Walden Analysis

Walden (Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

The Work

Thoreau’s two-year experiment of living at Walden Pond was on one level an effort to determine whether a person really needed the material possessions that were considered essential in mid-nineteenth century America. His book demonstrated that one could attain the good life by living in harmony with nature supplied only with the bare necessities. The first chapter, entitled “Economy,” demonstrates that human needs are few; thus, there is no need to exploit nature to attain them. Much of the rest of the book attacks the acquisitive spirit. At bottom, Thoreau argues, materialistic values indicate not enterprise but a basic lack of spiritual self-reliance. In Thoreau’s ethic, ownership of the land is invalid. Humans should act as stewards rather than squires.

Thoreau’s own love of nature is illustrated in the intricate detail with which he describes the seasons, flora and fauna, natural processes, and Walden Pond itself. If he measures and documents, plumbs the depths of the lake, scrupulously counts every penny spent in the building of his house, and ponders his profit after selling produce from his garden, it is to show that empirical science does have a use, but that it should be subordinate to a guiding spirit that respects and loves the natural environment rather than exploits it. Walden continually demonstrates “correspondences”; that is, clear relationships between the ethical life of humankind and nature, an interconnectedness that Thoreau believed deserved more acknowledgment and respect.

Bibliography:

Bloom, Harold, ed. Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A representative selection of some of the best criticism of Thoreau’s Walden published since Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of “Walden” (1972). Although primarily a celebration of Thoreau, some essays question his solipsism and his debt to Emerson.

Cavell, Stanley. The Senses of “Walden.” New York: Viking Press, 1972. The prelude to the contemporary reading of Thoreau’s masterpiece. Cavell argues that Walden’s mysteries can be learned by giving the fullest attention to all Thoreau said.

Myerson, Joel, ed. Critical Essays on Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.” Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. Contains a very complete record of critical reaction to Walden beginning with early reviews by Horace Greeley, George Eliot, and several anonymous reviewers of the day. The book also contains reprints of more than a dozen twentieth century essays examining such topics as the structure of Walden and its language.

Ruland, Richard, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Walden”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. An excellent source of discussion for Walden. Nine short essays and twelve shorter viewpoints by critics and writers offer a coherent reading of Thoreau’s book. Contains a brief chronology of Thoreau’s life.

Shanley, J. Lyndon. The Making of “Walden.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957. A detailed study of how Thoreau wrote the first version of Walden while living at Walden Pond and how he rewrote it between 1848 and 1854. Contains the text of the first edition of Walden.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition. Edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. An authoritative, extensively annotated version of the text. Includes Thoreau’s notes and corrections to the text.

Walden Historical Context

New England Transcendentalism
Transcendentalism took root in New England in the mid-1830s in reaction against the rationalism...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

Walden Setting

The setting of Walden is integral to its themes, although Thoreau did not set out to write a book about nature. He wanted a quiet...

(The entire section is 140 words.)

Walden Literary Style

First-Person Narration
Thoreau wrote Walden in the first person. He explains on the first page that, although...

(The entire section is 627 words.)

Walden Literary Qualities

Unlike his mentor, Emerson, Thoreau has a sense of organic form, and as a result Walden—in contrast to many of Emerson's essays—is...

(The entire section is 311 words.)

Walden Social Sensitivity

Thoreau considered himself a reformer, and he genuinely wanted to change human lives for the better. He was distressed by the poverty he saw...

(The entire section is 292 words.)

Walden Compare and Contrast

1850s: Walden Pond (about half a mile long and with a total area of about sixty-one acres) and much of the land immediately...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

Walden Topics for Discussion

1. Why do you think the essay "Economy" is by far the longest chapter in Walden?

2. What does Thoreau hope to achieve at...

(The entire section is 147 words.)

Walden Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Seven centuries before Thoreau, a Japanese philosopher, Kamo Chomei, carried out an experiment similar to Thoreau's by living in a cabin...

(The entire section is 191 words.)

Walden Topics for Further Study

Would you want to spend a year or two living as Thoreau lived at Walden Pond? Why or why not?

Thoreau refers to Greek and...

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Walden Related Titles / Adaptations

A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, like Walden, mixes observations of natural phenomena with discussions of their...

(The entire section is 153 words.)

Walden What Do I Read Next?

‘‘Walden’’ and Other Writings, edited by Brooks Atkinson and with an excellent introduction by Ralph Waldo Emerson, is a...

(The entire section is 317 words.)

Walden For Further Reference

Anderson, Charles R., ed. Thoreau's Vision: The Major Essays. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1973. Includes most of Thoreau's...

(The entire section is 205 words.)

Walden Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Bagnall, Nicholas, Review of Walden, in New Statesman, December 5, 1997, p. 57.

‘‘New...

(The entire section is 271 words.)

Walden Bibliography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A representative selection of some of the best criticism of Thoreau’s Walden published since Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of “Walden” (1972). Although primarily a celebration of Thoreau, some essays question his solipsism and his debt to Emerson.

Cavell, Stanley. The Senses of “Walden.” New York: Viking Press, 1972. The prelude to the contemporary reading of Thoreau’s masterpiece. Cavell argues that Walden’s mysteries can be learned by giving the fullest attention to all Thoreau said.

Myerson, Joel, ed. Critical Essays on Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.” Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. Contains a very complete record of critical reaction to Walden beginning with early reviews by Horace Greeley, George Eliot, and several anonymous reviewers of the day. The book also contains reprints of more than a dozen twentieth century essays examining such topics as the structure of Walden and its language.

Ruland, Richard, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Walden”: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. An excellent source of discussion for Walden. Nine short essays and twelve shorter viewpoints by critics and writers offer a coherent reading of Thoreau’s book. Contains a brief chronology of Thoreau’s life.

Shanley, J. Lyndon. The Making of “Walden.” Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957. A detailed study of how Thoreau wrote the first version of Walden while living at Walden Pond and how he rewrote it between 1848 and 1854. Contains the text of the first edition of Walden.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: A Fully Annotated Edition. Edited by Jeffrey S. Cramer. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. An authoritative, extensively annotated version of the text. Includes Thoreau’s notes and corrections to the text.