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Themes & Corresponding Works, Essay Example

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Introduction

Making choices is a difficult part of life, but a necessary step to ensure progress. People are faced with this every day. When faced with these choices, one has to decide what are the advantages and disadvantages of each choice. Once one has made that choice, he/she may often think of what life would have been life if a different decision was made. However, the reality of it is that one has to live with the choice made. The journey of life is filled with many decisions.  Those decisions can lead to joys, heartaches, hardships, and celebrations. The road that leads to one’s destination may have many challenges. The challenges will test one’s courage, strength, faith, and ability to keep going even when the outcome seems bleak. Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and Eudora Welty’s A Worn Path convey the journey theme. Although both literary works share the same theme, they have different points of view with drastically different consequences. Both literary works have several minor themes like individualism, commitment, caution, perseverance and accepting challenges, which lead to their overall theme of life being a journey depicted through the choices one makes. Each work illustrates how life is a journey that often includes obstacles, hardships, and disappointments that will either encourage or discourage the traveler.

Background

            To fully understand these works, one must know the background of the writers. Where one lives affects his/her personality, attitude, and values.

Eudora Welty is known as the first lady of Southern Literature. She was born in Jackson, Mississippi, hence the of setting of A Worn Path. Her interest in conflicting relationships and communities came from her firsthand experience of growing up in the segregated south. Obviously, this background had a great impact on her choice of character and setting of A Worn Path. The physical description of Phoenix is likely a description of some black woman she encountered growing up in Jackson, Mississippi.

Robert Frost grew up in an obviously different environment. Frost has been regarded as a nature poet because many of his works depict nature and rural scenes. Frost was born in California and later moved to Massachusetts. His parents were educators, so he was exposed to a great deal of literature. He spent a great deal of time outside and developed a love for natural beauty. It is speculated that Frost wrote The Road Not Taken as the result of an indecisive friend.

Summary of Two Works

            In The Road Not Taken, the speaker is traveling and comes to a fork in his road; he is contemplating which road to take. He looks at both paths and decides to take the path that is less worn by travelers. Because he is indecisive he wishes he could take both roads. Nonetheless, he is unable to take both paths. In the end he takes the road less traveled and is happy with his decision.

In A Worn Path, Phoenix must make a difficult decision in order to attempt to save the life of her grandson. She must make the long journey into town in hopes of getting the medicine her grandson is in need of. Phoenix is frail and in poor health. She knows that the long journey could possibly kill her. She faces many physical obstacles, but makes it to the hospital in town.

The Settings

            Authors use the settings of their works to create meaning. In literature, setting can affect what the characters do and how the react to situations. Both Frost and Welty clearly defined their settings, but left it up to the reader to interpret the setting’s effect on the work. The setting includes: the physical, the time it took place, and the social environment of the characters in the work of literature.

A Worn Path takes place during the winter months, Christmas time to be exact, off the Natchez Trail. By 1800 this was one of the busiest highways in the South. It is also the holiday season which would make the road even busier. Symbolically, Welty uses this to show a contrast between Phoenix and the world around her. Phoenix is probably between the age of 80-100 years old and very slow. Phoenix even comments that she is unsure of her age. Yet, the world around her is moving fast. Also, Christmas is usually a happy time for families. They spend time together and exchange gifts. Ironically, Phoenix is separated from her only family at this time. She is alone and sad because she doesn’t know if she will be able to find help for her grandson. This was a great way to show how one can live in the world and still be isolated and alone.

The Road Not Taken is set in the fall of the year in an isolated forest. The leaves are changing colors and falling from the trees. This is a scenic, serene setting. The traveler doesn’t seem to be in a hurry, so takes the time to enjoy the scenery.  The tone seems casual and carefree. There are trees around the borders of the scene conveying the isolation the traveler in in. Symbolically, it conveys that choices are best made by one’s self.  Frost did an excellent job with imagery; one can picture this scene in one’s mind.

Form and Style in The Road Not Taken

            Robert Frost uses a formal style in The Road Not Taken. The poem has four stanzas comprised of five lines each. The length of each line is meticulously the same. The rhyme scheme is ABAAB. Each line contains four iambic beats. There are various interpretations of the poem’s meaning, but Frost has commented that the inspiration for writing this poem came from a friend who was unable to make decisions. After he would make a decision he was never content and often changed his mind many times. So, ironically the poem may be a teasing effort between two friends. Frost said he told him that no matter what road he took he would always have a sigh (Byrne, p.130). Faint humor can be found at the end of the poem because Frosts places humor on man’s curious and indecisive nature.           

