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Thoughts on "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost

Stephen is an online writer and former English teacher who is interested in sociology, economics, and literature.

Another fork in the road.

Another fork in the road.

I had only been in Crete for a couple of weeks when I met the woman who was to become my wife in a bar in Heraklion. She is an American, I am English. I was in Crete on a whim, she was there by mistake. Lives are built on such accidents.

In this piece, I will take a look at what Robert Frost said about choice in "The Road Not Taken" and play around a little bit with the problem of choice. This is not a line-by-line analysis of the poem - there are plenty of those around - instead, I will make some observations about the relatively modern phenomenon of having too many options.

And this is a new thing. For most of human history, people had limited, if any choices. Take, for example, an English peasant in the fourteenth century. He or she would have a very limited range of options. He would have worked as the season dictated, eaten what was available, married a local girl, and probably never traveled far from his village. These limits applied to most throughout history and, of course, still apply to many today.

One of the few choices that our peasant may have made might have been which track to take home through the woods. The choice that Frost discusses in his poem. However, Frost can use this decision as a metaphor, our peasant would not have been able to see it in that way - a metaphor for what?


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The Road Not Taken

First, a few words about the poem. You will find a link to the text below. Take a few minutes to read it through. It won't take long as it's only 4 stanzas of 5 lines each. The first three stanzas are one long sentence and deal with Frost wondering why he chose one path over the other. He offers a reason but then decides that it's not really very convincing. The final stanza takes Frost further into the future when he will describe his choice "with a sigh" and say:

"I took the one less traveled by,

And that made all the difference."

What on earth does he mean? What kind of sigh? Is it a sigh of sadness or relief? We don't know. Frost gives us no clues whatsoever. By taking "the one less traveled by", Frost is telling us that most people would have picked the other path but we still don't know if this was a wiser choice or not. Frost's chosen path "made all the difference" but, again, we wonder if this was for good or ill.

Frost said that his poem was gently mocking his fellow poet and friend, Edward Thomas, who, on the walks they took together, was always indecisive about the best way to take. Their friendship began when Frost was living in England but was doomed not to last very long; Thomas was killed in action during the First World War in 1917, Frost's poem had been published the year before.

It seems that Thomas missed the point and understood the poem to be a call for the need to make decisive decisions. Surely it is not, it is a meditation on the consequences of choice.

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The Consequences of Choice

"The only wrong choice is choosing not to make one" observed Jake Abel. He is right because we can't avoid choice. A wide choice is a feature of modern capitalist society. Indeed, many thinkers would say that it is an essential component of freedom. Five minutes in an American or European supermarket will demonstrate how many options are available even in the mundane operation of picking a breakfast cereal.

In 2004, Barry Schwartz published "The Paradox of Choice - Why More is Less" in which he declares that choice is critical to freedom yet Americans are not psychologically satisfied by having such a wide range of choices.

This is, perhaps, not too surprising. Choice, any choice, places responsibility on us. We are the product of the choices that we have made. As Frost says:

"Yet knowing how way leads to way

I doubted if I should ever come back."

Choices made lead to situations where we are faced with other choices. We construct a labyrinth of forked tracks but, often, going along one of these closes gates behind us. Frost doubted that he would return; in fact, it is usually impossible to do so. Things will not be exactly the same as they once were.

Making the wrong decision, or worrying if we are making the right one, might be signifiers of the freedom to choose. But this is a tremendous responsibility and one that many find frightening.

We might be bewildered by the range of options that we have, we might be upset by having made a wrong decision, and we might wonder how to undo any damage done. However, we don't like having choices made for us.

For most of us, the freedom to choose is an inalienable right. In the recent pandemic, governments around the world placed limitations on freedom of choice. No longer were people allowed to choose to go to a restaurant, to meet friends and family, and so forth. Much of the negative reaction to legislation and many of the conspiracy theories that surrounded vaccines and government intentions were simply a reaction to our loss of choice.

Good luck

Good luck

Concluding Remarks

A strict totalitarian government will restrict the number of choices available to its citizens. This is a natural result of having a centrally planned economy. But, in the liberal world with its emphasis on individual freedom, offering citizens choices is an equally natural result. But there is a price to be paid.

"The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost

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