Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is a rhetorical exercise in self-promotion that functions almost exclusively via the profound expectations within its American audiences. Long trained in cultural narratives like American “exceptionalism” and “rugged individualism,” to hear triumphal notes in the voice of the speaker, these readers assume that the speaker triumphed over staggering odds: but not so fast, my friend.
The speaker starts by depicting himself, at an event long in the past, faced with a fork in the road and thus a quandary: which way should he go?
He looks down one, and then the other. He chooses a path, even though he knows that by choosing he excludes the possibility that he will ever get to travel down the other path: it’s one or the other, not both:
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,I doubted if I should ever come back.
But actually, this is a lie. There is no difference at all between the two paths, and the speaker is actually quite clear about their similarities: the second is “just as fair” as the first, and although he begins to qualify that equality a bit by saying the second one was “grassy and wanted wear” because no human feet had pounded down the grass, he then qualifies his qualification:
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
No, actually, they’re identical for his purposes. As far as he knows, the path he took is actually the path more taken, since he doesn’t go back and can’t say how many have followed him there.
No, the difference is that, even though the speaker was faced with a humdrum choice between two paths with statistically insignificant difference, he kept walking, and then proceeded to tell a story that valorized his choice as if it were the bravest thing since lion taming while taunting. The “that” in “And that has made all the difference” is the speaker’s willingness to sigh, as if to imply that his choice is the thing he always points to when he wishes to explain his superiority to other forms of life. That sigh cons us into thinking this guy is some individualist hero, whereas in reality he wishes to build a case for someone he is obviously not. He’s a liar.