Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken – Does it matter that we mistake its meaning?

When you google lists of motivational poems, Robert Frost’s “The Road not Taken” comes up often. People often quote the last two lines of the poem even when they have never read the rest of the poem: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by,/ And that has made all the difference.” We hold it up as evidence that we are products of our choices, and that any success we have is because we chose a different road from the rest. But that is the opposite of what Robert Frost intended with his poem as explained in this clip from Orange is the New Black

Frost was saying our choices only matter because we think they do, but in reality they don’t mean anything. Life just happens regardless of what choices you make. Not so motivational is it? He was poking fun at the pointlessness of indecision, but no one seems to have gotten the memo.

My question is, does it matter that most people read the poem wrong? Does it matter that the poem has the exact opposite effect on us that the writer intended? I have been told in quite irate tones by several fellow English majors about how frustrating it is that “The Road Not Taken” is misinterpreted. And when they are done with their rant, there is always a self-satisfied air of feeling superior because they’re right and the rest of the world isn’t.

As a writer, it worries me that people might misinterpret my words to the point of taking the opposite meaning from them, but as a reader I understand that once you let the words out into the world, they no longer belong to the author. They belong to the reader. There is no one way to read anything and if a misinterpretation provides someone with enough motivation to do something they had been fearing, that sounds like a good misinterpretation to me. I am often guilty of misinterpreting songs, or rather isolating parts of the song until it sounds like a motivational anthem. My favourite motivational songs right now are P!nk’s “Try” and Imagine Dragons’ “Amsterdam”, both songs about souring relationships, but if you listen to just the  choruses, you’ll be ready to take on the world. Should I be judged for foisting my own meanings on the songs. No! It’s my prerogative as consumer.

When you study literature, you have to learn to see what’s actually on the page, but when you’re just a reader, you take what you need. So take what you need from “The Road not Taken” and ignore the people who insist you’re reading it wrong.

Anyway, what do you think the poem is about?



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