Study Guide

Walden

by Henry David Thoreau

Walden Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Walden

Walden is an account of the two years during which Henry David Thoreau built his own cabin, raised his own food, and lived a life of simplicity in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau’s idea was that one’s true self could be lost amid the distractions of ordinary life. His experiment consisted of stripping away those distractions, living deliberately instead of automatically, and following the inclinations that arose within him in the solitude, silence, and leisure of his simplified life. He retreated from nonessentials to explore what remained as the core of human identity, assuming that human identity is not based on one’s profession or possessions or social connections.

Thoreau was a faithful, lifelong journal-keeper, and Walden is an artful reworking of journal entries from his time in the woods. It is a masterpiece of one of the master writers of Transcendentalism. One reason that Walden is exemplary as a work of Transcendentalism is that the book makes the idealistic assumption that there is a true self to discover. Walden is also a Transcendentalist work in other ways. It is the record of an eclectic intelligence considering life from many perspectives. Thoreau observed and appreciated nature keenly; Walden details a naturalist’s perceptions of the animals, plants, and seasons of the Concord woods. Thoreau was also a witty and merciless social critic. Walden is laden with his acid condemnations of the hypocrisy, mindless conformity, and waste of the human spirit that drove him away from the culture around him. Thoreau was well-read in Eastern religion and philosophy; Walden is one of the early attempts to put before a Western audience the Eastern values of mindfulness, detachment, simplicity, and living in the present moment.

The Harvard-educated author was also saturated with the classical Western literary tradition; Walden is a beautifully crafted work of art. Along with his spiritual, social, and artistic interests, Thoreau also carried a great passion for numbers: he goes into great detail about how much it cost to keep himself alive and healthy during his stay at Walden. Early critics tended to see this strain of “bookkeeping” as a weakness in his work. As science in the twentieth century gradually caught up with Thoreau’s insight, Walden’s careful numerical accounting was revealed as the early roots of the science of ecology.

Thoreau’s exploration of his identity was founded on individualism rather than membership in any cultural group. In fact, for him, allegiance to any group was perilous, liable to distract or seduce one away from fidelity to one’s personal values and highest calling. For Thoreau, the conditions that favored human fulfillment were quiet concentration, simple labor, and a life attentive to the lessons of nature.

Walden Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Early in the summer of 1845, Henry David Thoreau left his family home in the village of Concord, Massachusetts, to live for two years by himself in a rude house that he had constructed beside Walden Pond in a far corner of Concord township. While there, he wrote in his journal about many of the things he did and thought. Thoreau was not the owner of the land on which he settled, but he had received the owner’s permission to build his house and to live there. His objective was really to live simply and think and write; in addition, he proved to himself that the necessities of food, clothing, shelter, and fuel could be obtained rather simply for a man who desired only what he needed.

As early as March, 1845, Thoreau went out to Walden Pond and cut the timber he needed for the framework of his house, doing all the labor himself. When that was done and the framing was in place, Thoreau bought a shanty from an Irish railroad worker. He then tore down the shanty and used the boards for the sidings of his house, even making use of many of the nails already in the boards. By July, the house was ready for his occupancy. Before the advent of cold weather the following fall, Thoreau built himself a fireplace and a chimney for cooking and heating purposes. He also lathed and plastered the interior of the one-room house so that it would be warm and comfortable during the cold New England winter.

Having done all the work himself, and having used native materials wherever possible, Thoreau had built the house for the absurdly low cost of twenty-eight dollars. In addition to providing himself with a place to live, he believed he had taught himself a great lesson in the art of living. He was also vastly pleased that he had provided himself with a place to live for less than a year’s lodging had cost him as a student at Harvard College.

In order to get the money he needed to build the house, Thoreau had planted about two and one-half acres of beans, peas, potatoes, corn, and turnips, which he sold at harvest time. The land on which they were grown was lent by a neighbor who believed, along with everyone else, that the land was good for nothing. In addition to selling enough produce to pay his building expenses, Thoreau had enough yield left from his gardening to provide himself with food. He did not spend all of his time, however, working on the house or in the garden. One of his purposes in living at Walden Pond was to live so simply that he might have plenty of time to think, to write, and to observe nature, and so he spent only as much time in other labors as was needed. He had little respect for possessions and material things. He believed, for example, that most people are really possessed by their belongings, and that literary works such as the Bhagavadgt (c. fifth century b.c.e.) are worth more than all the towers and temples of the Orient.

Thoreau was quite proud of how little money he needed to live comfortably while at Walden Pond. The first eight months he was there, he spent only slightly more than one dollar per month for food. In addition to some twenty-odd dollars he received for vegetables that he had raised, his income, within which he lived, was slightly more than thirteen dollars. His food consisted almost entirely of rye and Indian-meal bread, potatoes, rice, a little salt pork, molasses, and salt. His drink was water. Seldom did he eat large portions of meat, and he never hunted. His interest in the animals that lived in the woods and fields near Walden Pond was the interest of a naturalist. Although he spent some time fishing, he felt that the time he had was too valuable to spend in catching fish to feed himself. For the small amounts of cash he needed, Thoreau worked with his hands at many occupations, working only as long as was necessary to provide himself with the money required to fulfill his meager wants. He kept as much time as possible free for thinking and studying. He studied people and nature more than he studied using books, although he kept a few well-selected volumes around him at all times.

