Walden Summary

Walden is a written account of the two years Henry David Thoreau lives alone in a cabin in the wilderness. Through this experience, Thoreau examines the fundamental elements of humanity.

  • Thoreau builds himself a small cabin by Walden Pond and lives simply.
  • In solitude, Thoreau is free to think about the nature of human consciousness and the natural world.
  • When Thoreau leaves Walden Pond, he is satisfied that he has proven human beings can live well without the trappings of modern civilization.

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Last Updated on May 7, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1135

Henry David Thoreau’s seminal work, Walden, was published in 1854. The book serves as a personal account of two years (from July 1845 to September 1847) that Thoreau spent living primitively in a self-constructed cabin by Walden Pond, located deep in the woods outside of his hometown of Concord, Massachusetts.

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Thoreau introduces Walden by expressing his dismay towards civilized society’s prioritization of wealth and labor over wisdom and experience. Accordingly, he explains his intention to instead live simply—with only the necessities for survival—as a means to cultivate intellectual and spiritual awareness. Throughout Walden, Thoreau embraces solitude and spends a significant amount of time in the wilderness, observing and reflecting upon the sounds, sights, and mysteries of the natural world. His dissections of nature reflect his desire to learn what humanity’s purpose is—both on earth and in the mysterious universe beyond.

As one of the founders of the transcendentalist movement, Thoreau advocates for experiential and introspective pursuits, reflecting his belief that wisdom, not wealth, is the most significant source of nourishment. Seeking truth above all else, Thoreau believes, gives humans greater access to an elevated and spiritual realm of consciousness. Accordingly, he is especially critical—yet also sympathetic—toward those who settle for mediocrity rather than seeking enlightening and authentic experiences.

Thoreau urges the reader to meaningfully engage with the natural world by observing its beauty—contained in the changing seasons, reflected in the pond’s immensely clear water—in order to gain insight into what the necessary ingredients for a purposeful life are. Henceforth, because of his investment in individualism and self-reliance, he builds his own house with natural resources and farms his own crops. Ultimately, Thoreau determines that, by living simply and sustainably, he does not need to rely solely on money to survive.

While living in the woods, Thoreau spends a significant amount of time contemplating how the inner workings of nature reflect human consciousness. For example, he stresses the importance of reading books—especially ancient philosophical texts concerning spiritual truths and the human condition—as a way to enhance an individual’s intellectual purity. Furthermore, Thoreau endeavors to observe both the visual and sonic splendors of nature in their purest forms. While occasionally interrupted by hissing of the passing railroad to Boston, he is afforded the time and solitude to meditate with only the sounds of nature. Thoreau especially enjoys observing how animals and other elements of the wilderness interact, as when he listens to various species of birds in the forest—from whip-poor-wills to owls—as they sing to one another. Solitude allows him to feel fully immersed in nature, and he declares that nature is the best companion.

At the same time, Thoreau explains that he is not entirely disconnected from civilization, being close enough to town to hear the church bells and receive visitors. In describing these visitors, he communicates that he most enjoys spending time with individuals who seek to live a simple life. Thoreau claims that, while he enjoys engaging in intellectual discussions with his occasional visitors, he reveres the other “natural” men living in the woods. He depicts these individuals as free from society’s laws and thus markedly more connected to the environment than the average civilized human. Thoreau occasionally visits the village and describes the respite and serenity he feels after returning to the woods from these visits: he is reminded of why he rebukes the laws, stipulations, and misplaced values that dictate the lives of his neighbors.

As his time living in the woods continues, Thoreau becomes intimately more connected with the environment. For example, he details the process of cultivating his own crops—including the many tasks of tending to his beloved bean-field—and thus illuminates the rewards of working with his hands. As Thoreau compares the ethereal features of Walden Pond—from the clear, exceptionally pure water to the pond’s unusual depth—to those of other ponds nearby, he displays his growing spiritual relationship with the wilderness.

As he depicts the lessons from his time on Walden Pond, Thoreau argues for detaching oneself from the burdens of routine labor. Neighboring farmers, despite living what Thoreau considers “natural” lives, are often still overconsumed with work, leaving little time for leisurely pursuits. Instead, Thoreau urges the reader to seek freedom through adventure, particularly in discovering the unexplored reaches of the earth. He explains how his pursuit for a heightened spiritual existence parallels his inclination towards a primitive lifestyle. Thoreau often refers to fishermen and hunters in particular as being the most sacredly aligned with nature.

In exploring the benefits of these self-sustaining occupations, Thoreau highlights how selfish indulgences often dictate human impulses. He continues to contemplate how industrialization and mass farming practices have negatively impacted how most Americans interact with the environment, particularly in their consumption of meat. Thoreau also distinguishes between human and animal instincts, and argues that, although humans may have greater intellectual faculties than animals, many do not savor or consider their food as they should. Thoreau’s intimate observations of the animals in the woods provide him with insight into the greater questions posed by the natural world.

Thoreau prepares his house to withstand the harsher elements as winter approaches; even though he receives less visitors in the winter, Thoreau believes strongly in maintaining a hospitable residence. He takes special care to illustrate how the landscape transforms during the autumn months, particularly remarking upon the stillness of the lake on misty mornings and the arrival of loons in October. Thoreau describes with vivid detail how the surface of the lake begins to freeze over and become covered in snow during the month of November, and he becomes especially enamored with Walden’s immense depth, which leads him on a quest to determine how far the “long lost bottom” of the pond is. While detailing his winter preparations, Thoreau takes note of how the animals change their habits with winter’s arrival—from the rodents scavenging for the food scraps he leaves outside his house to the packs of hounds hunting foxes.

Though Thoreau acknowledges that the ambiguous laws of nature can overpower intellectual capacity, he nevertheless aims to sync human consciousness with earth’s natural cycles. As spring arrives, symbolizing nature’s reawakening from the dark days of winter and marking the dawn of a new beginning, Thoreau evaluates the human mind’s sources of nourishment. An important goal for Thoreau throughout Walden is to encourage his readers to navigate change with grace and resolve: both mentally, through conscious meditation, and physically, by immersing themselves in the natural world. Thoreau elucidates the transcendentalist ideals of individualism, emphasizing how having the freedom to pursue one’s dreams—while seeking the true, simple, and “essential” facts of life in lieu of wealth and status—enriches the spirit.

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