Chapters 2–4 Summary

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Last Reviewed on May 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1140

Chapter 2: Where I Lived, and What I Lived For

Thoreau describes his search for a site to build his house. He explains that he initially bought “the Hollowell farm” and lived there for a time before the original owners asked to buy it back. In illustrating the farm, Thoreau conveys his attraction to its remote location alongside a river—“half a mile from the nearest neighbor”—and the rustic, ramshackle appearance of the house and barn. Thoreau reflects upon “farming on a large scale” and assures the reader that he “will not buy greedily.” He goes on to describe his early days living in the woods. While describing its ethereal features, Thoreau proclaims the cabin to be “fit to entertain a travelling god”: it has an “auroral character,” and “the morning wind forever blows.”

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Before owning a house, Thoreau lived in a tent and a boat. He assesses that living in a house will be a step towards “settling in the world,” and he enjoys being surrounded by nature, in which the birds are his only neighbors. Despite Walden Pond being in fairly close proximity to the Massachusetts towns of Concord and Lincoln, Thoreau asserts that its location deep in the woods makes him feel much further from civilization than he is. He finds the pond most beautiful during late summer rainstorms, when the water is smoothest and “full of light and reflections” below the dark and cloudy sky. His sense of time and place transforms while he is in the woods, and he feels that he lives “as far off as many a region viewed nightly by astronomers.”

Thoreau reflects upon his mornings spent in the house on Walden Pond. He asserts that the morning is “the most memorable season of the day” and invigorating for the soul. Accordingly, he highlights many renowned poets and artists who created their best work in the morning. Thoreau emphasizes the importance of keeping the mind awake to maintain “effective intellectual exertion” and live “a poetic and divine life.” He declares that his motive in living alone in the woods on Walden Pond is to “live deliberately” in order to learn “the essential facts of life.” Thoreau seeks truth and authenticity in his determination to live free from America’s materialist society.

Thoreau finds services such as the railroad and the post office unnecessary, and he believes that most news is simply gossip. On the other hand, he embraces reality and argues that, in doing so, he embraces wisdom. Those who are unable to make these realizations fail to live a meaningful existence; often, this failure results from having limited perceptions of reality, especially considering that many eternal truths are unseen. Thoreau thus urges the reader to “spend one day as deliberately as Nature,” by seeking truth and wisdom through enlightening experiences.

Chapter 3: Reading

Thoreau proclaims that in seeking truth, one becomes immortal, and states his belief that “serious reading” is crucial in this pursuit of truth. He assesses his own house as perfectly suited to reading and acknowledges that he is fortunate to own so many books. Thoreau urges publishers to make texts in ancient languages, such as those by Homer, more accessible to the contemporary reader, particularly as “the adventurous student will always study classics.”

Thoreau emphasizes that “books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written,” and explores the nobility of different forms of language. He compares the orator with the writer: while the orator “yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion,” the writer instead “speaks to the intellect and health of mankind” and can thus influence future generations. He praises the cherished influence of the written word and argues that books are the most important works of art.

Further, Thoreau believes that writers have more power over humans than “kings or emperors,” because books awaken a reader’s intellectual wisdom. He therefore regards ancient classics as portraying human nature most accurately and laments that most people have not read these texts because they are written in unfamiliar languages.

Thoreau feels disappointed that most people only learn to read as “a paltry convenience,” insisting that those who can read should study significant works in literature rather than reading mainstream books with no intellectual depth, which he refers to as “Easy Reading” or “Little Reading.” He believes that “even the college-bred and so-called liberally educated in men” in Concord have not read classic texts and claims that his aspiration is to “find wiser men” to acquaint himself with. By providing readers with wisdom, books also inspire open-mindedness and progressive inquiries into life’s broader questions. Thoreau questions the United States’ self-proclaimed progressiveness, as so many around him lack truly liberal educational institutions that encourage the pursuit of truth, knowledge, and wisdom. However, he expresses optimism that culture can elevate to this level.

Chapter 4: Sounds

Thoreau encourages the reader to engage with not only the sights but also the sounds of nature, referring to sound as “the language which all things and events speak without metaphor.” He mentions that, instead of reading, he often spends his time meditating to the songs of birds, and he describes feeling lucky that his own life is his greatest source of amusement. He then goes on to discuss the plants that surround his house and provide him with nourishment.

While Thoreau listens to the sounds of nature from his window, he can also hear the railroad to Boston from afar, mentioning that he is still “related to society by this link.” Thoreau compares the train’s sounds to “the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard” and is amazed by how the invention has changed society. He discusses how products from around the world are carried by freight trains, thus conveying the ways that international trade has affected commerce. Furthermore, Thoreau describes the sounds of a cattle-train—“as if a pastoral valley were going by,” he writes, with the sheep, cows, and oxen carried inside. Though he acknowledges the railroad’s utility from his insulated perspective in the woods, Thoreau reiterates,

I will not have my eyes put out and my ears spoiled by its smoke and steam and hissing.

Thoreau claims to feel “more alone than ever” when the train’s sounds disappear, preferring to be surrounded with only the sounds of nature. Even so, Thoreau admits that he finds beauty in the sounds of distant church bells, which he illustrates as melodiously echoing in the wind. He describes how he listens to and distinguishes between the songs of various birds, from the whippoorwills in the morning to the owls at night. Owls, to him, “represent the stark twilight and unsatisfied thoughts” of humans. As the chapter draws to a close, Thoreau details the sounds of “unfenced Nature” surrounding him and contemplates what the world would sound like without human interference.

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Chapters 5–9 Summary