person walking through a forest

The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost

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Which literary theory can analyze Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"?

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"The Road Not Taken" can be analyzed using several literary theories, but I usually encourage students to use at least some deconstructionist theory. It is a good choice because it asks the reader to consider why Frost made specific word choices and structured the poem in such a way. The explanation of how this works is a bit lengthy, so if you would like more information about my approach to teaching literature and how to analyze texts, please see my book "Teaching Literature for Understanding."

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You could attempt to use any of the literary theories available to analyze the poem, but some would be a bit of a stretch—or would take some rather large leaps into speculation.

It is also worth noting that critics often use more than one literary theory to analyze literature. They are not all mutually exclusive; so, for example, it would be possible to blend deconstructionist and feminist theories in an analysis of a piece like "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin.

In "The Road Not Taken," I encourage students to use, at least in part, deconstructionist theory in their literary criticism. I appreciate this lens because of the reader's key role in bringing meaning to the text. Because this poem presents at times conflicting images of these diverging path in the woods, it is worthwhile to have students examine why the author would make those choices. Consider the imagery in this section of text:

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

Why did Frost initially describe one path as having the "better claim" and later comment that both paths "equally lay"? And how does that relate to the ending? Is this, then, a poem about making difficult choices, or is it a poem about how people like to believe that they have made the difficult choices?

A deconstructionist lens goes back to the text to dig out the supporting details. It asks the reader to consider how specific word choices, juxtaposition, structure, and imagery (among other things) are woven together to create meaning. This theory is only one of many lenses a reader can use to analyze this poem, but it works nicely.

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We usually use New Criticism as the default literary theory for analyzing "The Road Less Travelled." This theory, which came to the fore in the early 20th century—particularly the 1930s—focuses on interpreting the text itself. Even today, it's the standard way we look at a literary text, asking such questions as what is the theme, what is the setting, who are the characters, and what kind of literary devices are used in a work of literature. It's a good way to understand this poem, which relies on universal themes and images.

Another interesting way of looking at the poem is through a biographical lens. New Criticism was developed to move the focus away from author biography, source study, and other methods of interpretation that were "outside" of the text, but biographical readings have lately come back into style. "The Road Less Travelled" is interesting to approach from that angle, because Frost, who we so strongly associate with the United States, actually wrote the poem in England based on walks he took with an indecisive friend. Some have therefore argued the poem is a joke aimed at the friend: how does that knowledge inform our reading?

Finally, Reader-Response theory, which posits that the meaning of a poem is not "in" the text but is constructed in the mind of the reader as he or she interacts with the text, is also very applicable to this poem. Using the Reader-Response method, you would ask such questions as does my age, gender, economic background, historical moment, and place of birth influence my understanding of this text? A person who had never seen a woods, for example, might understand the poem differently from someone who lived next to one.

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The beauty of literary theory is that it can be applied to any work. Major literary movements include New Criticism (which involves reading a work as a self-contained unit), New Historicism (which takes into account historical events and the period in which the writer lived), and Deconstructionism (which acknowledges that all texts contain inherent contradictions).

Deconstructionism would be a particularly apropos theory to apply to Frost's poem, as the text contains many oppositions, which deconstructionism proposes to examine. The poem features a number of times wherein the speaker "know[s] how way leads on to way" and so goes back and forth in his decision. The final, famous line acknowledges that the road he took "made all the difference." In some ways, Frost's poem's claim that his choice "made all the difference" is not so much saying that there was a large difference but rather that, to the extent that there was a difference, it owed to his decision. This is akin to Deconstructionism's theory that meaning is found in opposition.

I am linking to this response a full-scale deconstructionist reading of Frost's poem.

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