person walking through a forest

The Road Not Taken

by Robert Frost

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The Road Not Taken Themes

The main themes in “The Road Not Taken” are individual choices, the permanence of decisions, and uniqueness and narrative.

  • Individual choices: The speaker initially hopes that his choice will be significant, though it is clear by the poem’s end that it hasn’t made much difference.
  • The permanence of decisions: The speaker laments that he won’t be able to return to the fork in the road, emphasizing life’s linear movement.
  • Uniqueness and narrative: With a touch of irony, the poem’s end meditates on the human desire to create a coherent narrative from experience.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Individual Choices

People want to believe that their choices make a big difference in the grand scheme of their lives. When the speaker reaches the fork in the road he is traveling along, he spends a while considering his two options. He wishes that he could travel both, and he examines the nature of each road in order to make the best choice he can.

The fact that it takes the speaker thirteen lines—out of the twenty that make up the entire poem—to describe his decision-making process seems to indicate that the process of choosing was a labored one. He would only spend such a large amount of time on this choice if he believed it to be an important, even crucial, one in terms of the impact it will have on his life. Even though, in the end, readers know that he will be less than honest about the actual impact of his choice, he clearly must have hoped that the decision was an auspicious one when he made it. His final, ironic falsehood, that he’ll tell a story that he took the road which had been less traveled by others, may indicate that our choices do not really have such a significant impact.

The Permanence of Decisions

In the poem’s second line, the speaker expresses his regret that “he could not travel both” roads, being just one traveler. In the third stanza, he exclaims,

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

Because one road (or one decision) tends to lead to another, then another, and so on, people are often unable to go back to the original decision point and make a different choice. The permanence of decisions is a function of time’s linearity, which, in turn, makes the road a particularly apt metaphor for the experience of life. The roads we travel—the decisions we make—change us and lead to unexpected possibilities, perhaps, that prevent us from returning to the places we used to live and the selves we used to be.

Uniqueness and Narrative

The speaker says that he plans to tell people “ages and ages hence” that he

took the [road] less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

This statement implies that he wants to be seen as someone individualistic—a person who forges his own path. He’s already told readers that “the passing there / Had worn [the roads] really about the same” and that “both that morning equally lay” in untrodden leaves, so readers know that there actually is no “road less traveled.” It seems that the speaker, then, is planning to distort the mundane truth of his choice to indicate that it had greater significance. Perhaps he plans to do this because he wants people to see him as brave and unique; perhaps he also wants to encourage the belief that one can make brave and unique choices in general.

The speaker’s consideration of the tale he might tell in the future is consistent, too, with the way people consider their lives as narratives in themselves. Indeed, sometimes—as seems to be true in the speaker’s case—a choice is merely a momentary experience in comparison to its long-term effects, in the form of a story to be told and retold. Like many of us, the speaker shares the human drive for a narrative structure that provides an easy beginning, middle, and end, and that implies the worthiness of the story told, not to mention the life behind it.

The speaker knows, though, that this structure can easily be a lie, and so he approaches it with weary humor and irony. The poem concludes not with the speaker’s deliberation but with the story he imagines he might, one day, tell. In this way, the poem’s structure enacts the trajectory of the speaker’s thought, and readers are left with the echoes of the speaker’s grandiose, self-mocking pause and somewhat fabricated moral. The choice only matters insofar as it creates and contributes to the narrative—and the narrative, the speaker implies, is all that lasts.

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