By Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
A Study Guide
Cummings Guides Home..|..Contact This Site
Type of Work
Publication and Title
Writing Approach, Style
Point of View
Writing Style
Use of Anaphora
Thoreau's Arrest
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Complete Text on One Page
Annotated Text: U of Iowa
Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"
Study Guide Prepared by By Michael J. Cummings...© 2011
Type of Work

.......Walden is a book-length series of essays centering on the ideas and activities of Henry David Thoreau during his residence at Walden Pond in northeastern Massachusetts, near Concord, from July 1845 to September 1847. 

Publication and Title

.......The Boston firm of Ticknor and Fields published the work in 1854 under the title Walden, or Life in the Woods. Thoreau shortened the title to Walden upon publication of the second edition of the work in 1862.


.......Thoreau writes of his experiences at and near Walden Pond, a lake about twenty miles west of Boston and two miles south of Concord. There, he built a small dwelling on the northern shore of the pond. If one walked around the pond, he would cover 1.7 miles. Thoreau frequently ventured into the woods in the vicinity and often visited the nearby town of Concord for news and supplies. 

Point of View

.......Thoreau uses first-person point of view and frequently switches to second-person point of view to address the readers, as the following passage from Chapter 1, "Economy," demonstrates:

Be sure that you give the poor the aid they most need, though it be your example which leaves them far behind. If you give money, spend yourself with it, and do not merely abandon it to them. We make curious mistakes sometimes. Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross. It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune. If you give him money, he will perhaps buy more rags with it. I was wont to pity the clumsy Irish laborers who cut ice on the pond, in such mean and ragged clothes, while I shivered in my more tidy and somewhat more fashionable garments, till, one bitter cold day, one who had slipped into the water came to my house to warm him, and I saw him strip off three pairs of pants and two pairs of stockings ere he got down to the skin, though they were dirty and ragged enough, it is true, and that he could afford to refuse the extra garments which I offered him, he had so many intra ones. This ducking was the very thing he needed. 

.......The tone of Walden ranges from lighthearted to deeply serious. Thoreau delights in the activities of a partridge or mouse in one chapter, expresses awe at the marvels of nature in another chapter, and soberly comments on morality, philosophy, religion, and related subjects in another chapter.


Henry David Thoreau: Author of Walden and a native of Concord, Massachusetts.
Wood-Chopper and Post-Maker: French Canadian of Thoreau's acquaintance. Although he lacks a formal education, he is interested in books. Thoreau translates a passage from Homer's Iliad for him. Thoreau says of him, "A more simple and natural man it would be hard to find. Vice and disease, which cast such a sombre moral hue over the world, seemed to have hardly any existence for him. He was about twenty-eight years old, and had left Canada and his father's house a dozen years before to work in the States, and earn money to buy a farm . . . perhaps in his native country ("Visitors"). 
John Field: Impoverished Irish-American farmhand in whose dwelling Thoreau takes shelter during a storm. Thoreau describes him as honest and hard-working but aimless and inefficient. "He had rated it as a gain in coming to America, that here you could get tea, and coffee, and meat every day," Thoreau says. "But the only true America is that country where you are at liberty to pursue such a mode of life as may enable you to do without these, and where the state does not endeavor to compel you to sustain the slavery and war and other superfluous expenses which directly or indirectly result from the use of such things" ("Baker Farm"). If Field built his own little house (as Thoreau did) and gave up his desire for meat, tea, and coffee, he could live a better life, the author maintains. Thoreau's attitude toward Field, overall, is patronizing.
Mrs. Field: Wife of John Field. Thoreau criticizes her, calling her a woman with a "round greasy face and bare breast" with a "never absent mop in one hand, and yet no effects of it visible any where" ("Baker Farm").
Children of Mr. and Mrs. Field
Hollowell: Man from whom Thoreau purchased a farm before building his cottage at Walden. He sold the farm back to the Hollowell after the latter's wife regretted her husband's decision to sell the farm to Thoreau. Thoreau sold the farm for the same price at which he purchased it.
Ellery Channing: Minister who visited Thoreau at Walden. Channing was an organizer of groups opposing slavery, war, and drunkenness.
James Collins: Irish worker on the Fitchburg Railroad. Thoreau buys his shanty and uses its boards to build his Walden cottage.
Mrs. Collins: Wife of James Collins.
Seeley: Irishman who pulls nails, staples, and spikes from the boards of the Collins shanty and keeps them for himself. He does so whenever Thoreau leaves the shanty site to haul the boards to Walden. 
Cato Ingraham: Deceased slave who once occupied a house east of Thoreau's land at Walden.
Brister Freeman: Deceased slave who planted apple trees down the road from Walden Pond. The trees still yield apples.
Fenda: Wife of Brister Freeman. She was a fortuneteller.
Squire Cummings: Owner of Brister Freeman.
Stratten Family: People who once had an orchard in the vicinity of Walden Pond.
Zilpha: Black woman who once made linen for Concord residents. English soldiers burned her house in the War of 1812.
Irish Laborers: Men who cut blocks of ice from the pond for commercial use.
Poet: Visitor to Walden.
Runaway Slave: Man who arrives at Walden Pond on his way to Canada. Thoreau helps him.
Philosopher: Winter visitor to Walden.
Old Fisherman: Visitor to Walden with whom Thoreau occasionally goes fishing. He can no longer hear, but Thoreau finds him a welcome companion.
Hunter: Old man who visited Walden once a year in warm weather to bathe in the pond.
Weston Squire: Man searching for his hunting dogs.
Sam Nutting: Man who hunted bears and traded their skins in Concord for rum.
Le Grosse: Neighbor of Nutting.
Mischievous Boys: Boys who burn down a hut on an election day.
Gilian Baker: Owner of a cat whose long fur on its sides flattens out to resemble wings. Baker lives in Lincoln, about two miles south of Concord Battlefield.
Mrs. Baker: Wife of Gilian Baker. 
Wyman: Deceased potter who lived in the woods near Lincoln. He refused to pay taxes.


