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Deconstructing Choices: A Post-Structuralist Reading of Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken

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Deconstructing Choices: A Post-Structuralist Reading of Robert Frost's “The Road Not Taken”

 

            Robert Frost's popular 1914 poem “The Road Not Taken” was initially accepted by readers as homespun wisdom, regarded, as James Fowler observes, with “vague fondness” as either a “wistful daydream about forsaken opportunities or a declaration of hardy individualism” (41).  Martin Puhvel euphemistically calls it “the search for the right road through the wilderness of life” (168).  Yet a closer reading of the text undermines that perception and leaves the reader very unsatisfied with the narrator's purportedly happy choice.  Shifts in tone and tense, etymological polar opposition and inherent contradiction between the poem's title and its ending ensures that the poem is either purposefully ambiguous or a farce.  Due to verbal contradictions, textual fissures and aporia in Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” the narrator actually undermines his own argument that the road he “traveled by . . . made all the difference” and leads readers to the conclusion that his choice is, in fact, a shallow surrender to the easier path (19-20).

            First, at the verbal level the narrator tells us, “And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler . . .” (2-3).  Common sense naturally tells us that one cannot possibly travel two roads at the same time, but note how the speaker refrains from actually saying that he would travel both roads simultaneously.  It is an important distinction as we shall soon see, for there is a difference in the linguistic choice the narrator makes. 

            In stanza three, the speaker tells us, “Oh, I kept the first for another day!” a clear distinction between the desire to take the second road and the act of doing so.  By leaving this option open, we must ask ourselves why if clearly the path he chose was the one that “made all the difference” (20).  The sheer act of doubting whether he should ever return to take the other road implies that the thought of taking an alternate path exists, for how may one doubt a thing without first contemplating that thing's existence?    That the narrator must choose one path or another does not hold up to close scrutiny by the narrator’s own admission.  The lack of clear distinction between the act of traveling the two roads and the unconscious thought that reserves this option sets the stage for the unraveling of the theme that the road less traveled in life is the road that leads to bliss.

            Also, the physical description of the two paths contain linguistic contradictions.  Though we are told he chose “the one less traveled by,” the narrator himself admits “both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black” (11-12).  He goes on to explain that “. . . the passing there / Had worn them really about the same” (9-10).  How can the narrator judge the frequency of travel on either trail if both are indistinguishable?  This internal contradiction makes the speaker's final claim all the more tenuous, calling into question the reliability of the poem's internal logic and opening everything up to suspicion.  Such ambiguity works against the text by failing to provide clarity and disrupting the internal linguistic unity of the poem.

            In fact, an examination of the etymological roots of some words the narrator chooses reinforces the verbal contradiction.  For instance, he tells us that after having “. . . looked down one as far as I could,” he “Then took the other, as just as fair” (4, 6).  Although “fair” may be defined as lovely, promising or even unobstructed; it can also mean appearing favorable when actually being false or specious.    This dualistic meaning calls into question the speaker's motivation for choosing the other path.  For instance, if both paths were “just as fair” meaning lovely, then the reason for choosing the road he did must lie beyond simple appearance.  But if the path he chose was “fair” as in unobstructed, then the speaker has in essence chosen the path of least resistance.  Metaphorically, taking the path of least resistance implies a certain lack of character or fortitude necessary to face the obstacle in one's way.  This produces a reading in polar opposition to a traditional reading of the work, throwing what we believed to be a secure rendering of the poem into contradiction and ambiguity.  Yet if we take another definition, then the path he has chosen is not only fair to look upon but is in reality an illusion, a path outwardly favorable but in actuality false or misleading, an utter mistake.  In this light, the narrator's insistence that “I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference” is disingenuous and reads more like satire or farce.

