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The choice cannot be repudiated or duplicated, but one makes the choice without foreknowledge, almost as if blindly. After making the selection, the traveler in Frost's poem says, "Yet knowing how way leads on to way/I doubted if I should ever come back" (14-15). And at the end, as one continues to encounter different forks along the way, the endless paths have slim chance of ever giving the traveler a second choice. One can see this as similar to Mrs. Mallard's change. As she looks out into the future, she sees endless possibilities for choice and nothing feels like she would ever return to the determinate state of marriage.
The final two lines of "The Road Not Taken" say, "I took the one less traveled by / and that has made all the difference" (19-20). Unlike in Chopin, the traveler determines to take the path. In Chopin, the path forces itself on her. The accident and the feeling of freedom are foisted on her outside of her control. In Frost, while the individual does not create the external conditions of the choice, he or she has freedom that stems from an inner impulse. The traveler finds the two paths, although they open up by chance. The traveler initiates the encounter without waiting for something to arrive. Furthermore, the choice of which path to take is an explicit process of decision. The traveler stops, compares, and ponders before deciding one course over the other. In Chopin, there is none of this. There is only response, not initiative. Yet in Frost, there is no sense of conflict between repression and freedom. Nor does Frost's poem convey the sense of joy at transformation that Chopin's protagonist conveys. This is because for Frost, there is freedom each moment, whereas in Chopin, freedom is an unexpected arrival.
Raymond Carver (1981) addresses self-determination in yet a third way in his short story "Cathedral." Freedom in this story is neither complete freedom to choose a path (Frost), nor complete external control over whether or not freedom will come by chance (Chopin). It is freedom resisted but gained in guidance. The married male character becomes deeply involved in an encounter that binds him with transformation -- a change toward openness that is akin to the transformation of Mrs. Mallard in "The Story of an Hour" and has similarities to Frost's poem, but sets the problem of self-determination up in the context of prejudice.
The couple expects a blind visitor named Robert, a friend of the narrator's wife. The wife had experienced a transformative event -- the blind man's touching of her face -- that was important for her (p. 210). She is not biased or ignorant like her husband, who seems to have a prejudicial fear of blindness (as well as being racist). He admits that he's never known or met a blind man (p. 215). As a result of his ignorance, he is uncomfortable with the idea of a blind man in his house (p. 209). His biased resistance is evident. For example, he fails to understand his wife's friendship with Robert (p. 210), he feels pity for the blind man's former wife, not able to comprehend how she could have lived with a man who could not see her (p. 213), and he has false presumptions about blind men, like they do not wear beards (p. 214) or smoke (p. 217).
The transformation toward freedom occurs in his evening spent with Robert. Blindness is normalized (Robert drinks Scotch, smokes pot, eats typically, talks normally). The narrator, while still uncomfortable (for example, when his wife leaves he says "I didn't want to be left alone with a blind man"), begins to realize his own limited knowledge when he tries and utterly fails to conjure an adequate image of a cathedral for the blind man (p. 225-26). The consequences of this are immense. For one thing, the narrator is pointed back toward his own incapacity. Although not blind, he realizes he cannot use language to make good pictures. He himself is limited and ignorant as the blind man is ignorant of sight. The second result is that Robert prompts the narrator to sketch a cathedral with him on paper (p. 226). Their hands move together, touching, drawing tentatively. Robert encourages the narrator periodically, praising him as he adds more detail to the sketch. This culminates in him saying, "You're cooking with gas now" (p. 227). In other words, he is capable. Then Robert has him close his eyes. They keep drawing. As their fingers ride over the paper, the narrator says, "It was like nothing else in my life up to now" (p. 228). He explodes, refusing to open his eyes. He won't look, as though he himself is blind. He knows he's in his house, but "I didn't feel like I was inside anything." In other words, the constraints have gone away. He's entered openness. His prejudice begins to fade away as he realizes what it must be like to experience blindness.
Like Chopin's story, the conflict and resolution between a determined prejudice and a subsequent freedom comes from without. The narrator is visited. He did not initiate anything, but only responds. Like Frost's poem, however, the struggle is with his choice of two paths. Does he freely choose to overcome his bias, or does he walk down the path of resistance to remain in bondage? He chooses the former, but it is not random. Robert guides him to this place. That is what makes the arrangement of the dilemma unique and mediating in this story.
In conclusion, this analysis has tried to show how the theme of freedom operates in these three literary texts. It has compared the theme of freedom (self-determination and choice) and its conflicts using the text's alternative characterizations of the movement from constraint to openness. Out of the different arrangements emerge three perspectives that in their own way grapple with and resolve the tension between determination and free will.
Carver, Raymond. (1981). Cathedral:…[continue]
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