Discussion Topic

Thoreau's expression of self-reliance and individualism in Walden

Summary:

In Walden, Thoreau expresses self-reliance and individualism by advocating for a simple, deliberate lifestyle close to nature. He emphasizes the importance of personal introspection, independence from societal norms, and the pursuit of one's own path. Thoreau's experiment at Walden Pond demonstrates his belief in living authentically and self-sufficiently, free from material excess and external influences.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Thoreau express self-reliance in Walden?

Thoreau expresses the theme of self-reliance when he insists he wants to experience life for himself, fully and directly, not only read about it (though he likes to read) or experience it only through the protective layers of society. This desire to to see how little he needs to survive animates him. It is what motivates him to move to Walden Pond, to buy and reassemble a tiny house, to dig his cellar for his potatoes, and to spend, as he calculates, only $28.12 to set up his entire homestead. He plants about two and half acres with beans for a cash crop, but also a "small part" of it with potatoes, turnips, corn, and peas for his own use. He wants to rely on himself.

Perhaps the best articulation of his philosophy of self-reliance is in this famous passage, in which he talks about stripping away all the props and non-essentials in order to find life itself:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Thoreau express self-reliance in Walden?

Thoreau's idea of self- reliance can be seen in the stress on non- conformity.  Thoreau stresses the notion that there can be a transcendent conception of the good found in solitude.  The mere idea of existing in a solitude, apart from the societal vision of the good, is something that forces self- reliance.  Thoreau forces the reader to consider the idea that being apart from society requires a form of self- reliance, or independence of thought.  For Thoreau, society is something of a corrupting influence.  The need to conform silences the essence of the individual, something that Thoreau believes can be reclaimed in the realm of solitude.    In this solitude, Thoreau finds the purest form of companionship in the realm of nature.  The line that Thoreau uses of the "littlest pine needle" being his companion is something that Thoreau suggests helps to foster the theme of self- reliance.  Thoreau argues that this driving force to separate oneself from society into a realm of solitude is something that emphasizes reliance on oneself and a sense of independent thinking that is apart from the conformity of society.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Discuss Emerson's theme of self-reliance in Thoreau's Walden.

Clearly the central themes of "Self-Reliance" by Emerson are very strongly expressed in Walden by Thoreau. Emerson's key argument in "Self-Reliance," for example, is of the evil of society and how society is set against self-reliance because of the way in which it is designed to support each member of it by a collective sacrifice of what makes them human. Consider this quote from Emerson's essay:

Society everywhere is a joint-stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs.

Clearly then, Emerson believes that society is something to avoid as it saps the ability of the individual to be self-reliant and to commune with nature. In the same way, in Thoreau's work, we see that he adopts Emerson's belief in his choice of abode and lifestyle:

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbour, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labour of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months.

Thoreau's choice to live out Emerson's belief and make himself self-reliant by living an isolated life away from civilisation and the discoveries he is able to experience in nature as a result clearly elucidates Emerson's argument about society and how it represents the nemesis of self-reliance.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are Thoreau’s views on “self-reliance” and individualism in Walden?

Thoreau's views on self-reliance and individualism, as expressed in Walden, are that these are rare virtues but ones that are indispensable to the life of freedom and self-discovery which he regards as the only worthwhile existence. He sees the State as a violent and coercive force which demands conformity and is therefore fundamentally inimical to both self-reliance and individualism:

For my own part, I should not like to think that I ever rely on the protection of the State. But, if I deny the authority of the State when it presents its tax-bill, it will soon take and waste all my property, and so harass me and my children without end. This is hard.

Thoreau puts his view simply when he says that no splendor or luxury is worth anything compared with the simple dignity of self-reliance.

A simple and independent mind does not toil at the bidding of any prince.

In the last paragraph of the book, he links together his thoughts on self-reliance and individualism with his condemnation of the tyrannical, coercive State which seeks to destroy these qualities in its subjugation of humanity.

There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly.

The State, in other words, must be reliant on the individual, who is reliant only on themself, and the State must recognize this reliance. Everything worthwhile in society comes from the individual conscience and genius, which provide the pattern on which collective endeavors are based.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are Thoreau’s views on “self-reliance” and individualism in Walden?

Throughout the period he describes in Walden, Thoreau explores the concepts of self-reliance and individualism. One of his main purposes in try living alone in the cabin was to learn the extent to which he could get along on his own. Thoreau entered his project committed to the idea of living close to nature, with few possessions, and breaking off whatever dependency on material possessions he had developed. He wanted to find out life’s minimum requirements, “the true necessaries and means of life.” Likewise, he believed that each person had a responsibility to learn such truths for themselves. They should develop and live up to their own ideals, rather than meekly follow what society expected of them.

One passage that explains his views on self-reliance is his explanation of his reasons for going to live in the woods.

I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach. ... I wanted to live ... so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.

Thoreau wrote about individualism in terms of stepping to music in this passage from Walden, which has become very well known.

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on