Fear the reader

A brilliant poem is reduced to Hallmark tripe – but is that wrong? In fact, can anything a reader says about literature really be considered ‘wrong?’

To examine this, we’ll need to understand some fundamentals of the study of literature. How do guys with doctorate degrees critique books? It’s done through different modes of thinking, called styles of literary criticism. As a test study, today we’ll be using Robert Frost’s iconic poem, “The Road Not Taken.” It’s very short, and I recommend you refresh your memory by reading it here.

There are many distinct styles of literary criticism. The one that feels most natural to me is the biographical style of criticism. Biographical criticism pretty much does what it says on the can, and you will be using details of the author’s personal life to explain their work. Let’s say Robert Frost did an interview in which he explained that The Road Not Taken is a literal poem about one of his rambling walks through the forest, and about specific paths he did not walk down. “It has no broader significance,” Frost says. “It’s just a pretty poem about a walk in the woods. I took the less popular path, and at the end I saw a rad woodpecker.”

He didn’t say that, thank God. But if he had, then our biographical criticism of The Road Not Taken would be to call it a poem about a specific walk in the woods and nothing else. Or if some letter or news piece revealed the exact location of the walk in the woods, we would use that biographical information to influence our critique. “Of course Frost wrote about this path, he walked down it every day.” And if we knew that, we could go get a look at that woodpecker.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we find formalist criticism. Formalism throws away any information about the author, and instead examines the different techniques and styles of the artwork. It takes into account the popularized forms of literature – for instance, The Road Not Taken is an English poem written by an American in the early twentieth century in iambic tetrameter but with nine syllables per line instead of the normal eight and… you get the idea. Formalists look at literature like Darwin looked at a finch: what are the features, how does it relate to others, what distinguishes it.

But is either the formalist or biographical interpretation more correct? Well, that’s not necessarily the point. There are many different styles of literary criticism – postmodern, psychoanalytic, deconstructionist, Jungian, feminist, etc. Each of these is simply a filter you can lay over a work of art and attempt to find connections. Sometimes they fit very well and seem plausible. Other times, you find no connections and move on. You can’t do biographical criticism of the Iliad, for instance, because no biographical information about Homer exists. He’s probably not even a real guy.

Yet there is one style of criticism to end all others. It’s relatively recent (1970’s) and scares the crap out of me. I also can’t deny its validity. I’m talking about reader response criticism.

Here, we remove both the author and the text as objects completely. The book itself happens when a reader is consuming a text, and not a moment before. The book doesn’t even exist on its own; all that exists is the reader’s relationship to the book.

This is a heady concept, so let’s try an analogy.

Take a computer. The Road Not Taken is the install file for a program sitting on a hard drive. The install file is not really the program itself; it is just the potential for a program. You wouldn’t point at the install file for Word and say “that’s Microsoft Word.” You’d say, “that’s the install file for Microsoft Word.” They are two distinct entities, like a seed is distinct from a tree.

It is not until we install the program and run it that it truly exists. The same with the poem – when it’s on a shelf, it is only the potential for literature. It’s not until a reader installs the poem into their mind that it exists. The written text is just the recipe, and the final product only exists in your mind.

It’s your personal poem, and that’s the distinguishing feature of reader response criticism. There is no such thing as the poem itself – there are only the millions of different responses that exist in the minds of everyone who has read it.

You could print the text of The Road Not Taken, weigh it, and say it has X for its mass. But that’s missing the point; that’s just paper. The poem is not paper, and it is not a collection of letters on a page. The poem is what happens in your mind when you read it.

Imagine, for instance, you are holding The Road Not Taken and standing next to a person of your age and intelligence who does not know the English language. When you look at the page, you read it and experience the poem. Your foreign friend is looking at the same object, yet only sees a page full of random symbols in black ink. Because two people are having entirely different experiences looking at the same object, we can safely assume that the important stuff is happening inside the viewers. The object is just a trigger, both artwork and not. Quantum poetry.

What bothers me is that reader response criticism could be seen as permission to never look beyond the surface of a work. If anyone knows what secrets lay inside a work, it’s the author – and we should listen. And yeah, look, I know. I’m an author, I’m telling people to listen to authors, maybe this is all my ego talking. I’m going to deflect from that by talking about Frost.

Why did I pick this poem as an example of something deep being boiled down to a sugary residue? Partly because it’s so common. I’m sure you’ve seen something like this in your life:



Or maybe you’ve bought one of these (good lord, seriously) 74 different Etsy products containing the iconic last lines?

Everyone remembers the last three lines of the poem, shown on the graphic above. Frost’s message is apparently urging us to get off the beaten path and become trailblazers. Firebrands. Venture some capital. Kick a homeless guy.

But is that what Frost is really saying? I would contend that it is not. What Frost is saying is much deeper, something that speaks to a fundamental depressing truth about the nature of reality itself. Frost – and good poetry in general – is way more complex than comes across on the first read. Our initial reader response is typically lacking.