            Another word that reveals opposition and disunity in the poem is “undergrowth” (5).    “. . . long I stood / And looked down one as far as I could / To where it bent in the undergrowth;” he writes prior to taking the other path.  Undergrowth may appear to refer to small trees, shrubs and vines growing beneath the canopy of the forest, yet this word has another meaning: under-grown or atrophied in growth.  This inversion changes our image of the first path from one that twists and bends through thick, lush vegetation to one that is sparse, undersized and wasting.  Since it cannot be known with any degree of certainty which image the poet is alluding to, this reading not only adds to the poem's ambiguity but reinforces it too, changing perhaps the narrator's rationale for taking the other path.

            In 1925, Frost wrote a letter in response to a child's question about the purpose of the “sigh” in the poem's last stanza (Frost 16).  In the letter, Frost apparently denies that the sigh is one of regret, yet critic Larry L. Finger notes that “the opening lines of the poem imply some kind of regret” (479).  If Frost's letter is to be believed, asserts Finger, then the speaker's choice “dispels . . . any regret suggested in the opening lines of the poem” (479).  This is another example of contradiction at the verbal level of the work.

            Secondly, at the textual level, the poem is written in the past tense as though the narrator is fondly recalling a past event.  Yet note the sudden shift in tense at the beginning of the last stanza from past to present tense with a futurist bent: “I shall be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence” (16-17).  This shift represents an underlying instability in the narrative that not only transcends time in the poem but space as well, pointing to a future, as-yet-undetermined event.  It is a dual shift from a past event in a past place to an anticipated future event in a future place.  The tense then reverts back to the past, as if the story will be told again and again and leads to another shift in the poem, a shift in tone.  Even Tyler Hoffman notices the “intonational ambiguity” that pervades the work (113).

            The use of “shall” and “hence” lends the text a religious feel not previously felt in the poem (16-17).  In place of “shall” the speaker could have used a more modern word like “will.”  “Hence,” however, is considerably more uncommon, its use more reminiscent of Early Modern English poets such as Shakespeare and Milton.  Together, these two words impose a more formal, authoritative tone as opposed to the less formal, more pastoral tone used throughout the poem.  It is equivalent to a qualitative shift in both tense and tone that undermine a unified textual position. 

            Even the very idea that the narrator should be “telling this with a sigh / . . . ages and ages hence” sounds almost ecclesiastical, a shift that introduces a discontinuity into the text that shifts narrative structure from natural to unnatural (16-17).  In addition, telling the tale “with a sigh” adds a measure of cathartic familiarity to the work, as though while attempting to impart some bit of wisdom the narrator cannot refrain from adding a heavy breath as an aside.  Yet even this “sigh” undermines the allegedly life-affirming nature of the poem's last lines, since it may just as easily be indicative of mourning or lamentation.  It is almost as though there exists a textual fissure within a fissure.

            Additionally, line 18 contains a punctuation mark that is indicative of a break in the narrator's train of thought: a dash.  Grammatically, the dash serves as a sudden hesitation or broken thought.  Its placement is interesting in that it precedes the poem's final claim of authority: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference” (18-20).  Its placement in the middle of the stanza as he summarizes the lesson of his tale implies that the speaker's train of thought is interrupted.  With verbal evidence presented before, the lack of any clear knowledge about the real motivation for choosing the trail he has chosen and the idea that it may be possible to still take the other road, it seems likely that this hesitation starkly contrasts his pronouncement: the road he chose is the road that made all the difference.  On a subconscious level, the narrator expresses doubt in the text that reinforces the ambiguity of the poem's final claim.

            Finally, at the linguistic level, a close examination of the poem's final two lines reveals aporia, a self-contradictory impasse that the text cannot resolve.  The speaker suggests that he will be “telling” the tale “ages and ages hence,” yet by definition an “age” is a period of time spanning from the

beginning of a period or event until its end (16-17).  Thus, many ages would imply a time period likely beyond the lifespan of the narrator.  Unless the speaker stumbles upon Deleon's Fountain of Youth, he cannot possibly expect to be recalling this story ages and ages from now.

