Walden Two Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Walden Two is cast mostly in the form of a dialogue—in the tradition of Plato’s Socratic dialogues—in which the renowned and controversial behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner presents his utopian vision of how human society could be reorganized on the basis of “behavioral engineering.” As the most famous and influential behaviorist of the twentieth century, Skinner was well qualified to argue that the modification and control of human behavior through “operant conditioning,” behavioral modification, and positive reinforcement could create a considerably healthier society.

In this book, his only published attempt at fiction, Skinner describes the visit of six characters to an imaginary utopian community called Walden Two. This community was designed by a behavioral psychologist named T. E. Frazier, who closely resembles Skinner himself. At the end of the book, three members of the group—Steve Jamnik and his fiancée Mary Grove, along with Professor Burris—decide to leave the ordinary world and live in Frazier’s Walden Two community.

The book begins with Rogers and his army buddy Steve visiting Burris, Rogers’s former college professor, to inquire about the utopian community. Burris, the narrator of the novel, portrays himself as jaded with his teaching career and extremely disenchanted by post-World War II American culture. When Rogers asks Burris about Walden Two, Burris realizes that he and Walden Two’s founder, T. E. Frazier, were fellow graduate students, and Burris is able to engineer a visit to the nearby utopian community. The visiting group eventually includes the girlfriends of the two young men and Augustine Castle, an irascible colleague from the...

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Walden Two Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Professor Burris, a senior psychologist, attended graduate school with a brilliant maverick scholar named T. E. Frazier. Two recently discharged soldiers approach Burris, fascinated by rumors of an experimental community run by Frazier. The men ask Burris to help them reach the community.

Soon, a party of six embarks on a short bus ride to the Walden Two farm, which is located about a hundred miles from the university in a neighboring midwestern state. Joining Burris, the two young men, and their two girlfriends is Professor Castle from the philosophy department. They reach the farm and begin to learn about it.

Over the course of a few days, the two academics tour the farm; try their hand at physical labor; meet and talk to some of the Waldenites; absorb the rudiments of the social, political, and cultural life in the compound; and debate the pros and cons of social engineering with Frazier. In the end, both professors and one of the couples return home, while the other soldier and his girl settle at the farm. Back at the university, Burris feels increasingly restless and dissatisfied with the American way of life. Eventually, he submits a letter of resignation and, liberated, rejoins the Walden Two community. There, encouraged by Frazier, he writes an account of his earlier visit that, on the last pages, is revealed to have been the text of the novel.

Walden Two Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Elms, Alan C. “Skinner’s Dark Year and Walden Two.” American Psychologist 36, no. 5 (May, 1981): 470-479. A biographical analysis of Skinner’s personal motives for writing Walden Two. An indispensable and unique discussion of Skinner’s book.

Goldberg, Bruce. “Skinner’s Behaviorist Utopia.” The Libertarian Alternative: Essays in Social and Political Philosophy, edited by Tibor Machan. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1974. A philosopher examines the quality of the “reasoning” behind Skinner’s ideas in Walden Two and finds the reasoning fundamentally flawed.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. The Measure of Man on Freedom: Human Values, Survival, and the Modern Temper. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1954. This thorough critique of Skinner’s “science of man” finds Walden Two an “ignoble utopia.”

Roemer, Kenneth M. “Mixing Behavorism and Utopia.” No Place Else: Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction, edited by Eric S. Rabkin et al. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. Analyzes Walden Two in the context of utopian literature, evaluates its literary qualities, and glosses many of the book’s personal connections with Skinner’s life.

Wheeler, Harvey, ed. Beyond the Punitive Society: Operant Conditioning and Political Aspects. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1973. Nineteen essays present a critical evaluation of Skinner’s ideas and include a response from Skinner to his critics.

Wolfe, Peter. “Walden Two Twenty-Five Years Later: A Retrospective Look.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 6, no. 2, 11-26. A thorough, balanced, and well-read analysis of Skinner’s book.