Content Analysis of The Road Not Taken

            The content of the poem, The Road Not Taken centers on the decision of the speaker to decide which path he must take. The speaker contemplation leads him into deep thought. Pritchard says that the choice was of intuitive nature because of the emphasis placed on the similarities of both roads (255). He mentions their likeness three times in the first stanza. This is an indication that because they were so similar the decision was quite difficult. Terry Andrews adds, “Initially the paths seem to be the same, upon closer inspection one can see the differences that would result in different outcomes in life.  He doesn’t want to regret the decision he is making later in life. The decision that the speaker has to make is shown metaphorically by the divergent paths.  The fact that the speaker chooses the road less traveled conveys that he is displaying individualism (p.178).

In the first stanza the reader is introduced to the decision the speaker has to make. For example, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” signifies making a choice. The speaker naturally wants to see the outcomes of both roads, but knows he can only choose one. He tells himself that he will come back to the one he doesn’t choose later in life. This is often the case in real life when one puts off doing something important. Within, the speaker knows he will never come back to that fork in the road again. He looks at both roads an equal amount of time to signify that he is taking caution in his decision. For example, “And looked down one as far as I could”, implies that he was trying to see which was the best choice. Just as in life, one is unable to see if the choice is best before making it.  Although the reader doesn’t know what choice the speaker has to make, one can infer that it is very important.

In stanza three the woods represent indecisiveness, which is apparent in his saying “wanting to keep the first another day”.  Also note that it is during the autumn of the year. Autumn is representative of stagnation and decay (Bouchard, p.268). The first road was covered with undergrowth which represents the obstacles one might face in life. Life is filled with uncertainties and difficult choices. For that reason, one must be cautious in making decisions.  As a result, most travelers took the second road because it was traveled more and must have been the easier of the two.

In the final stanza he remarks that he is telling this with a sigh. It is unknown if that is a sigh of relief or regret.  Again he wonders what the first path may have brought him. His final comment, “And that has made all the difference”, could be read as either positive or negative. Frost leaves this interpretation to the reader. Pritchard adds, “His human curiosity burns within him, regardless of which choice  was made, he would still want to know what possibilities in life he passed by”(p. 252).

Form and Style in A Worn Path

            This short story falls into the Modernism literary period because it attempts to breakdown social norms and uses a character to show valor in the face of great adversity. The story conveys the concept of overcoming all odds by whatever means necessary. The choice of African-American women during the civil rights era in the South is an exceptional way for Welty to display this theme. African-American overcame many struggles in the Deep South during this time period. The story is completed in narrative format and the reader doesn’t know the purpose of the journey until the end. This tactic makes the reader analyze more in efforts of discerning the purpose of the story.

Content Analysis of A Worn Path

            Phoenix is traveling worn path to reach the town. The path symbolically represents the path the many other African-Americans have traveled over the years. A path of racism, poverty, and degradation is common place for Phoenix and other African-American of her time. Symbolically, it could represent any pilgrimage of any people at any given time. Saunders adds, “A Worn Path has occasioned various interpretations, having been seen, for instance, as a religious quest or an examination of the deterioration of the protagonist” (p. 65). While traveling Phoenix encounters many physical obstacles.  There are bushes that catch her dress, the daunting task of crossing the creek, and the barbed wire fence that make her journey difficult. Phoenix’s eyesight is failing her, so she decides to walk along with her eyes closed trusting her instincts instead.

Phoenix’s chief hindrance is her age and physical ailment. She is very old and weak, which makes her journey extremely strenuous. Don Donlan adds that the frequent mention of Phoenix’s age suggests immortality and the name Phoenix recalls the mythical bird that renews itself. Also, her manner of walking and the description of her retrieval of the hunter’s nickel as if it was and egg adds symbolic richness (550).  When she comes to the barbed wire fence she is able to weave her way under it despite her physical ailment. Although her body is weak, she has strong metal determination, concentration, and patience. When she comes to the log crossing the creek, she is able to again defeat the challenge. Phoenix is driven by her strong love for her grandson. She realizes if she were to perish, her grandson would surely perish too. Phoenix is able to triumph over her mental and physical fatigue. Nonetheless, her aging mind does play tricks on her during her journey. She is frightened by a scarecrow that she mistakes for an apparition or ghost of some sort. She talks to herself and the animals in the woods telling them to get out of her way because she has a long journey ahead.