.......Thoreau opens Walden with a message for his readers: Live your life according to your convictions; have the courage to be different, regardless of what other people say. 
......."Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion," he says. "What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate" ("Economy").
.......Unfortunately, too many people go the way of crowd, allowing others to determine or dictate their destiny. And so, they do not live life fully; something is missing. In fact, Thoreau says, "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" ("Economy").
.......Thoreau, however, listens to his own inner voice. He even ignores the so-called wisdom of older people: "You may say the wisest thing you can, old man—you who have lived seventy years, not without honor of a kind—I hear an irresistible voice which invites me away from all that. One generation abandons the enterprises of another like stranded vessels" ("Economy").
.......Thoreau describes the cottage he constructed in woods near Walden Pond, about one mile from Concord, Mass. The dwelling is on the land of his friend, fellow writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. The cottage has a room fifteen feet long and ten feet wide, an attic, a closet, windows on each side of the cottage, and a brick fireplace. Thoreau paid $28.50 for the materials, which include boards and nails from the shanty of an Irishman with whom he struck a bargain. He also incurred expenses for oil, clothing, household goods and tools, and various other items. 
......."My furniture, part of which I made myself . . . consisted of a bed, a table, a desk, three chairs, a looking-glass three inches in diameter, a pair of tongs and andirons, a kettle, a skillet, and a frying-pan, a dipper, a wash-bowl, two knives and forks, three plates, one cup, one spoon, a jug for oil, a jug for molasses, and a japanned lamp," Thoreau notes ("Economy").
.......In addition, he borrows some needed items, such as an axe. Before completing the dwelling, he plants beans, potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips. Thoreau takes up residence in his new home on July 4, 1845. He still has plastering to do and a chimney to build.
.......Reminiscing, Thoreau says he once decided to purchase a farm and live on it. It belonged to a man named Hollowell. But when he had the deed in hand, Mrs.Hollowell regretted her and her husband's decision to sell the place, and she asked Thoreau to sell the farm back to them. He did.

