America's Most Widely Misread Literary Work
The text accompanying a new Atlantic video, animated by Jackie Lay, challenged the prevailing interpretation of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” as an ode to individualism.
Like “The Road Not Taken,” “Mending Wall” is another Frost poem that can be interpreted many different ways.
My wife and I were both high school English teachers many years ago and used this poem to illustrate reader response methodology. We had opposite interpretations to this poem (she thought it was all about how Frost was endorsing walls and the aphorism “good fences make good neighbors,” while I thought it was all about Frost trying to criticize the tendency of humans to build walls between each other for no good reason), and we would team-teach this poem with our American Lit. classes, arguing for our respective interpretations. We would invite students to join either of us. Later, we would explain why our respective lives had inclined us to read the poem the way we had. Our purpose was to show that there was not one correct interpretation, but that each reader’s response to the poem was derived from their cumulative life experiences.
Several readers responded on Facebook:
Monique Lola wrote, “I do a debate with my seniors on whether this is a positive and uplifting poem, or a negative, regretful poem. They are assigned a side and get super into it. Sometimes it involves yelling. One year a girl was crying. It’s amazing how much evidence they can pull from a relatively short and simple poem. Yay for critical thinking and textual evidence to prove your points!”