The Symbolism of the Journey: A Comparison of Two Short Stories

The Symbolism of the Journey: A Comparison of Two Short Stories
I chose to write about the symbolism between the stories, “I Used to Live Here Once” by Jean Rhys and “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost because the comparisons between these two stories are uncanny as they both use symbolism in two distinct ways - The Symbolism of the Journey: A Comparison of Two Short Stories introduction. “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost is a poem and “I Used to Live Here Once” by Jean Rhys is a short story that details a journey, which can be physical, mental, emotional, or even spiritual. Once you embark upon a journey, you are guaranteed to learn something along the way, but it is up to you to decide to use what you have learned. This paper will compare and contrast the content, form, and style of “The Road Not Taken” and “I Used To Live Here Once” and analyze the ways in which each conveys the symbols of “The Journey”.

A journey is defined as a “passage or progress from one stage to another: the journey to success” (Dictionary.com online dictionary, n.d.). These two stories allows you to place yourself in the characters shoes to see and feel the story that is being told through the character eyes as you watch it unfold. The journey that is being told by Jean Rhys is definitely one that can be related to by anyone that has made a visit to their childhood home minus the death. It is also easy to relate to Frost’s character because I have been at several crossroads in my life and have often chosen the road less taken, which has yielded great and not so great outcomes. These writings are obviously taking place outside on a road, indicating that a journey is in the works. Although both stories use imagery and symbolism, they are extremely different in their message. Rhys’ story uses imagery to help detail the spiritual journey of a woman whose reality comes to a very climactic ending when she realizes that she is no longer alive. Frost’s story regales us with his version of imagery in which his character learns that it’s not always important which road you take; as long as you choose one, you will experience the life that come with it. The character is trying to let us know that it is very easy to make a life-changing decision based on an outer appearance of what we see available for ourselves. Both of these stories revealed something that was not known to the characters before the journey began. As each of these stories develops, the characters do not portray the same mindset towards their paths.

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In both poetry and short stories, a theme is intended and conveyed through the author’s works. Literary elements such as rhythm, rhyme, and tone differentiate poems from short stories and dramatic works. However, there are some similarities between short stories and poetry which include figures of speech, settings, foreshadowing and conflict. These allow the reader to connect to the author and their works. Settings are important because it depicts “the time or place in which fictional events occur. It puts boundaries around the action and defines the environment in which conflicts can be witnessed and character development observed. Setting may also have a social dimension in which particular local customs, dress, or speech provide a framework for understanding the characters and their interactions” (Clugston, 2010). The one major similarity between these two works is the absence of a plot. Our text defines a plot as “a dynamic element in fiction, a sequence of interrelated, conflicting actions and events that typically build to a climax and bring about a resolution” (Clugston, 2010). Poems are written utilizing verses or stanzas which cause the reader to experience an emotion.

Short stories on the other hand are fictional writings that details cause and effect and it is shorter than a novel. “The Road Not Taken” has four stanzas of five lines in which a rhyme scheme is taking place, syllables are being emphasized or stressed and it utilizes iambic tetrameter instead of pentameter. Tetrameter is define as “a line consisting of four dipodies in trochaic, iambic, or anapestic meter; a verse of four feet” (Dictionary.com online dictionary, n.d.). There is absolutely no climax in “The Road Not Taken”, as the characters only decision is which road to take. Steppe states, “In the poem there is a man who has come to a crossroad in his life. One path is traveled on frequently while the other path is not. He has to make a decision as to what path he should take. No matter what, he knows that he cannot turn back once he has made the choice, but it is implied” (“Symbolism”, 2011). He chose the road that was traveled the least and it was the perfect decision for him.

