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.
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...
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