The journey is something that has been discussed in literature for many years, as it carries a universal resonance for all people who wish to reach a destination or accomplish a goal. Eudora Welty and Robert Frost are two authors who examine the nature of the journey, and attempt to symbolize that nature in their short stories and poems, “A Worn Path” and “The Road Not Taken,” respectively. Both “A Worn Path” and “The Road Not Taken” are about how the journey we take through life defines us and gives us purpose. Phoenix’ journey is to help others and herself; the protagonist of Frost’s poem means to merely mark the passage of time and how we view our lives in retrospect, perhaps in a satirical way. In this essay, we will examine how these journeys are symbolized, and the significance of what the authors have to say about this elusive subject.
In Eudora Welty’s “A Worn Path,” the protagonist, an old woman named Phoenix, takes a long, slow journey through the Old Natchez Trace in the middle of winter, meeting many dangers and events along the way. We only learn at the end of the short story that the purpose of this trek is to get needed medicine for her grandson, who swallowed lye and therefore has a terrible throat condition that recurs every year. Each year, she must go through this journey again, a cyclical movement that (perhaps intentionally) resembles the life, death and rebirth of the mythical bird for which she is named.
Throughout the journey, she has a brave resignation to the things that happens to her – from meeting a scarecrow which worries her to a black dog that runs her off the road, and even a white hunter who saves her only to point his gun at her, she is unfazed, accepting whatever might happen to her. Her path toward Natchez is inexorable; nothing will stop her, and she will not make time for things that are meant to scare her or deter her from her journey. Her own interior (and exterior) monologue helps her along this journey, talking herself down or through many of the creatures and people she encounters, providing her own companionship.
The importance of Phoenix’ journey is made even more apparent when you consider the possibility that the child is, indeed, dead. One possible interpretation of the story is that her grandson died at some point from the throat condition brought on by the lye consumption, but she still goes on the journey anyway. (Bartel, 290) Living far out from the rest of civilization, Phoenix needs something to hold onto, and therefore she keeps making the trek to Natchez to get the medicine for her grandson every year. It does not matter that the grandson may be dead, however; the journey is what matters to Phoenix. She gets to be in town, around other people, she gets to have something to do and someone to care for. She pretends that her grandson is still alive in order to provide that sort of purpose to her own life.
When she arrives in town, Phoenix, who has stubbornly refused help from anyone unless they insisted upon it to this point, asks a “nice lady” to tie her shoe for her before she goes to the doctor’s office. This is the end of her journey; whether this is ritual or a way to delay the inevitable end of it, it is something that Phoenix feels must be done. She does not want her journey to end, as it gives her purpose; therefore, she finds a way to squeeze a few more precious seconds out of her trek. (Dazey, 92) After she gets the medicine, she resolves to purchase a paper North Star from a shop in town to bring back to her grandson; in essence, she is getting her life back in the face of death. (Moberly, 125) Whether or not she makes it back to her cabin alive (it is implied that she might not have the strength to make it), she has accomplished her goal for the time being, at the very least.
Conversely, Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” gives us a person who is much less satisfied with the result of their journey. Phoenix, despite her terrible circumstances, refuses to look back and regret any decisions she has made, remaining strong in the face of a terrible winter path. Frost’s protagonist, on the other hand, is seemingly obsessed with the time where he came across a fork in the path in a forest, took one path, and didn’t go back and take the other one. He hems and haws about what might have been on the inside, even as outwardly he exclaims that he did take the road less traveled (and therefore preferable). He is ‘sorry he could not travel both and be one traveler’; apparently, he is the type of person who wants to have his cake and eat it too.
While both paths are said to be about as worn as the other, he goes on to state to himself (and to others, though admittedly with a sigh) that he did take the ‘one less traveled by.’ His sigh is made to express the regret that he could not possibly choose both of those paths. (Finger, 479) Therefore, even as he attempts to convince himself that he did the right thing and should be satisfied with it, he knows that he will never fully be convinced. He even entertains the notion for awhile that he can go back and head down both paths, keeping “the first for another day.” However, as with the journey of life, he cannot take that path again, and that gnaws at him.
