Download Walden Two Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Walden Two 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 university’s philosophy department. The rest of the book chronicles the visit of this group to the utopian community and focuses on the conversations that they have there with one another and with Walden Two’s founder, Frazier, who gives the group a guided tour while proselytizing for the community’s superiority to the outside world.

The most captivating of these conversations occurs in the last third of the book as Frazier (and Skinner) defend themselves from charges of fascism. The issue of the social manipulation and control of human beings seems fairly innocent when Frazier is talking about gardening and tea parties at Walden Two, but when Frazier starts talking about future growth and land acquisition, Castle “seemed to feel that he had found Frazier’s weak point at last.” Just as with Skinner in real life, Frazier must defend himself against charges of totalitarianism, and this leads Frazier to the issue of free will. Like Skinner, Frazier asserts that human free will is an illusion and that the techniques of behavioral engineering were already being exploited in the real world by insidious and maladroit advertisers, salesmen, politicians, educators, and others. Frazier (and Skinner) believe that the powerful techniques of operant conditioning should be in the hands of enlightened, well-trained, and benevolent scientists who will use the techniques not for competitive advantages but to create a better world.

Novels generally are filled with “incident,” events that happen to characters and that propel them into conflicts and resolutions to these conflicts. In this book, there is very little incident. Frazier introduces the community to Burris and his group, arguing mostly with the skeptical Castle about Walden Two’s merits, and the members of the group occasionally talk with one another about their evaluation of the utopian community. The main conflict is between Frazier and the skeptical Castle, who disagree over the merits of behavioral modification. The only other conflicts involve whether members of the group will return to the traditional world or choose to stay and live in Walden Two. Steve and his girlfriend Mary struggle briefly with their loyalty to the conventional world and then decide to join the utopian community, while...

(The entire section is 1,161 words.)