Student Question

What does the loon symbolize in Walden?

Quick answer:

In Walden, the loon can be seen to symbolize nature, especially nature's joy and elusory qualities. Thoreau attempts to catch the loon but is never successful, and the loon's laughter makes it seem as if the bird recognizes his triumph, "confident of his own resources," which come entirely naturally to the loon and which Thoreau cannot fully grasp.

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Thoreau especially associates the loon with its laughter, calling this laughter the "wildest sound" nature makes. The loon becomes for him a symbol of nature, especially of nature's joy and elusive otherness. Thoreau finds himself identifying with this bird, saying he is not lonelier than it is, but ultimately he emphasizes the loon's difference from the human.

The loon is one of nature's companions that Thoreau mentions frequently, probably because its laugh penetrated his consciousness. While the word "loony" to describe someone as insane comes from the odd laughing cry of the loon, Thoreau never associates the bird with madness.

Instead, its laugh seems to reflect his own joy in living close to nature. The loon also represents nature's self-sufficiency and otherness. One day, Thoreau chases a loon with the object of capturing it, but it evades his grasp. He realizes this is because, as a wholly natural creature, it thinks fundamentally differently from humans. This means that Thoreau can't anticipate what it will do next. After his failure to catch it he writes,

I concluded that he laughed in derision of my efforts, confident of his own resources.

The loon is beautiful; it is laughing; it is free. It is ultimately elusive and does not need humankind. Thoreau delights in this creature as the expression of what nature is.

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