A Walk in the Woods Analysis
by Bill Bryson

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Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

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Bryson's primary technique is humor. He keeps his readers entertained by putting wisecracks and shrewd observations into the mouth of his characters, himself most of all. This attention to humor transforms what could be a rather dull account of day after day of walking into a lighthearted, fun narration. Even the potentially bland passages in which Bryson comments on the social and political ills threatening the Appalachian Trail are infused with his authorial personality, making it more like a friendly conversation than a journalistic report on the state of America's environment.

The alternation between narrative and background information is another important technique utilized by Bryson. Simply recounting the history of the Appalachian Trail would, for most readers, make for rather dull reading. On the other hand, only relating the particulars of his single experience with the Appalachian Trail would cheat the readers of context. Bryson gives both by alternating between storytelling and journalistic modes. When he and Katz come across a particularly nice shelter, for example, Bryson takes the opportunity to reflect back on the organization which builds and maintains shelters along the trail and to consider their performance. The result is a book at once entertaining and encyclopedic in the volume of information it offers. More or less the entire history of the trail's founding is offered in brief, readable form, as is a compelling story about two men and their backpacks.

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Bryson's journey into the woods is more than a humorous romp through the ups and downs of life on the Appalachian Trail. It is Bryson's elegy to a disappearing wilderness and his call to arms for all those who would save it. It is a celebration of America's commitment to preservation that also critiques the apathy and greed which threaten America's natural resources.

More than giving the reader a glimpse of natural wonders, A Walk in the Woods gives Americans a glimpse of their own characters, blemishes and all. Bryson calls our attention to the bad taste and laziness of Americans, the twin causes of much of the unsightly development of the Appalachian Mountains. While he does this, he raises complicated questions about the use of forests. Are they to be enjoyed visually or used as resources? Is it possible to do both responsibly? To do the latter, Bryson informs us, requires a far greater political commitment to the environment than has been experienced in these United States since the time of Theodore Roosevelt.

In addition to exploring the quirks and flaws of America's relationship with the natural world, Bryson meditates on the psychological effects of isolation. Taking a very long walk in the woods skews one's perception, stripping the non-essential things from view and allowing for personal revelation. More important than self-discovery was Bryson's realization that in the harsh environs of the backwoods, people showed themselves to be truly charitable and kind. Signs of solidarity were not hard to come by amidst the peaks and valleys of the Appalachian range.

1. How does the character of Bill Bryson change over the course of the narrative? Is he the same man after walking his last miles in Maine that he was when discovering the trail in his backyard?

2. How does Stephen Katz function as Bryson's foil? Does he offer only comic relief or does the juxtaposition of his and Bryson's character reveal more about both?

3. Does Bryson's alternation between the story and the history of the trail work? In other words, is A Walk in the Woods a seamless narrative or is it a amalgamation of encyclopedic knowledge and old-fashioned storytelling?

4. What do you think of Bryson's tone? Are his jokes always funny, or do they occasionally enter the realm of bad taste? Are his observations on environmental management astute or preachy?

5. Whenever Bryson reenters civilization, he always experiences a kind of shock. Why do you think this never goes away, even after numerous periods of...

(The entire section is 2,703 words.)