The Use of Symbolism and Tone in Building on the Theme of Journey of Life


“Life is like a journey” is a common phrase which majority of us have used and the two literature works, I Used to Live Here Once by Jean Rhys and The Road not Taken by Robert Frost, are classical examples of the journeys that each person will experience at one particular period. Therefore, there is a similar theme which is that everyone in life has to begin a journey that will either lead to life or death and the approach used by the authors in presenting this theme is different ways, especially when using symbolism and tone.

There are different meanings of a journey as perceived by different people. A journey begins by taking each step at a time in order to reach a particular destination. In the process of the journey, some people fail to recognize the contributing factors that have helped them reach the destination while others learn life lessons as they start their own journey. Therefore, in this paper, I will compare two literary works used by the authors to contribute to the theme of the journeys in life.  


Clugston defines symbolism as something whose literal identity stands for something else (2010). In addition, symbolism can be defined as a 19th century movement in literature and art that made an extensive use of symbols to evoke or indicate emotions or ideas (Literature and Our Community, 2010).

In The Road not Taken, the use of nature is quite relevant/ symbolic as it helps the reader to connect easily with the kind of decision the narrator/ author intends to make in the journey. For instance, Frost uses the “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” (Savoie, 2004, p.21) to create a natural setting which is evident throughout the poem. Also, the picture of a man who is walking along the road and stops to look at the fork in the road creates an imaginative setting about the journey to the reader which takes place in a country road.

In addition, Jean Rhys uses “She was standing by the river looking at the stepping stones and remembering each one” (Clugston, 2010, Ch.7.5) to create a sense of nature. These stepping stones symbolically represent the challenges one has to encounter in making the decision; the challenges can either make the person proceed or terminate his journey. Consequently, symbolically, the traveler could be in a situation where he has to make a personal life decision before proceeding with his journey (Clugston, 2010).  Also, in the I Used to Live Here Once, Jean Rhys uses the first line to suddenly give the sense of nature in the setting.

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However, in Frost’s poem, the woman is by the river, and had never been on that path, and bare-footed while in Rhys’ the woman had been in the road before. The use of two different genres, short story and poetry, provide a natural setting that creates a symbolic meaning to the reader (Savoie, 2004).

In the I Used to Live Here Once, which was written in third person, the narrator is not inclusively part of the action but relates to the feelings and the thoughts of only one character. For instance, the narrator seems not to know about the children’s feelings that the traveler meets as he seems not to be bothered by their presence on the road. However, the reference to the glassy sky implies that things are likely to be the same though there is something different about them (Clugston, 2010).

In addition, the woman sees a blue sky symbolizing peacefulness and also notices that the pine tree is gone. In this case, the pine tree symbolizes immorality which is a common feeling among young people.  Also, the woman neither understands her dead nature nor the symbolism surrounding her (Clugston, 2010).  But as the woman strolls along the road, she starts remembering repressed things, hence, she suddenly starts to understand the reality of her condition. Maybe, a sign, although not given by Rhys, comes to her (Faggen, 2003). Therefore, the symbolism does not give a clear point of view in Rhys’ story. However, in The Road not Taken, the writer’s point of view is clearly indicated as it illustrates the nature of the decision made by the narrator, which is final. In addition, Frost uses a point of view to show how the story will be retold so as to fit to the results of the decision. Also, he reveals about the nature of the traveler’s conflict.

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In The Road Not Taken, the natural setting helps in creating vivid images in the mind about the journey, hence, creating a particular tone. For instance, Frost in the first line “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood” (Clugston, 2010, Ch. 2.2) creates a natural setting that is evident throughout the poem. Also, the second line creates an impression that he is on foot, hence, it enables the reader to figure out that the journey is not probably tough but easy as he is walking on a country road while stopping to look at the person in the road.

Symbolically, yellow represents decay and aging while light is an indication of truth (Clugston, 2010, Chapter 7). Therefore, the grass showing yellow in the presence of sunlight symbolically implies that, though the decision the person is making seems to be good, taking that path during the journey could lead to destruction. This is because grass is usually green in presence of light but turns yellow when it grows in its absence! In addition, the new white color of the house is a sign of new life. Also, the cold feeling that the children have is the feeling of death and this is an eye opener to the woman. Understanding the symbolic meaning within the context helps in understanding the life journey which is by the way of the road from the woman’s perspective.

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Frost suddenly identifies the conflict as the split of the road. The split is symbolic as it symbolizes a decision that must be made so as to continue with life during the journey. According to Savoie, Frost intended that this would be “…an enactment of a fundamental human predicament…” (2004, p.15) as the traveler seems not to be affected by the conflict concerning the road to choose, hence, the resolution implication is that the conflict will affect future results either positively or negatively. “The second path is grassy and wanted wear” (Winters, 2000, p. 574) implies that some adjustment need to me done so as to clean up the mess on the road. Therefore, for the person to reach his destiny, some amendments on lifestyle have to be made.

