What is the theme of "Journey" by Joyce Carol Oates?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Reading Joyce Carol Oates's short story "Journey," one is reminded of Robert Frost's famous poem "The Road Less Traveled":

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
In Frost's poem, his narrator experiences both the uncertainties and the learned experiences of veering off one's charted course into the unknown. Note the final line in this poem: "I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference." As with Frost, Oates is contemplating the potential visceral experiences of veering from one's safer, known path. "Journey" uses the narrator's description of another individual's decisions to consistently reject the safe and boring for the potentially dangerous but ultimately rewarding. Her human subject is on, obviously, a "journey" to a certain but unspecified destination, via a safe, well-paved and traveled road. It is, as the narrator informs us, a familiar destination: "...your destination is already in sight—a city that you have visited many times." The human—"you"—grows bored with the "excellent highway where the sun shines ceaselessly" and veers off the safe path into more forbidding terrain. As the journey continues, albeit on a different path, the destination remains constant but somehow becomes more vague, less concrete. Observe in the following passage the growing uncertainty about the nature of the journey: 

"The road leads deep into a forest, always descending in small cramped turns. Your turning from left to right and from right to left, in a slow hypnotic passage, makes it impossible for you to look out at the forest. You discover that for some time you have not been able to see the city you are headed for, though you know it is still somewhere ahead of you."

As the journey continues, the protagonist continues to veer off onto more uncertain roads, clearly a metaphor for the possible rewards of thinking outside of the box despite the risks such a strategy entails. Eventually, the protagonist is on foot and descending into ever more forbidding terrain, the obstacles encountered representing opportunity:

"A faint path leads through a tumble of rocks and bushes and trees, and you follow it enthusiastically. You descend a hill, slipping a little, so that a small rockslide is released; but you are able to keep your balance."

Just as the "journey" itself is a metaphor, so is the map to which the narrator repeatedly refers. As the journey into ever more uncertain terrain progresses, the map ceases to offer guidance, becoming "a blank sheet of paper, which can tell you nothing." 

As Oates's story comes to its conclusion, the author emphasizes the rewards inherent in diverging from the easy, known path. Note in Journey's conclusion the author's observation that, had the protagonist stayed on that "excellent highway," he or she would have certainly reached his or her destination, but at the cost of experiencing less of life: "If you had the day to begin again, on that highway which was so wide and clear, you would not have varied your journey in any way: in this is your triumph." Just as Frost's narrator is rewarded by his decision to take the road less traveled, so is Oates's protagonist. The theme of Journey is the emotionally and spiritually rewarding experience of stepping off the known into the unknown.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"Journey" is a short story about a trip told in the second person, "you." It can be interpreted in a metaphorical way. The narrative of the story talks about a journey that starts on a road that is "broad and handsome, constructed after many years of ingenious blasting and leveling and paving." The person traveling has a map at this point, and his or her destination is in sight. However, the person grows bored with the monotony of this trip and veers off onto smaller and more winding roads until he or she is traveling by foot. In the end, the person is lost but decides that he or she would not have altered the trip in any way.

The theme of this story is that it is the journey itself that is important and rewarding, not reaching one's destination. When the traveler knows where he or she is going, he or she is bored. It is only when the journey becomes arduous and involves losing one's way that the person becomes more interested in the trip. The metaphor of the journey can be applied to life, in that the process of becoming and learning is more interesting than achieving success, even though many people are eager to reach success without enjoying the journey along the way.