The main characters in Walden are Henry David Thoreau, the Canadian woodchopper, and John Field.
- Henry David Thoreau is the author and first-person narrator of Walden. A nineteenth-century writer and philosopher, Thoreau emphasizes integrity, simplicity, individualism, and close contact with nature. He is associated with the transcendentalist movement.
- The Canadian woodchopper is one of the anonymous visitors Thoreau describes in Walden. Thoreau admires the woodchopper’s simplicity and distance from society but finds the man intellectually beneath him.
- John Field, a farmer, is one of Thoreau’s neighbors. Thoreau depicts him as caught in the cycle of American materialism.
Last Updated on May 5, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1206
Henry David Thoreau
Born in Concord, Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau—the author, subject, and narrator of Walden—was one of the most profoundly influential philosophers of the transcendentalist movement in the mid-nineteenth century. Before focusing principally on his writing, Thoreau studied at Harvard, worked in his family’s pencil factory, and taught in both public and private school settings, among various other occupations. His relationship with Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose children he tutored, invigorated Thoreau’s philosophical inquiries, as both men endeavored to explore the depths of the human spirit by examining its relationship to nature. Both were instrumental in founding the transcendentalist movement.
Thoreau’s philosophical writings focus on principles of intellectualism and naturalism; specifically, in Walden, he proposes primitive living as a means to spiritual growth and contends that material wealth impoverishes the soul. His work pushes against the laws and customs of civilized society—he was a nonconformist who refused to pay taxes—and instead advocates for the pursuit of enlightenment through experience. In communicating his belief that “to be awake is to be alive,” he comments that he has “never yet a man who was quite awake” and further contends that he could not have looked at such a man in the face.
Thoreau addresses his discontent with civilized society’s misrepresentation of wealth and excess labor as ideals in Walden. These upheld ideals lead to a society that is not awake, and he laments how few are capable of “moral reform” and meaning:
The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life.
Thoreau expands upon his conception of the divine in the following passage:
Chastity is the flowering of man; and what are called Genius, Heroism, Holiness, and the like, are but various fruits which succeed it. Man flows at once to God when the channel of purity is open. By turns our purity inspires and our impurity casts us down. He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established.
As these words illuminate, Thoreau concerns himself principally with spiritual purity when analyzing the human condition. Throughout the text, he often refers to ancient philosophical and religious texts, and he regrets the inaccessibility of these writings in the modern world. In particular, Thoreau greatly admires how Eastern religions, such as Hinduism, address the human condition. For example, he describes how “I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta, since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed.”
In his writing, Thoreau explores metaphors between humans and nature, using heightened poetic language to enhance his philosophical ideas. Thoreau exults in “the indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature” and personifies the elements of nature as coinciding with human emotions, saying that “all Nature would be affected . . . if any man should ever for a just cause grieve.” At the same time, Thoreau also relates his own emotions to those felt by Nature, such as in the following declaration:
I am no more lonely than the loon in the pond that laughs so loud, or than Walden Pond itself.
His writing style is rich in vivid imagery and profound philosophical and spiritual meditations, and he includes poems throughout the text to further expand the reader’s understanding.
Thoreau, as a significant historical figure, remains an influential voice in modern philosophy. His views on limited government and spiritual enlightenment, as well as his contributions to naturalism and individualism, remain valuable, and his writing elucidates the powers of observation and time spent in nature. Throughout Walden, Thoreau thoughtfully highlights the intricate connections between animals and the environment, arguing that humans “need the tonic of wildness,” which can only be achieved through cultivating a profound relationship with the natural world.
Thoreau’s two years spent living in the woods—affording him the time and space to observe nature in its purest form—lead him to embrace solitude, and as he conveys the ethereal beauty of the wilderness, he confirms that “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.” It is this ability to capture the profound lessons that nature teaches through dense inquiries into spiritual truths of human existence that makes Walden such a memorable text. As the following quotation encapsulates, Thoreau’s intensely introspective insights and contributions to transcendentalism illustrate the timeless urgency of self-reflection:
Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.
The Canadian Woodchopper
While living in the woods, Thoreau occasionally receives visitors; he even remarks at one point that he has more visitors during these two years than during any other period in his life. In “Visitors,” he describes in detail one of the gentlemen he meets in his early days on Walden Pond: a Canadian woodchopper in his late twenties. Referring to the woodchopper as “a true Homeric or Paphlagonian man,” Thoreau describes him as “a simple and natural man” who, despite lacking formal education or profound intellect, has “an exuberance of animal spirits” that Thoreau finds captivating. He also admires the artistry and delight that this man puts into his work.
Thoreau is critical, however, of the woodchopper’s intellectual limitations, portraying him as “so simply and naturally humble . . . that humility is no distinct quality in him, nor could he conceive of it.” This observation reflects Thoreau’s belief in maintaining a balance between pursuing a primitive, simple existence and a “higher, spiritual” one; accordingly, he contemplates whether the man is “as wise as Shakespeare or as simply ignorant as a child.” Thoreau ultimately reasons that he is intrigued by this man because he expresses his thoughts without fear of societal consequences and thus maintains his individualism.
John Field, whom Thoreau describes as an “honest, hard-working, but shiftless man,” is an Irish farmer who lives on nearby Baker Farm with his wife and children. After listening to John explain that he only makes ten dollars per acre “bogging” a neighbor’s farm, Thoreau gives John advice on how to live simply; in doing so, Thoreau relates his belief that one does not have to work hard to survive if pursuing this lifestyle. Thoreau argues that John “was discontented and wasted his life into the bargain” of American materialism, being forced “to sustain the slavery and war and other superfluous expense.” Therefore, he expresses pity toward John, viewing him as overly consumed with labor.
The Philosopher from Connecticut
Thoreau briefly recounts that a philosopher came to visit him during his last winter spent on Walden Pond. While engaging in hours-long conversations on these evening visits, Thoreau reasons that the philosopher “must be the man of the most faith of any alive,” because he “bear[s] for fruit his brain only.” The philosopher principally concerns himself with the spiritual questions of human existence, and so Thoreau sees him as a man of true wisdom.