The following is an essay I wrote for an American Literature class at Midwestern State University in the Fall semester of 2015.
“The Road Not Taken” is a poem that explores the difficulty in making decisions as well as the future impact of those decisions. Often misunderstood as a metaphor that it is best to not follow the mainstream path, the speaker in “The Road Not Taken” misleads the reader for the purpose of creating an elaborate metaphor.
The source of the confusion is that with a quick read, the simple conclusion would be that the speaker chose the path less travelled, which he only understands in the end. A reader can come to that conclusion after reading the last stanza where the speaker remarks, “I took the one less travelled by, / And that has made all the difference” (19-20). In these lines, the speaker very clearly says that he took the path “less travelled” (19) and he believes that “made all the difference” (20). Only looking at that remark, and taking the speaker’s remark at face value, it is understandable to conclude that the message of “The Road Not Taken” is for the reader to be original, strike out on his or her own path, and to reject that which is mainstream. But, a closer look at “The Road Not Taken” will show that the entire poem is truly a metaphor with a different message.
While the speaker does remark that he took the path less travelled in the last stanza, more importantly, the speaker also had previously said that the paths were “just as fair ” (6), “really about the same” (10), and “equally lay” (11). Why then would the speaker contradict himself at the end of the poem? The key to understanding this is realizing that the last stanza is set “ages and ages hence” (17) in the future, and the speaker is “telling [the story] with a sigh” (16). The fact that the speaker sighs in the future suggests that the speaker realizes that he will never stop thinking about the other path he could have followed. With that in mind, the speaker changing the story over time can be understood to be a method of coping, a way for the speaker to reassure himself that he took the correct path.
“The Road Not Taken” is a poem that is easily misunderstood as advice to take the road less travelled. This misunderstanding is a result of the speaker misleading the reader for the purpose of creating an elaborate metaphor, one that explores curiosity and regret in later life over one’s earlier choices.