            Therefore, we find ourselves at in impasse in the poem, unable to know anything with certainty, whether any choice was inherently better than another, whether any road was less trod than the other, and whether the traveler's motives for choosing one road over the other were truly noble.  Perhaps the greatest paradox, though, is his insistence that the road he chose was the choice that “made all the difference,” for logic would seem to require a close comparison of two things before making a determination that one was better than the other.  Since the speaker lacks the very experiential basis for comparison upon which to found his final premise, this affirmation falls into self-contradiction and paradox.  In fact, as Florentino H. Hornedo asserts, the narrator's choice is not a “happy” one “because the thought of 'what might have been' is forever tantalizing being beyond all proof and disproof” (494).    The poem “presents no solution” and “did not intend to,” thus adding to the unsatisfying conclusion (495).

            Even the title of the poem suggests polar opposition to the narrator's claim, the greatest testament to the contradictory language of the poem.  Why, I ask, is the poem entitled “The Road Not Taken” when presumably the theme of the poem concerns the road that made the difference in his life?  Would it not be more apt to name the poem “The Road Less Traveled?”  As Robert T. McPhillips observes, “. . . it is the road not taken which the poem proclaims itself to celebrate” (84).  If indeed the narrator was absolutely fixed in the surety of his choice, then we would not only expect a clear expression of thematic unity at the verbal, textual and linguistic levels of the poem but even the title would be an unimpeachable example of clarity and union.  Instead, his regret at being unable to take both roads, his sigh and hesitation before the final claim and his desire to keep his options open when considering returning to take the other path reveals enough contradiction, verbal opposition and aporia to shake our faith in the speaker's final assertion.

            At best, it appears that the narrator – far from extolling a moralizing, stoic-like virtue in his choice -- is in self-denial, blissfully unaware that he has chosen may just be the path of least resistance. At worse, the speaker attempts to willfully deceive the reader into believing that “the one less traveled by” was the nobler path.  Nevertheless, the poem borders on the genre of farce, not as much, perhaps, in that the words themselves are humorous, but in the thought, rather, of millions of Robert Frost’s followers indulging in self-congratulatory, fallacious fantasies that they, too, took the road less traveled which made all the difference in their lives.  As critic William George remarks, Frost himself reminds us that this poem is “very tricky” to interpret and warns against “casual readings” (230).  No better trick could Frost have played on his readers than to draw them into a simplistic and intellectually self-effacing interpretation.


 

Works Cited

Finger, Larry L. “Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’: A 1925 Letter Come to Light.” American Literature 50.3 (1978): 478-79. Academic Search Premier. JSTOR. University of Nebraska at Omaha Lib., Omaha. 23 Oct 2006 <http://search.ebscohost.com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu>.

Fowler, James. “The Poem Mistaken.” Publications of the Arkansas Philological Association 23.1 (1997): 41-47. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. University of Nebraska at Omaha Lib., Omaha. 23 Oct. 2006 <http://search.ebscohost.com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu>.

Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” The Poetry of Robert Frost. Ed. Edward Connery Lathem. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969. 260.

George, William. “Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’” Explicator 49.4 (1991): 230-31. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. University of Nebraska at Omaha Lib., Omaha. 23 Oct. 2006 <http://search.ebscohost.com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu>.

Hoffman, Tyler. Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2001.

Hornedo, Florentino H. “All the Difference: Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken.’” Unitas: A Quarterly for the Arts and Sciences 75.3 (2002): 490-95. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. University of Nebraska at Omaha Lib., Omaha. 23 Oct. 2006 <http://search.ebscohost.com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu>.

McPhillips, Robert T. “Diverging and Converging Paths: Horizontal and Vertical Movement in Robert Frost’s ‘Mountain Interval.’” American Literature 58.1 (1986): 82-98. Academic Search Premier. JSTOR. University of Nebraska at Omaha Lib., Omaha. 23 Oct 2006 <http://search.ebscohost.com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu>.

Puhvel, Martin. “The Mystery of the Cross-Roads.” Folklore. 87.2 (1976): 167-77. Academic Search Premier. JSTOR. University of Nebraska at Omaha Lib., Omaha. 23 Oct 2006 <http://search.ebscohost.com.leo.lib.unomaha.edu>.

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