According to Clugston, a symbol is “a word picture that presents an object, person, or action that conveys two meanings: Its own literal meaning and something it stands for as well” (Clugston, 2010, ch. 2.3, para. 10). In I Used To Live Here Once (1976) Jean Rhys details a woman’s return to a place she called home in which the story is being told through her eyes as she gives vivid details of subtle and not so subtle changes of her surroundings in which you can visualize the sentiment she has for the place. The point of view for this short story is limited third person omniscient, and according to Clugston (2010), it is defined as “a point of view when the thoughts and feelings of only one of the characters are related to the narrator” (ch. 5.2, para. 3). If the author had used a different point of view and had not provided the reader with the very intimate and thoughts of the character, the symbolism would have been lost or too abundant, that some key points to the story would have been missed. The point of view in The Road Not Taken is first-person-point-of-view, which “occurs when the narrator describes his or her personal action and thoughts as a participant in the story” (Clugston, 2010).

Rhys’ story begins with her character standing by a river looking at the stepping stones and remembering the details about each of them (Clugston, 2010). Each stones description could represent a time in her life in which she was faced with easy and difficult situations in which choices were made, whether good or bad. “The next one wasn’t so safe for when the river was full the water flowed over it and even when it showed dry it was slippery” (Clugston, 2010). The flowing river represents her trials and tribulations that she has gone through in life as well as the water that causes life to renew. She knows that the third stone was slippery even when it appeared dry, let’s me draw the conclusion that she could have possibly slipped on this stone during her life. On her journey, Rhys’ character is remembering key elements of a life past and the symbols that go along with it, as in the part that states, “She turned the corner, saw that what had been the old pave had been taken up, and there too the road was much wider, but it had the same unfinished look” (Clugston, 2010, ch. 7.5, para. 4). Although the main theme is not discovered until the very end of the story, it details her “after-life journey” home as she discovers that she is no longer a part of the living. Clugston (2010), tells us that a “theme in fiction is associated with something abstract, something broad: the theme in a story is associated with an idea that lies behind the story” (ch. 7.1, para. 2). She gives us details of how happy she was feeling that day only to discover that she is indeed no longer a part of the living.

The point of view allows me to see and feel everything that she does which makes me connect more with her character. This view point made it clear for me to see what she saw and based off the narration, I can visualize what it looks like through her eyes now and from her youth. The view point lets you know that the woman is dead long before she even realizes that she is which is not until the end of the story. Since the woman is not alive, it seems as if she is on a spiritual journey home and when she arrives and tries to speak to the children, only to be ignored (in her mind), she finally realizes that the children cannot see, hear or touch her. That is the point she realizes that she is not alive. “Jean Rhys’s tactic of delaying this recognition till the story’s last sentence, “That was the first time she knew,” creates a powerful climax; the “rough lawn” where the aged heroine’ s recognition takes place refers to the loss of innocence and the shedding of illusions accompanying the passage from one stage of being to the next” (“Sleep it off,” 1977). The two classes of people did not associate with each other and that is why she assumed the children were ignoring her. Jean Rhys was well known for her use of racial separation undertones in her writing. Castro (2000) stated that “While yearning for this apparent warmth, however, Rhys also feared the African-Caribbean practice of obeah, as well as the blacks’ hostility and resentment toward whites. This ambivalence toward racial divisions would infuse much of her fiction” (p. 9, ch. 3).

Frost begins his story at a crossroads in the woods, in which a decision has to be made right away. “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler, long I stood and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth” (Clugston, 2010). He is telling us in his description that a seasonal change from summer to fall, which has already started down this particular path in which nature is dying; the likely hood that he may meet his death soon is high or that he may regret his decision later on life. This poem exudes ambiguity and the one verse that really solidified it for me was “I shall be telling this with a sigh – Somewhere ages and ages hence: Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference”. Here he clearly states he took a road that was traveled less than another, but it does not specify which one. He is also aware that once he makes a decision on the road to take, he knows that he cannot come back. To me he appears to have come to a fork in the road and he must decide which way to go. This is also a representation of a metaphor because there are two roads that seem to be alike, but they will yield two totally different outcomes.

