands for
a road that entails a difficult journey. The poem ends with the speaker noting that his
choice “has made all the difference.” This final line contains the irony that fully
establishes the theme of the piece. Although the speaker implies that the chosen path
made a negative difference, he cannot be sure whether that difference was positive or
negative in comparison to the other path, because individuals cannot know the
consequences of their decisions until they have already been made. Hence, the theme of
The Road Not Taken proves to be that life is full of unclear yet influential and irreversible
choices that individuals must make.
Clearly, the meaning of The Road Not Taken is inseparable from its elements
and form, making it a work of organic unity. The poem’s title, punctuation, symbols,
tension, and ironies work together to establish its theme.
Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken deals with the confrontation of two choices in
the symbolic form of roads. The speaker’s decision to take the road “less traveled by”
makes “all the difference” in his future. One common interpretation of this poem
describes its theme as dealing with the issue of nonconformity, or taking the road less
traveled, as opposed to following the crowd and taking a beaten path. It frames the
speaker’s choice to not conform in a positive light and interprets the poem as delivering a
positive message about nonconformity. However, by deconstructing this poem’s binaries
and examining its ambiguous language, The Road Not Taken may be understood as a
cluster of contradiction and uncertainty mirrored by the speaker’s predicament.
The poem deals with the binaries of conformity versus nonconformity and the
beaten path versus the road less taken. The privileged binaries are nonconformity and the
road less taken. Traditionally, nonconformity leads one down a more difficult path in life
– the road less taken. It indicates immediate hardship and separation, and implies future
reward and success; the ideological glory is found in purposefully making a choice that
one knows will be difficult to maintain his or her morals and values. The speaker of The
Road Less Taken is typically interpreted to have chosen this kind of road over the first,
easier road in the poem. However, rather than making an immediate choice between two
obviously dissimilar roads, the speaker takes ample time (“long I stood”) weighing his
options. He determines that the second path is “just as fair” as the first; he then deems
the second path, which he chooses, as having a “better claim/because it was grassy and
wanted wear.” Given these considerations, who is to say that the speaker knew the road
he chose was the road less traveled or the more difficult path, or that he chose it because
of any steadfast value? Perhaps it’s just a difficult choice between two possibilities, one
no worse than the other, and the speaker is simply sorry that he cannot experience both;
perhaps he chooses the second road because it is “grassy,” and knowing it would be
difficult would have changed his decision. Furthermore, the speaker clearly says that he
“kept the first for another day!” showing he is not unwilling to take the first path. The
speaker may have a plethora of intentions, leaving a limitless number of possibilities as to
the theme of the piece.
The textual ambiguities of The Road Not Taken further contradict the accepted
theme of the text and broaden the spectrum of possible meanings. The last stanza of the
poem deals with the effects of the speaker’s choice. He declares that he will someday be
telling his story “with a sigh,” and that taking the road “less traveled by” has “made all
the difference.” “Sigh” and “difference” are ambiguous words which may have positive
or negative connotations; thus, one cannot be sure whether the choice had significantly
good or bad consequences. This poem may serve as a regretful reflection of taking the
second road, in which case the piece may be interpreted as a message against taking the
road less traveled. This theory is supported by the title of the poem, which focuses on the
road not taken. The speaker will never know what could have happened if he had chosen
the first path; as concepts are often understood in terms of and defined by what they are
not, how can one define the road taken as resulting in a positive or negative experience if
he will never know what choosing the other path would have led to? Finally, simply
because a road is “less taken” does not mean that it is better than another road. For
example, the number of individuals who have committed murder is far less than the
number of individuals who have, making murder a road less taken. The text may point in
any of these directions.
The undecidability of the text and the limits of its ideologies show the slipperiness
of language and that there can never be one definite meaning or truth. Perhaps the
meaning of the poem may, ironically, be found in its deconstruction: life, like language,
is a series of uncertain roads that may lead one anywhere.