It’s probably unintentional, but very misleading that in the hundreds of examples I’ve seen of these lines being used, the way it’s attributed to Frost leaves out the fact it’s from a poem. It looks like it’s just a thing he said once, in response to a question. This is not how the poem should be read – we can’t assume the narrator in a poem is the actual author of the poem. That’s an easy mistake to make, but in poetry we need consider the possibility that the narrator of the poem is a tragic or flawed character. Think Humbert from Lolita, featured in one of my previous blogs. 

Let me walk you through what I consider the key text. In stanza one:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood”

Notice that phrase “be one traveler.” He is pointing out that he is a single person only. Seems obvious, but it becomes important. Frost establishes each fact he will deal with, a bit like a philosophical treatise.

In the second stanza, Frost is looking down each path in the woods, comparing them.

“Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,”

The two paths are pretty equal to each other; he can’t tell the difference between them, but he’s worried he will miss out on something great by taking the ‘wrong’ path. This is the sort of person who stops in the woods and frets about which way to take, despite the lack of any evidence that one is better than the other. He’s a bit insecure.

Now the key, in the third stanza.

“Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”

The narrator is deciding which of the two paths to take, and admitting he’ll never be able to double back. My favorite phrase in the entire poem is “how way leads on to way.” Each decision leads logically to the next decision. It is the nature of time that you can’t go back and re-make a decision. Even if he comes back to the same path tomorrow, he may have already missed whatever would occur today (it’s that badass woodpecker). We only move forward; we will never come back to the exact same decision again.

Now let’s return to the last lines of the final stanza:

“I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Okay. I think that people are reading the wrong message into “and that has made all the difference,” assuming Frost is saying that choosing the lesser-traveled path improved his life for the better. In fact, I think Frost’s narrator is just expressing the same human doubt we all express when making decisions on a daily basis.

Look at the title of the poem. It’s not a celebration of the path he took – it’s “the road not taken” that has earned the title spot.

The first line of this stanza is “I shall be telling this with a sigh,” meaning our slightly anxious narrator will be admitting that he’s made a decision, for better or worse. But did he know it would be important before he made it? It doesn’t seem so, because when the narrator looked at the paths in stanza two, they looked about the same. It’s only in retrospect that we look back and realize a decision was important, and this admission is why he’s sighing.

Spending ten minutes finding your car keys seems unimportant, but if burglars break into your home during that ninth minute, suddenly the car keys are life-changing. Critically, you can’t know losing the car keys are important until after the burglars arrive.

The specific paths are not the point of this poem. You are one traveler. You will never know what is down the other path – every time you do literally anything, the millions of potential outcomes that could have occurred had you acted differently die. If you had toast for breakfast this morning, that means you’ll never have had waffles or corn flakes or vodka.

That’s what Frost is saying. He’s describing the nature by which we move linearly through time. Time only moves in one direction, and our lives only make sense in retrospect. We’re all basically blind.

Or is my entire theory just this reader’s response to the poem? Well, many scholars agree with something close to this interpretation, so I can’t take full credit. In fact, Frost is a modernist poet and his body of work is filled with exactly this sort of message. Behind the friendly veneer of his poetry lies a brooding traveler disheartened by the very nature of reality itself.

As for reader response criticism, I think the appropriate reaction lies somewhere in the middle. It’s a valid school of thought with seemingly indisputable premises. However, that can’t be all that matters, or we’re only taking away surface impressions of artist’s work.

It is worth engaging with an artist to gain a full appreciation of what they’ve created. How do you engage? Read about their lives, read about their influences. Read what contemporaries and important critics said about their work. Figure out what they liked or didn’t like about the art that came before them so you can understand what your artist was trying to change or preserve.

If you’re interested, I actually wove the meaning of Frost’s poem into a scene in my novel [sic] – specifically the bonus chapter, titled (appropriately) “One Traveler.”

Thanks for reading.

I am the author of several novels. They are short and sharp mysteries, thrillers, and dramas that make you think.  I try to put the same level of craft and detail into my stories that I find when I analyze literature the way you’ve seen above. You can get all my works as either paperbacks or e-books at a very reasonable price from Amazon.com. Click here to see them all.

2 Comments on “Fear the reader”

  1. sagelyerin says:

    This post made me think about the reader response from The Jungle. How Sinclair meant to highlight and promote change for working conditions for people in the meat packing industry, yet readers took a more selfish stance at how his book made them realize what they were eating. Even winning the Nobel Prize as he openly admitted frustration with the misinterpretation. He said that he had tried to reach for his audience’s heart and reached their gut instead.

  2. Erin Kelly says:

    This post made me think about the reader response from The Jungle. How Sinclair meant to highlight and promote change for working conditions for people in the meat packing industry yet readers took a more selfish stance at how his book made them realize what they were eating. Even winning the Nobel Prize as he openly admitted frustration with the misinterpretation. He said that he had tried to reach for his audience’s heart and reached their gut instead. https://smile.amazon.com/Jungle-Dover-Thrift-Editions/dp/0486419231/ref=smi_www_rco2_go_smi_g2609328962?_encoding=UTF8&%2AVersion%2A=1&%2Aentries%2A=0&ie=UTF8

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