Phoenix also faces a social obstacle. She is poor and very reluctant to take charity. She makes the decision to put this aside in order to try to save her grandson’s life. She takes a nickel from the hunter that helps her and is very distraught about what she has done. According to David Robinson, “The passage in which Phoenix encounters the white hunter, sees him drop a nickel, and distracts him in order that she might pick up the nickel is open to several interpretation”(24). The hunter may know that he has dropped the nickel or only realizes it when he sees her picking it up (Robinson, 25). Robinson concludes, “The most plausible reading is the hunter stereotypes Phoenix and patronizes her, never realizing that his attitude enables Phoenix to profit (26).  She also accepts money from the nurse at the clinic. The people she meets on her journey are very condescending of her and lack respect for her, but she accepts this in efforts to save her grandson. For example, Thomas Lewis says, “Phoenix’s encounter with the nurse in town is similar to her encounter with the hunter; both view Phoenix in terms of their own stereotypes” (13).  Also, Phoenix is unable to read which creates another obstacle for her. She can only recognize the medicine by the emblem on the bottle.  However, Joseph Gardner believes that Phoenix’s lack of education should be seen as positive because it allows her to remain knowledgeable in folk wisdom (p. 73). Saunders adds that this only conveys her oneness with nature because the elements seem to assist her on her journey. The thorn bush doesn’t tear her dress and the trees salute her (p. 70).

Phoenix has several dreams while on her journey. In one dream she is visited by a small boy who offers her some marble cake. In both dreams she awakens with her hands reached out, but gains nothing in return. The empty hands represent repeated disappointments. When she is rescued by the white hunter, he only patronizes her by telling her that the journey is too far.

According to Mary Byrne, “A Worn Path is related by a third-person narrator who is able to understand more than Phoenix, providing a distance that establishes a universal mythical quality to the story” (132). The story is told from the third person limited point of view, which allows the reader to be empathetic with Phoenix. All of Phoenix’s thoughts and emotions are shown allowing the reader a deeper understanding of her goals. The mythical bird, the phoenix, is a resilient creature. It rises from the ashes every 500 years to take care of its offspring. This is exactly what Phoenix is doing. By naming her character, Phoenix, Welty is conveying the character’s perseverance and resilience. Phoenix was able to meet her challenge. She made a decision and stayed committed to it.

Both writers have used the theme of journey to teach a life’s lesson to the reader. Although each work is of a different genre, they each convey the same concept. Frost wants the reader to understand that life is filled with choices and that going the normal route isn’t always the best choice. He is warning the reading of being a conformist or follower. Most importantly, he wants the reader to understand that choices can positively and negatively affect one’s life. Once the choice has been made it is necessary to stay the course without regret because one can’t change the past. Likewise, Welty is conveying the life’s journey will be difficult. Sometimes one doesn’t get what he/she deserves, but one must keeping pushing forward. She is also conveying that love conquers all. Phoenix’s deep love for her grandson is what drove her to take the journey. Sometimes when the odds are against one, it’s just more motivation to stay the course. Phoenix had many odds against her, but she was able to overcome each through sheer determination and perseverance.

References

Andrews, T.L. (2002). The road not taken. masterplots II: poetry. Modern American Poetry, 50, 175-186.

Bouchard, J. (2008). Literary contexts in poetry: Robert frost’s the road not taken. Modern American Poetry, 50, 262-278.

Byrne, M. (1989). Welty’s a worn path and walker’s everyday use: companion pieces. Teaching English in the Two Year College, 16, 129-133.

Donlan, D. (1973). A worn path: immortality of stereotype. English Journal 62, 549-50.

Garner, J. (1993). Errands of love: a study in black and white. The Kentucky Review 12, 69-78.

Robinson, D. (1987). A nickel and dime matter: teaching Eudora welty’s a worn path. Notes on Mississippi Writers 19, 23-27.

Lewis, T. (1992). Textual variants in a worn path. Eudora Welty Newsletter 16, 11-13.

Pritchard, W. (1984). Frost: a literary life reconsidered. Modern American Poetry, 50, 250-256.

Saunders, J. (1992). A worn path: the eternal quest of welty’s phoenix Jackson. Southern Literary Journal 25, 62-73.

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