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Paraphrase the idea behind the quote of "Our life is frittered away by detail," in the...

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bergcar | Student, Grade 11 | Valedictorian

Posted October 26, 2013 at 7:08 PM via web

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Paraphrase the idea behind the quote of "Our life is frittered away by detail," in the second chapter of Walden, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived for."

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted October 26, 2013 at 8:21 PM (Answer #1)

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When Thoreau speaks of the detail that fritters away one's life, he speaks of the emotional and physical clutter that surrounds individuals.  Thoreau is demanding that individuals find a more simplistic form of being in the world:  "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."  Thoreau makes the argument that individuals who believe in the power of these "details" really don't live their lives.  Only when individuals recognize that these details are not meaningful and to get away from them constitute real and true meaning can there be something substantive to being in the world.

The quote of "Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!" demands a reduction in what constitutes "meaningful" attachments in the world.  A paraphrase of this can be that individuals need to prioritize what is important and discard the rest.  Another paraphrase of the quote could be that individuals should emphasize that which is meaningful and important and place the other elements in their proper context.  When Thoreau speaks of "Let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand," it speaks to this prioritizing as essential.  Thoreau is striving to make meaning out of being in the world.  This can only happen when individuals do not allow their lives to be "frittered away."  In this, another paraphrase can be that individuals should live a life that is not cluttered with extraneous details.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted October 27, 2013 at 2:35 AM (Answer #2)

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Another interpretation of Thoreau's words is one that pertains to many in contemporary times who fritter their lives away in details and lose sight of the larger and more important issues and relationships in life. For, at the beginning of the paragraph before this quoted line of Thoreau's, he writes,

Still we live meanly, like ants; though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness.

Thoreau observes that men are like ants as they rush from spot to spot, unaware of the world around them, fixed merely on  small, meaningless details.  They are caught up with the trite and quotidian happenings and lose sight of the more universal which is meaningful in life. By simplifying their lives and eliminating superfluous details, people will grasp what is truly meaningful: family, friends, love, respect, integrity. 

Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truths, while reality is fabulous. If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded,... life would be like a fairy tale....Children who play life, discern its true law and relations more clearly than men....

Thoreau points to the destructive power of petty fears and petty pleasures; they cloud men's thinking and true enjoyment of the life of the soul. He urges people to look more deeply at life and recognize and nurture what is truly meaningful. Men should cultivate such virtues as the love of Nature and truth--what is "sublime and noble." Further, Thoreau urges men to spend their days as deliberately as Nature and deal in realities, not trivialities. Arguably, in Walden, Thoreau satirizes the institutions of man and his materialism which lead him to "fritter" his life away like the ants who lay "clout upon clout."

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