Consequently, the woods in the Frost’s poem signify the indecision in making the choices in the journeys. The image of the wood represents the use of instinct in making choices as opposed to civilization (Clugston, 2010), while the yellow color represents the autumn season during the setting, which symbolically represents stagnation and decay that is witnessed during this period.

Use of Tone

Frost and Rhys use tone to contribute to the theme of the journeys people embark in life. Tone can be defined as the feeling that is created by the author to the reader pertaining a certain piece of work or literature (Literature Review Cooperative Communication, 2007). Tone can be either joyful or  sad and stressful among other forms of mood. The tone in The Road not Taken seems to be carefree and casual. For instance, the traveler seems not to be in a hurry as the writer states “… long I stood…” (Clugston, 2010, Ch.2.2). In addition, in the second and third stanzas, he is not concerned or worried why the roads are the same and there seems not to be any indication of the results of travelling on either of the roads. Though conflict is represented, it seems to be of no great concern to the traveler, hence, there is no anxiety or stress about the decision or choice made (Faggen, 2003). Therefore, the tone appears to be casual and calm.

Used to Live Here Once portrays similar approach in mood. For instance, the author says “…she walked along feeling extraordinarily happy” (Clugston, 2010, Ch. 7.5), which portrays a happy tone or mood. But according to Winters (2000), though she notices that some things have changed, she shows no interest to change. Also, the traveler is not in a hurry. However, under this context, if the tone is related to symbolism, then it seems that both travelers are happy concerning their life journeys.

Frost’s poem, which is written in the first person, takes a reflective attitude and though the poem was not personally written by him, the reader gets the insight of the narrator’s attitude concerning the journey. The narrator knows that he will not return and reflects in the present concerning a decision he made in the past that has affected his future. The phrase “…I shall be telling this …ages and ages…” about his decision which has made “…all the difference” (Clugston, 2010, Ch. 2.2). Frost is implying that the traveler decided to choose the harder road to travel by choice and will be telling the story from a different perspective in the future and he is passionate about it. Also, though he seems to be aware of the results of the choice he has made, there is no reasoning used in reaching his decision (Lentriccia, 2004) and this implies that he is in a calm mood when deciding during the journey.  The choice seems to be identical as the narrator says that both roads are “…just as fair… about the same… equally lay” (Clugston, 2010, Ch. 2.2), hence, he is not stressed about the choices during the journey.

According to Clugston, 2010, Frost’s poem is concerned about the nature of the decision making in a journey, a suggestion that is supported by Winter (2000) who argues that The Road not Taken “…is about the nature of an informative decision made” (p.568).

However, though the reader might assume that the narrator in the poem is happy, the tone in the poem is melancholic (Lentriccia, 2004). This is implied in the Frost’s choice of the words in writing the poem. There is also a sense of regret as he is lamenting about missing something in his life (Faggen, 2003). For instance, in the first stanza, the narrator says, “sorry, I could not travel both….” (Clugston, 2010, Ch. 7.5). This implies that though there were several options, he could only choose one whose end results were unknown to him. He also says that “…doubted I should ever comeback” (Clugston, 2010, Ch. 7.5), hence, supporting the melancholic tone in the poem as his chances of survival seem to be limited when he takes that particular path. This shows that though the narrator made the choice concerning the journey, he dreaded for the end results as he was not sure of success. The road that he undertook was “less travelled” (Winters, 2000, p.578).

In the last stanza, the poet says, “I shall be telling this with a sigh” (Clugston, 2010, Ch. 8) for a long period. The sigh implies the relief he would get from the difference made by the choice he undertakes. If results or difference from the path he takes is positive, then he will be glad. However, if the difference from the path he makes is negative, then the sigh will represent a tone of regret (Literature and Our Community, 2010). The speaker of the poem does not really know the nature of the sigh because the evaluation of that sigh is based on the future as he argues that “all the difference” (Clugston, 2010, Ch. 7.5) will be judged basing on the future, hence, there are high expectations from the speaker. If the road was often travelled, it is probably that the speaker could have predicted the results based on prior experiences, but since there seems to be no evidence on the road followed, the speaker is expecting either positive or negative difference on the choice of the journey he makes.

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In conclusion, the use of symbolism and tone by Frost and Rhys in the two literature genres, which include poetry and short story, helps in bringing out the theme of the journeys undertaken in life. The authors achieve their goal of passing their message to the readers as the story and poem became interesting to the audience. This draws the reader’s attention as the reader is able to know the natural setting of the story which has a symbolic meaning while creating a particular tone. Also, the use of simple language helps the reader to be engaged in creating an image or picture that can be imagined just in relation to reader’s experience. As a result, the reader can relate with theme of the journeys is undertaken in life.

Therefore, proper use of symbolism and tone can help in passing message in a creative form as the two literary tools create long lasting images in the reader’s mind. For instance, symbolism and tone have been used to pass the message of the life journeys which involves decision making that can either have positive or negative result to a person.



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