Ambiguity is the use of language that has more than one meaning, creating uncertainty about how to interpret what has been stated (Clugston, 2010). It is also defined as “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention: to speak with ambiguity; an ambiguity of manner; an unclear, indefinite, or equivocal word, expression, meaning, etc.: a contract free of ambiguities; the ambiguities of modern poetry” (Dictionary.com online dictionary, n.d.). Marie Borroff said that, “because the expressive power of poetic language is an embodied power, manifesting itself to the outward or inward ear in sequences of syllables made up of vowel and consonant phonemes, sound symbolism remains an essential topic of investigation in theoretical and practical criticism alike” (Borroff, 1992). Frost apparently understood how to strategically place and use words that flowed from his mouth to resonate in our hearing which ensured we interpreted his writing as a poem with its own rhythmic beat.

Even though these pieces are clearly two different forms of writing, they share a similar stylistic approach. They both use very vivid and detailed descriptions to depict the settings encompassing the characters so that they can be clearly and cause us to use our imagination. Rhys describes things like “the grass was yellow in the hot sunlight as she walked towards them” and “It was a fine day, a blue day” (Clugston, 2010). One stylistic approach in this story was the use of the personal pronoun “she”, which immediately contradicts what the reader had in mind at the beginning of the story. Another stylistic feature that stood out was the author’s use of progressive verbs, which allows the reader and narrator to meet at the same place. Jean Rhys incorporated many of her life experiences in her work which showcases a myriad of her emotions. Frost’s phrases consisted of “because it was grassy and wanted wear” and Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” (Clugston, 2010). In both of these stories the authors describe not only the details of the road, but the seasonal setting as well. One of the main differences in style between the authors is that Frost uses a more formalistic approach in his writing than Rhys which could very well be due to the era in which these works were written. Poets tend to carefully organize their ideas with words that place emphasis on their stylistic approach such as rhyme, while a short story is usually based on divulging small pieces of the plot, setting, or character in order to guide the reader in the direction the author has decided to take. “Poetry in the form of songs has long been used to preserve our national identity and capture the spirit of age groups and movements within the American society. Its unique rhythm patterns can reflect ethnic traditions; its solemn intonations can swell and culminate in religious expression” (Clugston, 2010, ch. 9.3, para. 3).

Although sharing the same theme is customary, the author’s decision of how to illustrate it depends on things like content, form, and style. There has been several works written about the same thing, yet the story that they tell are entirely different. Both of these stories are about the challenges and the struggles life throws at you. There are always decisions that need to be made through life and there are always going to be obstacles that get in the way. It is getting through those tribulations that are the trick. Not only that, but it is crucial not to give up. The stories portray that indefinitely. “The Road Not Taken” is centered on the choice concept with a direct link to the future as the man decides to take the road less traveled. It is never revealed as to why the man was at a crossroads in his life or the events that caused him to make a life-changing decision. What I can say is that the poem forces you to think about the possibility of lost opportunities in the future and what he left behind to achieve that. Maybe he is looking to go in a different career path or maybe he is moving to a different place. What we do know for certain is that he has had to go through some form of trouble throughout his life, but in the end he chose the right path. Last, but not least, in “Used to Live Here Once” the woman’s path symbolizes the entire journey through life from birth to death.

In conclusion, these two particular literary works pull you in from the first verse and lets you know that their tone was going to evolve into something other than your initial thoughts. The symbolism in the short story compared stepping stones to certain stages of her life, the flowing river to the renewing of life, blue sky to a new found freedom and the chill upon the children represents death. The point of view allowed the reader to see the character for who she was as well as allowing us a glimpse into her past life which contrasted with the present even though she was deceased. The story in itself reflected a spiritual journey in which her spirit could finally rest in peace since she is home. In the poem, the two roads represent a choice, the yellow wood represents decay and aging and grassy could represent what we think is a better opportunity when in actuality it is not, hence the saying “the grass isn’t always greener on the other side”. The man in this poem is experiencing something totally different from the lady in the story. His journey is just beginning which is evident due to his indecisive decision making skills. He finally decided on a path and has stuck with it because he knows that there is no turning back. He now must walk into his future life and hope that the decision he thought was for the best is really that. Robert Frost and Jean Rhys were from two totally different eras, yet they both accomplished what they wanted to convey while ensuring that the reader connected with their adaptation of the journey in their own original approach.

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