Chapter 1 Summary

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Last Reviewed on May 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1033

Chapter 1: Economy

In introducing Walden, Thoreau explains to the reader that his story will be told in the first person. He asserts that he “require[s] of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life” and laments watching his fellow townsmen in Concord, Massachusetts, settle into laborious and monotonous lives as farmers. Furthermore, Thoreau believes that most Americans “lead lives of quiet desperation” and “are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.” He expresses sympathy toward those struggling to sustain themselves in these circumstances.

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When Thoreau examines the source of valuable experiences, he affirms that he has not learned anything of value from his predecessors. Instead, he realizes that taking risks, engaging in philosophical inquiry, and vigorously endeavoring to discover unexplored areas of the natural world significantly transform experiences for humans. Change is a miracle in itself. He then goes on to question what the bare necessities of life are, henceforth splitting them into four categories, “Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel.” In describing how these four essentials work together to maintain an individual’s survival, Thoreau contends that “the luxuriously rich are not simply kept comfortably warm, but unnaturally hot” and thus deems such luxuries “positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.” Consequently, he emphasizes that those who seek wisdom through experience have found authentic purpose.

Thoreau declares his intention to cultivate a self-sustaining, minimalist lifestyle during the course of two years spent in the remote wilderness by Walden Pond. Furthermore, in assessing what the true necessities for survival are, he contends,

My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles.

Thoreau then examines how civilized societies dictate what is necessary for assimilation. Clothing, for example, is a significant marker of wealth, and wealth is the mark of a civilized human. Therefore, Thoreau reiterates that clothing should provide only one purpose: to keep a person warm.

After examining how shelter is necessary for survival, Thoreau argues that “man wanted a home, a place of warmth, or comfort first of physical warmth, then the warmth of the affections.” Given this primarily practical purpose, he does not believe that humans are meant to spend the majority of their lives inside. Thoreau continues to illustrate methods of self-sufficiency in several notable cultures, such as how Native Americans use natural elements such as tree bark and bulrushes as shelter from the cold. He contends that the labor one puts into building a luxurious home outweighs the benefits of that labor. Thoreau thus conveys that “when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it.”

Thoreau then investigates disparities between the lives of the rich and the poor. He suggests that competitively seeking material wealth leads to impoverished souls, asserting that “it is the luxurious and dissipated who set the fashions which the herd so diligently follow.” Instead of luxuries, Thoreau seeks independence and freedom. In highlighting society’s shift away from self-sustaining practices reliant on nature’s resources, Thoreau argues that humans “have become tools of their tools” as a result of being so consumed with labor. Accordingly, he questions the utility of material objects, suggesting that civilization will be richer if such materials are used simply for their primary purpose.

Thoreau goes on to illustrate his early days on Walden Pond after his arrival in March of 1845. He explains how he built his house by cutting down the young pine trees around him for timber, and then assesses the function of each structure. Thoreau expresses his belief that “if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands . . . the poetic faculty would be universally developed.” In Thoreau’s opinion, the more lavishly decorated a dwelling is, the less interesting, and he thus calculates how much it cost him to buy the essentials for building the home.

Moreover, Thoreau also questions the ultimate value of education if the costs outweigh the benefits. He contends that youth can learn more about the world through experience than they can by learning in school, “where any thing is professed and practised but the art of life,” and thus emphasizes the importance of gaining knowledge through authentic experiences. Thoreau details how he cultivates his own crops for food and calculates what he has spent to grow his crops, as well as how much he has made from selling them. In determining these expenses for constructing and maintaining his house and farm, he concludes the following:

I learned from my two years’ experience that it would cost incredibly little trouble to obtain one’s necessary food, even in this latitude; that a man may use as simple a diet as the animals, and yet retain health and strength.

In narrating his journey, Thoreau prioritizes his personal freedom and desire to live “simply and wisely” over succumbing to earning his living “by the sweat of his brow.” His pursuit of truth drives him to seek solitude in nature; while he does see the value of communal living, he admits that he is not philanthropic or charitable by any means. As such, Thoreau does not feel obligated to “save the universe from annihilation,” should that require him to forgo his personal pursuits.

Thoreau asserts that “there is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted,” and accordingly, he claims that goodness can only arise from unintended acts and without selfish intent. He thus contends that philanthropy is “overrated” and “not love for one’s fellow-man in the broadest sense.” Furthermore, he advises the reader not to “stay to be an overseer of the poor,” but instead to “endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world.” Abiding by nature’s intentions—through pursuing a life of simplicity and freedom from societal constraints—is crucial. Thoreau henceforth concludes “Economy” with a poem titled “The Pretensions of Poverty” by T. Carew. The piece reflects Thoreau’s suggestion that the truly impoverished members of society are those who “fix their seats in mediocrity” rather than seeking enlightenment and truth.

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Chapters 2–4 Summary