How does Robert Frost use "The Road Not Taken" and "Mending Wall" to comment on society?

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favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "Mending Wall," the speaker considers telling his neighbor, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall, / That wants it down." In other words, he has a desire not to be restricted; he does not like feeling confined by walls when there seems to be no good reason to wall something in or out. Of course, the speaker's neighbor feels the opposite, that "Good fences make good neighbors"; he would rather keep himself to himself, neatly separated from others' property and others in general. There are, ultimately, then, two types of people: those who embrace boundaries and those who prefer to live outside of such limits.

In "The Road Not Taken," there are two roads that we might take, symbolizing two choices we might make. Each one looks a little different from the other, but "the passing there / Had worn them really about the same." In other words, then, about the same number of people have traveled each road (or made each choice). The speaker, as if to reinforce this, says, "both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black," and the second road is described as being "just as fair" as the first. Again, these roads are essentially the same in terms of the number of people who have traveled them: there is, then, no road less traveled. In the final stanza, the speaker confesses that this is not how he will tell the story in the future; when he tells it "ages and ages hence," he will say that he "took the road less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference" in his life. This, however, we know to be a fiction because of all the evidence supporting the idea that the roads have been equally traveled. There really aren't unique choices, then, as he can only choose a road that so many others picked. We like to think that there are unique choices, less chosen paths, and we might tell others stories to suggest that it is possible to be unique, but Frost's narrator's experience conveys the opposite.

In "Mending Wall," Frost seems to suggest that there are two types of people: those who prefer tidy boundaries and those who dislike them, who rebel against them. Rebelliousness seems like a possibility in this poem. However, in "The Road Less Traveled," it really isn't. In this poem, one can really only choose what someone else has chosen before. In the society of "Mending Wall," there seems to be more opportunities to deviate, to make real choices, to live outside the walls, or rules. In the society of "The Road Not Traveled," on the other hand, there are no such opportunities.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Many of Robert Frost's poems are concerned with personal and cultural identity; his "The Road Not Taken" and "Mending Wall" certainly treat these themes.  In both these poems, Frost creates a revelation of human character.  For instance, in "Mending Wall," he examines the rural New Englander who feels that "good fences make good neighbors."  However, the speaker questions this philosophy:

There where it is we do not need the wall:/He is all pine and I am apple orchard./My apple trees will never get across/And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him....Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out,/And to whom I was like to give offense.

The next line, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," expresses the theme that blind adherence to tradition may not be wise; performing an action out of habit mitigates choice and decision-making, two actions that make people individuals.

Likewise, "The Road Not Taken" deals with the choices people make.  However, this examination of people's choices deals much more with individual personal identity.  The reader of this poem does not have so much a sense of the recalcitrant New Englander as in "Mending Wall."  Instead, the speaker of "The Road Not Taken" is not identified as from any particular section of America; he has a universality as an individual who has made a choice which has "made all the difference in his life."  There seem to have been no external influences upon him, unless they were very subtle in his thinking that he should choose to break from what was expected of him and tread the path "less traveled."

At any rate, in both "The Mending Wall" and "The Road Not Taken" Frost's admiration for the individual who has the courage to "walk alone" is evident.