There Are No Right or Wrong Choices - An Analysis of Frost's "The Road Not Taken"
When it comes to 20th Century American literature, perhaps no poet has been more anthologized than Robert Frost. And of all of his poems, none has endured quite as well as “The Road Not Taken.” The poem has long been interpreted as a piece of Carpe Diem poetry by casual readers because of its final lines in which the speaker, who many consider to be Frost himself, envisions looking back on an important decision “ages and ages hence,” and realizing that the chosen path has indeed “made all the difference.” People have repeatedly identified with the poem and employed its recitation at weddings, funerals, and retirement speeches as a way to demonstrate an analogous relationship between Frost’s speaker’s dilemma and presumed triumph within the events of each life.
The truth about “The Road Not Taken” is that it is indeed a sterling piece of poetry, but alas one that has been misinterpreted by those who have not searched for deeper meaning beyond its final stanza. This is not a poem about taking the more difficult path or avoiding the path of least resistance, and it is not a poem about the triumph of a speaker who chooses the correct path over an incorrect path. Instead it is a poem that outlines one’s decision making process and illustrates how there are no right or wrong choices in life.
On the literal level, this is simply a poem about a traveler who comes to a fork in the road while walking through the woods on fall day. After peering down one path for a long time, the speaker decides to take the other – a road described “just as fair” as its counterpart. The speaker exclaims about keeping the first “for another day” but acknowledges that a return it is highly unlikely.
One undisputable fact about “The Road Not Taken” is that the choice between the two roads serves as a metaphor for an important decision the speaker had to make. The choice made is not the right one, as has often been assumed, and it is not the wrong one either. The truth is that there is no way to ever know how the path one decides not to go down would have ever turned out.
Saying that he knows “how way leads onto way,” is an acknowledgment that any decision will have consequences, benefits, and eventually lead to other decisions. One cannot “ever come back” because the effects of the original decision will alter what one is choosing between in the future. Even if one could return and take what they perceive to be the original untaken path, that person will never be able to erase the effects of the first choice. Therefore the decision to “go back” is a totally different dilemma than the one that was presented in the first place.
And what of the Carpe Diem interpretations? If one looks closely, the reality of the poem is that the speaker is not looking back “ages and ages” since making this decision, but instead is envisioning how he will feel when he does look back on this decision. This anticipated retrospective sees the speaker believing that the selected path was the one “less traveled by” despite assertions in the second stanza that proclaim both paths were “worn really about the same.” This illustrates the part of human nature that causes people to rewrite history when they have the benefit of time to alter what was reality.
The reality is that both decisions had their merits and their drawbacks, much like any important decision. If things play out for the decider as hoped, then that choice will be viewed as a daring one that went against the grain. If the decision does not yield its anticipated results, the lamentation of choosing the road “less traveled by” could still make “all the difference.”
Perhaps it is for this reason that Frost is intentionally vague in the poem’s final stanza. Despite often being interpreted as a poem about a speaker who made the correct decision, Frost’s word usage demonstrates that his speaker is uncertain about the future effects. He imagines telling the story “with a sigh.” Never is it signified whether this is a sigh of relief, regret, sadness, frustration or happiness. The claims of having selected the road “less traveled by” and that it will make “all the difference” is also a very neutral declaration. Something that makes a difference does not always do so in a positive way.
The ultimate reality is that it is impossible to determine if a decision is right or wrong because one never gets the chance to find out where “the road not taken” will lead. One can speculate and lament over decisions, but once a choice is made, the opposing decision is forever relegated to mystery that cannot be solved -- one that people only revisit when they feel melancholy about the state of their current personal universe. In titling the poem as he did, Frost certainly acknowledges that the speaker has shuffled the if deck over this decision and the only sure thing that can be determined is that it was a choice of great importance.