person walking through a forest

The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost

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What is the main theme of the poem "The Road Not Taken"?

The main theme of "The Road Not Taken" is that we want to believe that our choices are unique, brave, and life-altering when they really are not.

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Readers often misinterpret "The Road Not Taken," and they therefore identify themes that are not well-supported by the details of the poem. One main theme in "The Road Not Taken" centers around humanity's sense of pride.

Although the speaker in this poem looks back upon the choices he's made in his life with a sense of self-satisfaction, there are details throughout the poem that indicate he has recreated the details of his life to fit with a particular view he has of himself. Recall that early in the poem, those two roads (indicating his choices) were not all that different: They "equally lay" before him, both covered in leaves. The amount of travel had worn both roads "really about the same." Both roads are equally untraveled at the time the speaker makes his choice, and he thus cannot determine which might be the easier or more difficult path.

Yet in retrospect, the speaker knows he will want to believe that he has chosen the road "less traveled by" and that these difficult choices down metaphorically less traveled roads have made all the difference in his life. This final stanza even begins with a sharp change in tone and diction, the choices reflecting the language of fairy tales. "Somewhere ages and ages hence" is reminiscent of "Once upon a time, a long, long time ago..." This shift in diction points to the fantasy that the speaker has created, borne out of his need to feel contentment with his own life's choices.

The speaker's thoughts in this poem suggest that one's memories are not always an honest reflection of one's personal choices or their impact. The poem suggests that our recollections are subjective and are shaped by narratives about ourselves that we wish to believe in.

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The precise meaning of “The Road Not Taken” has been contested ever since it was written over a hundred years ago. But in thematic terms, it is difficult to argue against its being primarily concerned with the essential role that choice plays in our lives.

In existential terms, to be human is to choose. Try as we might, we cannot avoid making choices of one sort or another right throughout the course of our lives. And the speaker in Frost's poem is undoubtedly aware of this. Confronted by two divergent paths in a wood, he has made the fateful decision to choose the road less traveled. He's certain that, in years to come, when he looks back on this decision, he will realize that it “made all the difference."

Precisely how this decision will make all the difference is unclear; but then, one should bear in mind that this is a future event we're talking about here, and so the speaker himself doesn't yet know what significance it will have. It's possible that the speaker will not be fully honest in the future when he reflects on this moment. Perhaps the speaker's choice of path won't have actually made much difference in his life—indeed, it doesn't seem likely that such a small decision would. From this perspective, the speaker's certainty that his choice will have significance perhaps is a commentary about how humans wish to ascribe meaning and significance to their decisions.

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The main theme of “The Road Not Taken” is that we want to believe that our choices are unique or brave and that they make a major impact on the course our lives take, though neither is really true.

The speaker indicates, in many ways, that the two roads with which he is confronted have been traveled about an equal number of times: in short, there is no “road less traveled.” He describes the roads as being somewhat different in aesthetics and appearance, but he notes that “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same” (lines 9–10). In other words, the roads have been worn down “about the same” amount by the feet of those people who have chosen and traveled them.

Moreover, he says that both “equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black” (12). So, no one appears to have traveled either road that morning, because their shoes would have left dirt or mud on the leaves that had fallen. For these reasons, we can surmise that the roads have been traveled approximately an equal number of times by an equal number of people.

Therefore, when the speaker says that he will tell this story “Somewhere ages and ages hence,” he admits that he will be saying something that is not true when he says that he “took the [road] less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference” (19–20).

Why would he lie? Perhaps because he wants to believe that this is true, that he was unique or individual and that his choice made a big difference in his life’s path. Perhaps because he knows that this is what his audience—maybe future children or grandchildren—will want to hear. Perhaps because he knows that human beings have a tendency to tell stories in such a way that it makes them look better or stronger than they really are. Regardless of the rationale, his story will be just that: a story.

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