What is the message of "The Road Not Taken"?

The message of “The Road Not Taken” is that people tend to ascribe excessive meaning to their decisions. They are inclined to justify their past choices, even when justification is unnecessary.

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The Road Not Taken ” features a speaker who, while walking in the woods one day, arrives at a fork in the road. The speaker seems to think that his decision between two roads is important and worth great consideration. However, the message of the poem is that the...

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The Road Not Taken” features a speaker who, while walking in the woods one day, arrives at a fork in the road. The speaker seems to think that his decision between two roads is important and worth great consideration. However, the message of the poem is that the decision is insignificant and that the speaker’s sense of missed opportunity and his future justifications are unwarranted.

The speaker’s indecision comes into play immediately, for he feels “sorry he [cannot] travel both” roads. Although he initially seems to notice a difference between the two, careful examination reveals that they are equally worn, equally covered in untrodden leaves. The speaker chooses the second path, but he expresses a hope that he will return to take the first path, even though he knows that he will probably not.

The speaker then imagines a future justification for his choice, noting that one day he “shall be telling this with a sigh.” The story he imagines telling, though, is false. He will speak of taking the road “less traveled by,” which will have “made all the difference.” Clearly, this future telling will be a fabrication, given that the two roads are equally traveled, rendering the choice trivial. Thus, the message of the poem is that people ascribe their choices too much weight and, as a result of that undue gravity, offer needless justifications for those choices.

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"The Road Not Taken" is traditionally taken to mean that it can be better to take the less conventional path in life. In the poem, a man is walking through the woods, when he comes to a fork in the path. He has to make a decision about which way to turn. He takes a long time trying to decide, and notices that one path is slightly less traveled, saying,

it was grassy and wanted wear

However, he also notes that the differences between the two paths are subtle—they are "really about the same"—and both were untraveled that day:

And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black
Nevertheless, the speaker decides to take the road "less travelled by." While he wishes at the time he could take both paths, and while he reflects that there is little likelihood he will ever come back and take the other path, he states that it has "made all the difference" to take the less traveled route.
While the poem is most often interpreted as a metaphor for the very American, Emersonian ideal of nonconformity and breaking with tradition, as many critics and Frost biographers have noted, he wrote the poem while living in England as a gentle ribbing of an indecisive walking companion.
While Frost may have written the poem as a light-hearted joke—and the speaker's emphasis on how really alike the roads are supports this—the poem is a good example of how readers can determine meaning once a work of literature is let loose in the world.

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Robert Frost’s poem "The Road Not Taken" can be interpreted in regard to any difficult decision that a person might be required to make. The poem is literally concerned with walking down a road through a woods. Figuratively, this choice may be interpreted in relation to any personal or professional decision. It is sometimes hard to see a clear difference between the available choices, but each person must decide for themselves which option best suits their own identity. Even though one is certain about their choice, there will be some second-guessing later.

The key to this interpretation occurs at the poem’s end, when the speaker states that the road they chose was “the one less traveled by,” and that the choice has proved significant: it “has made all the difference.” When the poem begins, however, the speaker is struggling to identify any important difference between the choices. The speaker notes that they wished they could take both roads, as they are both attractive.

As they observe the roads more closely, they consider that the apparent differences are insignificant. Each turned out to be “just as fair” as the other one, and the previous walkers “had worn them really about the same.” They also note that they imagine they might return and try the other option, but then “I doubted if I should ever come back.”

Thinking about the long-term impact, the speaker acknowledges that they may have some doubts or regrets: “I shall be telling this with a sigh” in the distant future. These second thoughts tie in with title, which emphasizes the road they did not choose.

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The main focus of this poem is the narrator's indecision. Evidence of this is found early on when Frost describes the yellow wood—yellow is a color that is often used to symbolize confusion. The narrator is presented with two paths, and he is confused as to which way to go. Should he take the path that is well traveled and worn down, or should he diverge from the majority and take the road less traveled?

Many people argue that the narrator comes to a resolution after he follows the road less traveled—he predicts that he will look back on things and see that where he is is the direct result of the road he decided to take. However, I would argue that there is lingering uncertainty in the narrator's mind. One strategy for analyzing a poem is to look back at the title after you have read the poem to see if you understand it any differently. The title of this poem is "The Road Not Taken," not "The Road Less Traveled." This implies that the narrator is still thinking about the other path—he took the road less traveled, and the actual "road not taken" is the one that was chosen more often by others.

Hence, I would say that this poem focuses more on retrospective uncertainty and self-doubt than on encouraging someone to diverge from the majority.

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A good question. Robert Frost himself complained that his much-anthologized and much-loved poem had been too deeply interrogated by critics and readers alike: he said that he wrote it originally about the indecisiveness of his friend, the poet Edward Thomas, when it came to choosing a route on their walking adventures in England before the First World War. However, very clearly the poem can be read, and has been read, as a metaphor for life, with the "traveler" representing the person moving through existence and having to decide, at one point or another, which route to take.

Frost makes clear that it is not always an obvious choice we must make when a fork appears in the road of life. Indeed, the two paths he sees are "just as fair" as each other—so, there is not any particular virtue in having gone one way over the other. If the traveler has anything on which to base his decision, it is that the road he takes "wanted wear" or had been less-used, but this is only slight—it is not a case of taking a road that is far off the beaten track, or doing something radically different; time has "worn them really about the same."

Having taken one route, the speaker considers whether he might one day come back and try the other route too but accepts that this is unlikely—he doubts "if [he] should ever come back." Taking one route, then, usually seals our fates, and the path we choose will make "all the difference" to our ultimate life journey. Even if two roads which "diverged" often do not seem to be very different at all, we will ultimately look up and remember the point at which a decision was made and realize how differently life may have turned out if we had taken the other route.

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The speaker in the poem is faced with deciding which of the roads that "diverged in a yellow wood" will be followed. After studying both paths, the speaker chooses to follow the road that appears to have been used less often ("it was grassy and wanted wear").

It's often thought that through this poem, Frost is encouraging readers to not fear following their own paths, regardless of what is done by the majority. However, it's important to note that the speaker then says of the two paths

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

These lines are crucial because they reveal that these paths were actually equally trodden. This changes the meaning of the poem, suggesting that it's not a poem about how we should make unique choices but a poem about how we choose to remember our choices and—by extension—our lives. Many years in the future, the speaker will look back on this moment and claim that he chose the unique path and that his decision was significant, when this really wasn't the case at all.

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