Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

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The story invites the reader to join in the game of speculating about a road not taken in life and to share the pleasure of the storyteller by inventing an alternative outcome. There are severe limits placed on that speculation, however, for the story seems to imply that the choices made in life are mostly determined by character and by life itself—that there is little free choice. While the first version is granted the reality of action, the second is simply a daydream of what might have been; in each case, though, the outcome is remarkably similar: The mother loses her adored son and the story challenges the reader to wonder if the widow could have avoided her tragic fate.

The simplicity of the folktale in the first version gives prominence to actions that follow as inevitably as the bicycle gains momentum coming down the steep hill. The brevity of the first narrative leaves little room for character analysis; what is added are the shrewd psychological hints that suggest that the widow’s motivation is complex and deeply embedded. A comparison of the two versions reveals that the angry confrontation between the widow and her son simply uncovers a hidden well of “disappointment, fear, resentment, and above all defiance.” These impulses spring up “like screeching animals” at the sight of blood. The widow, who had appeared as a simple person with a single purpose going calmly about her business, now appears to have an ungovernable character that predetermines her fate; the action, which seemed to be shaped by accident, now seems to mirror the natural anarchy of her own inner self. Most poignant and most frustrating is that she cannot stop herself once the violent energy has been released.

Can this fate be avoided? The narrator offers consolation in the concluding paragraph: “It is only by careful watching, and absolute sincerity, that we follow the path that is destined for us.” This path is preferable, even if it is tragic, to the self-made tragedy that issues from one’s own blindness or willfulness. In an odd twist, the reader is encouraged to stand back from the obsessive, enclosed world of the proud widow and share in the gossip of her neighbors. Storytelling itself is a form of “careful watching”; the play of invention, of speculating on motive, character, and outcome, demonstrates “the art of the gossip” as well as the art of the storyteller. Both activities, it is suggested, may free people from self-deceptive blindness. The wisdom of the folktale or intuitive psychological speculation contributes to the hope that one may discover one’s natural path in life.