This sort of story symbolizes the journey, less so than the journeyer, and his perpetual sense of regret and hindsight. Based on the protagonist’s decision making, it can be inferred that, had he taken the other path as he wishes so dearly he had done, he would be thinking the same thing anyway. Frost seemingly intended to lampoon or lambast the kind of person who perpetually second-guesses themselves, thus robbing themselves of any sense of accomplishment or pride. They always believe that the grass is greener on the other side, and as a result can never be happy with the choices they made. (Andrews, 2) Therefore, they are perpetually looking back, even if the path that they ended up taking brought them untold opportunity and prosperity.
do this all the time; they will not allow themselves to enjoy any of their accomplishments, because somewhere out there is a person who is doing better, a ‘them’ that is prospering even further, and that is because they did something or took an action that allowed them to become even more prosperous. They took the other path, and as a result we want to know what would have happened if we had as well. This sort of decision is the very thing that Frost is attempting to address in “The Road Not Taken”: that it is fairly silly to second guess your decisions, wasting time wondering what was, when there is nothing that can change that, and you merely have to move forward with what is and will be. If the protagonist did this, he would not possibly say that he took the road less traveled with such a sigh.
The physical paths themselves, the fork in the road, is very symbolic of a turning point in every journey – should you turn left, or should you turn right? The fact that both are, in truth, equally as trodden upon hints at the uncertain nature of the human journey; each path presents a possible future, and you can see clearly that they are separate from each other. You do not know where each road will lead, but you must make a choice. You make a choice and you must commit to it – there is no going back and changing course in the middle. That commitment to linear choices is what makes Frost’s poem so indicative of the symbolic journey.
We do not know anything about the protagonist; unlike Phoenix, we don’t even know his name, much less where he is going and what his motivation is. All we know is that he regrets not taking the other path that he came across in that yellow wood, despite his protestations to the contrary.
Each of these tales takes place in a forest or pastoral area; the Old Natchez Trace is the site of Phoenix’s journey, while Frost’s protagonist walks through a “yellow wood.” It is an interesting commonality to consider; as a journey of any significance usually takes place from one place of safety to the next, the untamed, mysterious nature of a forest is a very effective literary device to symbolize the journey itself. Trees obscure your view of the rest of the forest, and you are more often than not following strict paths that have been laid out by those before you. There is much less room for wanton wandering, and as such it makes the perfect metaphor for a linear existence. An individual is following the path with no ability to shift it (unless you come to the forks in the road that are the basis of stories like “The Road Not Taken”), and you simply have no choice but to see where the road will take you.
Both stories take their protagonists on a path rife with symbolism, and these symbols in and of themselves speak on the nature of the journey as a concept. Welty’s “A Worn Path” creates a journey for the character that exists both for its own sake and for the sake of others, as the end result of the journey both fulfills Phoenix and brings life to her grandson. Alternatively, if the grandson is indeed dead from the beginning, the sense of purpose the journey instills is even greater.
In “The Road Not Taken,” the protagonist laments not taking the other path, believing that he could do both at the time, but instead continuing on his own path. Though he will swear that he made the right choice in taking that path, he will always, for better or worse, regret that he did not take the other path. This particular protagonist is proven to be unreliable, which speaks to the nature of self-delusion – he insists that, despite the fact that both roads were equally as travelled, the road not taken was the one less traveled. Rather than taking this as a call to action to make the choices you should make, one can also interpret it to mean that the protagonist should be happier with the choices that he did indeed make, as there was no real discerning which path would be the better one.
With both of these stories, we learn more about the nature of a journey, and how it helps to bring fulfillment and purpose to an individual. In each story, the character imposes their own meaning on the path that they are taking, and thereby instilling within themselves their own sense of destiny. Phoenix wishes to provide for someone, to care for someone, whether or not that person is real – therefore, she goes on her annual journey to Natchez for herself more than for her (possibly dead) grandson. Frost’s speaker merely seems to be indecisive and have no sense of direction, and is somehow convinced that whatever path he takes is the wrong one, always wondering what lay down that other road.
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