person walking through a forest

The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost

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What does "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost symbolize about freedom or responsibility?

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Three ways "The Road Not Taken" represents Frost's poetry as a whole is in being about nature, having a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, and masking complexity under seeming simplicity.

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The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost reveals the complex nature of even a seemingly simple decision. The narrator is conflicted as he thinks about which road to take and, even after some deliberation and the fact that usage "Had worn them really about the same," he can't help wondering, but then doubting "if I should ever come back." He is even trying to convince himself that he has made the best choice as, when he looks back "Somewhere ages and ages hence," he is sure that he will be able to say that he made the best choice and that it "has made all the difference."  

Accordingly, the freedom of choice given to the narrator has created its own set of difficulties for him. Instead of the excitement of new discoveries and the potential of choice, he feels burdened by the decision he must make and he is "sorry I could not travel both." Rather than concentrate on all the opportunities along the path he chooses, he considers returning to try the other road. By his own admittance, this is not likely as "way leads on to way."

This poem highlights the fact that freedom (of choice in this instance) brings with it its own set of responsibilities. Compromise, although apparently contradictory, is therefore, an element of freedom which, in itself, can be worrying and challenging and even exhausting. The poem also, perhaps, indicates the futility of over-thinking some situations. If, even trivial decisions require so much thought, how can anyone ever make life-changing decisions. Apparently for the narrator, this is life-changing. At least the choice is his to make. 

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How does "The Road Not Taken" represent Frost's poetry as a whole?

Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is a typical Frost poem in its focus on nature. The entire poem takes place in the woods as the speaker stands and ponder which way to go at a fork in the road. It is quite typical for Frost's poems to take place in a natural or rural setting.

Furthermore, a wry, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor underlies the seeming seriousness of a poem that is usually taken as a metaphor for life choices. As many critics have pointed out, the poem was, on one level, intended to poke fun at a walking companion of Frost's who often worried too much about which way to go on their walks. Like "The Mending Wall," which pokes sly fun at both the speaker who complains about having to repair a stone wall dividing his property from another and the neighbor who insists on doing so, this poem can be read humorously.

The above points to a chief attribute of Frost's poems: under seeming simplicity, complexity emerges. The subjects can seem very plain or even banal: taking a walk and choosing a path, stopping one's horse to watch the snow fall in the woods, repairing a fence, or observing birch trees bent under ice, but beneath these simple topics, multiple layers of theme emerge. Frost's poems can be at once humorous, superficially easy to understand, and filled with profound commentary on life. Beneath the humor of an indecisive walker, for example, we discern the impact life choices can make on us, just as a simple, almost inconsequential moment of stopping for a snowfall can crystallize how life happens in seemingly minor acts. The seeing of life anew through simple moments that characterizes Frost's poems may be what keeps us coming back to them.

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