Walden Two Themes

Themes and Meanings (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Like most utopias, Walden Two starts with dissatisfaction over its contemporary world and describes an imaginary society to suggest how contemporary problems could be ameliorated. The most general problem that Skinner sees in post-World War II America is that social problems are not attacked with scientific spirit and intelligence. For Skinner, this means quite specifically discarding unmeasurable phenomena as unworthy of serious consideration and substituting a systematic observation of data to discern problems and their solutions. It is in this spirit, for example, that Frazier (and Skinner) dismisses the study of history, which is called a “spurious science” with “no real facts—no real laws.”

Thus, early in the novel Frazier reports that the residents of Walden Two have “a constantly experimental attitude toward everything—that’s all we need. Solutions to problems of every sort follow almost miraculously.”

Many of these problems seem quite mundane, as when Frazier discusses the improved design of afternoon tea service or the washing of cafeteria trays at Walden Two. However, Frazier eventually uncovers other “problems” with his contemporary society that do not immediately strike the reader as in desperate need of radical alteration; when Frazier solves these problems with behavioral technology, Skinner’s utopian vision becomes more controversial. For example, Frazier implies that effective child-rearing is a problem in the outside world and reports that the solution at Walden Two is to separate children from their parents at birth, rear the children in carefully controlled communal nurseries, and use operant conditioning to eliminate counterproductive character traits. The caretakers in the nurseries teach self-control in the young by forcing the children to stand five minutes over their supper, without eating, after the youngsters have arrived home tired and hungry from a long walk. Frazier contends that people in the traditional world usually learn self control by accident, which is to say imperfectly.

By the time the tour of Walden Two is ended, Frazier has described and offered solutions for many problems in contemporary American society. Divorce, promiscuity, vocational dissatisfaction, economic hardship, crime—these and many other social ills appear to be cured at Walden Two through behavioral technology, and in the end, half the touring party leaves traditional society to join this better world.