Explore how Frost presents decisions in ‘The Road Not Taken’.

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The Road Not Taken” is often considered Robert Frost’s most popular work. The poem revolves around the concept of decisions and internal conflict, and these tropes are presented by Frost in a variety of ways. His key thesis is that the result of decisions are often immaterial, yet the process of decision-making defines a person. Frost emphasises this through his use of dramatic techniques (such as manipulation of prosody, or subtle metaphors) within an overarching structure of ambiguity.

The use of ambiguity in fact forms a central part of this poem. Frost intentionally fails to clarify which path he has taken, and in fact ends the poem with a contradiction; he took the “road less taken”, despite the fact that “the passing there had worn them [the roads] about the same.” This leads the reader to realise that the narrator of the poem is unreliable. The roads may lead in different directions, but “both that morning equally lay”. Hence we end the poem no more informed than we began it, as to which road the narrator took. Frost knows this; this sense of ambiguity is what he desires. He emphasises the similarity of the two roads – “the other, just as fair” – in order to show that decisions of all kinds are often less important than portrayed. Whilst detail is lavished upon the roads (viz. the decisions), the destinations to which they lead are unspecified. In fact, he says of the path that “it bent into the undergrowth” – that is to say, his decision is not related to any knowledge of the outcome, which remains beyond his ken. By keeping this ambiguity throughout the poem, and not anchoring the narrator’s actions to anything definite, one realises that the fate of the narrator is dictated by his blind actions. We know nothing beyond the present; neither the background nor the future of the narrator. All we see is an ambiguous “snapshot” of life, and Frost implies that the decision made in this “snapshot” is inflated beyond proportion in the mind of the narrator.

As well as the decisions themselves, Frost’s presentation of their results are worthy of note. The poet writes that “I shall be telling this with a sigh”, with “this” signifying his choice. It is not the choice, then, which is the centerpoint of the poem; it is the narrator’s relation of his choice. The choice is immaterial, in fact; the narrator is absolute monarch over his past. Frost seems to hint that the narrator says that he “took the road less travelled” in order to make himself appear better. This is an example of irony; in the end, no matter which road the narrator took, the “road less travelled” will make all the difference. Frost uses this episode to emphasise how decisions are often immaterial, compared to how they are eventually narrated. Here, the narrator potentially fabricates the past in order to find contentment – the caesura and repetition of “…and I – I took…” implies hesitation and conflict. In the previous stanza, the narrator writes that he “doubted whether he would ever come back”. On a superficial reading this simply states that he will not return to this spatial point again. However, Frost seems to be intimating here that he will not return to his condition before the decision; the decision will have changed him. This accentuates the irony of the poem; that the road he takes does not matter. This in turn emphasises the central thesis of the poem, that often the effects that decisions have upon people are auto-suggestive.

The form and structure of the poem contributes greatly to Frost’s presentation of decisions. The poem is structurally rigid, with all four stanzas following the same ABAAB structure in iambic tetrameter (four iambs per line). However, the actual scansion departs from this tetrameter by regularly introducing extra syllables which scan awkwardly. For example, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”, with “wood” being unattached. This conflict between the rigid theoretical structure, and the free-flowing poetry, lies at the heart of Frost and his portrayal of decisions. The central decision of the poem is which path the narrator should take. Yet it has been demonstrated that we do not know which path he took, nor does it matter. The conflict inherent in the structure of the poem emphasises how much importance one attaches to decisions; the tension persists to the end, showing the unsettling effect that decisions have upon us. Yet it remains unresolved, despite the narrator’s attempt to force closure through his “telling this” – the last line witnesses the breakdown of the rhythmic structure, whilst the rhyme of “difference” with “hence” is intentionally forced and unnatural. The narrator has attempted to convince himself of the rightness of his decision, yet his internal strife and conflict is revealed through his inner thoughts reflected in the awkwardness of his prosody. This is almost a psychoanalytical reading of the poem, yet it seems to be borne out by the tone of the piece, which does not have a clear resolution and optimistic ending but continues in the same vein till the very end.

“The Road Less Travelled” is an intensely complex and often misunderstood poem, and at its’ heart is the concept of decisions. However, rather than portray them in a maudlin, clichéd manner, Frost bases his interpretation around the theory that decisions are in fact rather immaterial. It is how we as individuals present and react to decisions (both the outcome and the process thereof) which truly defines us. It matters not which road we take; the “road not taken” is identical, and it depends on how we present our decision to ourselves which defines us.

David V. GCSE English Literature tutor, A Level English Literature tu...

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is an online A Level English Literature tutor with MyTutor studying at Cambridge University

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