While at Walden Pond, summer and winter, Thoreau lived independent of time. He refused to acknowledge days of the week or month. When he wished to spend some time observing certain birds or animals, or even the progress of the weather, he felt free to do so. Almost the only thing that reminded him that other people were rushing chaotically to keep their schedules was the whistling of the Fitchburg Railway trains, which passed within a mile or so of his dwelling. Not that he disliked the railroad; he thought it, in fact, a marvel of human ingenuity, and he was fascinated by the cargoes that the trains carried from place to place. He was glad, however, that he was not chained to the commerce those cargoes represented. As much as he sometimes enjoyed the sounds of the trains, he enjoyed far more the sounds of the birds and animals, most species of which he could recognize, not only as a country dweller knows them but also as the naturalist knows them. The loons, the owls, the squirrels, the various kinds of fish in Walden Pond, the migratory birds—all of these were part of his conscious existence and environment.

People often dropped in to visit with Thoreau, who frankly confessed that he did not consider people very important. In Walden he fails, in fact, to tell who his most frequent visitors were. He preferred only one visitor—a thinking one—at a time. Whenever he had more visitors than could be accommodated by his small house and its three chairs, he took them into his larger drawing room, the pine wood that surrounded his home. From what he wrote about his treatment of all but a very few of the people who came to visit him, it is very probable that he was an unfriendly kind of host, one who, if he had nothing better to do, was willing to talk, but who usually had more to occupy him than simple conversation.

During the winter months, Thoreau continued to live comfortably at Walden Pond, though his activities changed. He spent more time at the pond itself, making a survey of its bottom, studying the ice conditions, and observing the animal life that centered on the pond, which had some open water throughout the year.

After two years of life at Walden, Thoreau left his house there. He felt no regret for having stayed, or for leaving; his attitude was that he had many lives to live and that he had finished with living at the pond. He had learned many lessons, had had time to think and study, and had proved what he had set out to prove twenty-six months before, that living can be extremely simple and yet highly fulfilling to the individual.

Walden Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

In 1845, when he was twenty-seven years old, Thoreau built a one-room cabin on Emerson’s land in the woods on the shore of Walden Pond, less than two miles from Concord. He borrowed an axe, bought the boards from an Irish railroad worker’s shanty, and erected a ten-by-fifteen-foot building. He moved into his new abode on the symbolic date of Independence Day.

There he lived austerely, growing beans and doing odd jobs, living on a simple diet, and spending less than nine dollars for food during the first eight months. His plan was to simplify his life, to “live free and uncommitted,” working about six weeks a year in order to have the remaining forty-six weeks free to read, write, live in intimate relationship to nature, “affect the quality of the day,” and demonstrate the Transcendental belief in “the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.” He summed up his experiment by writing: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. . . . I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close; to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean . . . to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it.

Feeling that most people live hurried, complicated “lives of quiet desperation,” “frittered away by detail,” he urged them to simplify. Citing the case of an Indian craftsman whose baskets people would no longer buy, Thoreau set an example for poor students and for would-be artists, who fear being unable to make a living by their writing, painting, music, or sculpture. Believing that many people were enslaved too much by working at unfulfilling jobs to provide themselves with material objects, he showed that if they will do with less, they can find the freedom to pursue their heart’s desire. Like Thomas Carlyle, the English Transcendentalist friend of Emerson, Thoreau urged people to lower their denominator—to enrich the spiritual quality of their lives by reducing their dependence on the material by choosing “the vantage point of what we should call voluntary poverty,” for“a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

Walden functions on several levels. As autobiography, it resembles Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855), for like Whitman, Thoreau wrote, “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew so well.” Leon Edel places Walden among the literature of imaginary voyages. On the autobiographical and documentary level, it has affinities with Robinson Crusoe’s solitary and self-reliant life on his island; its documentary detail also resembles Herman Melville’s accounts of South Seas culture and of whaling, while on another level, it is like the voyage of the Pequod in his Moby Dick (1851) as a quest for ultimate spiritual reality.

Emerson complained of Thoreau’s fondness for leading huckleberry parties, and as a “drop-out” from “this chopping sea of civilized life,” Thoreau resembles Huckleberry Finn fleeing from “sivilization,” the Walden cabin and Huck’s raft both symbolizing freedom from conformity. As a work of social criticism, Walden challenges the abuses of capitalist materialism, for Thoreau observes that wage slaves such as the Fitchburg railroad workers laboring sixteen hours a day in poverty have no freedom to develop the artistic and spiritual side of their lives. Full of close observation of the seasons, of flora and fauna, Walden is finally a testament to the renewing power of nature, to the need to respect and preserve the environment, to a belief that “in wildness is the salvation of the world”—a statement that has become a doctrine of the Sierra Club.

Thoreau never expected his readers to follow his example and live alone in a one-room hut. Such a life would make marriage difficult, if not impossible (indeed, Thoreau remained a bachelor). He himself stayed at Walden only long enough to prove that his experiment could work, after which he returned to Concord. In some ways, Walden is misleading. In form, it consists of eighteen essays loosely connected, in which Thoreau condenses his twenty-six-month sojourn at Walden into the seasons of a single year. In addition, he draws upon experiences there before and after his residence at the pond. Thoreau was not as solitary, austere, or remote as Walden suggests.

Walden was not a wilderness, nor was Thoreau a pioneer. His hut was within two miles of town, and while at Walden, he made almost daily visits to Concord and to his family, dined out often, had frequent visitors, and went off on excursions. Thoreau did not expect his readers literally to follow his example but to find applications to their own lives so that they can live more freely and intensely, with their eyes and ears more keenly attuned to the world around them, whatever it may be, and with their spirit closer to the life force behind nature.

Walden Overview

In Walden Thoreau records both his experiment in self-sufficient natural living and his ideas about nature, human society, and the...

(The entire section is 109 words.)

Walden Summary

Chapter One: ‘‘Economy’’
Thoreau begins by telling readers that he is writing to answer why he chose to live alone for...

(The entire section is 1970 words.)