The real attractions of the Hollowell farm, to me, were: its complete retirement, being, about two miles from the village, half a mile from the nearest neighbor, and separated from the highway by a broad field; its bounding on the river, which the owner said protected it by its fogs from frosts in the spring, though that was nothing to me; the gray color and ruinous state of the house and barn, and the dilapidated fences, which put such an interval between me and the last occupant; the hollow and lichen-covered apple trees, nawed by rabbits, showing what kind of neighbors I should have; but above all, the recollection I had of it from my earliest voyages up the river, when the house was concealed behind a dense grove of red maples, through which I heard the house-dog bark. ("Where I Lived, and What I Lived for")
.......But Thoreau retains the desire to for a place in a secluded rural setting. His purpose in fulfilling this desire at Walden, he says, is 
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 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, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my text. ("Where I Lived, and What I Lived for")
.......Thoreau spends part of his time at Walden reading books. He keeps a copy of Homer's Illiad on a table in his house. Occasionally, he opens the book and reads a few pages. It was not for nought, he says, that Alexander the Great took The Iliad with him wherever he went on his long marches in foreign lands. 
.......On some days, when the beauty of nature and a bright sun beckon, "I sat in my sunny door from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller's wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time" ("Sounds").
.......Thoreau's house sits on the side of a hill. In his front yard, plants thrive, including johnswort, shrub oaks, goldenrod, sandcherry, and groundnut. The sounds are pleasant to listen to—hawks, pigeons, small ground animals. But there are also the sounds of civilization—in particular, from a little more than a third of a mile to the south, the sounds of the Fitchburg Railroad. Thoreau says, 
The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer's yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous country traders from the other side. As they come under one horizon, they shout their warning to get off the track to the other, heard sometimes through the circles of two towns. Here come your groceries, country; your rations, countrymen! Nor is there any man so independent on his farm that he can say them nay . . . When I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don't know), it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it. ("Sounds")
.......The railroad becomes a familiar sight in society. It brings commerce, tells men the correct time, takes people to far off places, and disturbs Thoreau's sleep. After a train passes, Walden becomes serenely quiet again—save for the sounds of nature, such as the song of a whippoorwill, or "the faint rattle of a carriage" ("Sounds") on a distant road. Thoreau loves to hear the screech owls—"their wailing, their doleful responses, trilled along the woodside"—and the hoot owls. The latter make "the most melancholy sound in nature," he says ("Sounds").
.......One evening, Thoreau enjoys a walk along the shore of the pond even though it is cloudy, windy, and cool. Bullfrogs croak, the whippoorwill sings, the leaves flutter, and the pond ripples with little waves. On some nights when he returns from walks, he finds tokens visitors have left—flowers picked nearby, an evergreen wreath, or a walnut chip or leaf bearing a name written in pencil.
.......Most of the time he is alone at Walden.
......."I have my horizon bounded by woods all to myself," he says ("Solitude").
.......Being alone with nature does not make him melancholy or lonely, however. Even when it rains, he is happy. For storms make music, and rain makes his crops grow. When violent weather comes, he enjoys the cozy protection of his little house. He does not miss the hubbub at "the depot, the post-office, the bar-room, the meeting-house, the school-house, the grocery, or busy sections of big cities" ("Solitude").
.......Thoreau says, "I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers" ("Solitude").
.......Though he enjoys solitude, Thoreau does not eschew visitors, and occasionally one comes his way. One of them is an escaped slave on his way to Canada. Thoreau helps him. 
.......Meanwhile, Thoreau's bean crop thrives. He has such a bounty of beans that he sells a goodly part of his crop for $8.71 and uses the money to meet many of his needs.
.......Thoreau goes into Concord every day or two—generally in the afternoon, after spending the morning reading, writing, or doing outdoor work. In town, he takes in the latest gossip. 
......."In homoeopathic doses, [the gossip] was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of leaves and the peeping of frogs," he says ("The Village").
.......During his visits to town, he also buys necessities such as rye and Indian meal. One afternoon when he goes to Concord to pick up a shoe at the cobbler's, he is arrested and jailed because "I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house" ("The Village"). He is released the next day after someone pays his back taxes, then gets his shoe and goes home. 
.......Government representatives are the only people who ever bother him, he notes. Others respect him and his abode. 
......."The tired rambler could rest and warm himself by my fire," he says, "the literary amuse himself with the few books on my table, or the curious, by opening my closet door, see what was left of my dinner, and what prospect I had of a supper" ("The Village").
.......Thoreau does not always eat indoors. Often, he dines in woods or along a road. The fare is huckleberries and blueberries picked fresh when they are in full flavor.
......."It is a vulgar error to suppose that you have tasted huckleberries who never plucked them," he says. "The ambrosial and essential part of the fruit is lost with the bloom which is rubbed off in the market cart, and they become mere provender" ("The Ponds").
.......Fish from Walden Pond is a frequent entree when he dines in. Sometimes he fishes in a boat with a neighbor, and sometimes—after returning from town in the evening—he fishes by the light of the moon while "serenaded by owls and foxes, and hearing, from time to time, the creaking note of some unknown bird close at hand" ("The Ponds").
.......The pond—about a half-mile long—is deep and pure, he says. Having no detectable inlet, it receives its water from the clouds and from evaporation. The water is so clear that one can see the bottom in some places. While fishing for pickerel through a hole in the ice in the winter, he says, he accidentally dropped an axe through the hole. But thanks to the clarity of the water, he was able to see and retrieve it with a slip knot on the end of a long birch pole. 
.......There are three other ponds in the vicinity: Flint's Pond, Goose Pond, and White Pond. But only White Pond has the same crystal-clear water characteristic of Walden Pond. It is two-and-a-half miles to the west. 
.......Among the fish in Walden Pond, besides pickerel, are perch, pouts, shiners, chivins, and eels. In addition, there are a few mussels. In and around the pond are frogs, turtles, minks, muskrats, ducks, geese, kingfishers, and fish hawks. 
.......One day while walking through the woods, Thoreau passes through Pleasant Meadow, part of the Baker farm. Thoreau had once considered purchasing the farm. Rain begins to pour, forcing him to take shelter under a pine tree for half-an-hour. Soon he is standing in a pool of water, just as thunder rumbles. He makes a dash for a hut, which supposedly is uninhabited. But when he enters it, he finds John Field, an Irishman, along with his wife and children. Field is a hard-working farmhand who makes very little money for his effort—$10 to dig up an acre of land for a local farmer, along with the right to use the land for a year. Thoreau tries to persuade him to build his own place. If he imitated Thoreau—who does not rely on meat, butter, and milk as his main fare and does not drink coffee or tea—he could get along well. Field could catch plenty of fish for his family and harvest wild-growing fruits. However, Field wants to pursue the American dream his own way. But Thoreau doubts whether he will ever graduate from his hard labor in the fields.
.......During his stay at Walden, Thoreau realizes that fishing and hunting spring from man's primitive side as opposed to his spiritual side. He begins to make progress in moving away from his primitive side. "There is unquestionably this instinct in me which belongs to the lower orders of creation," he says; yet with every year I am less a fisherman . . . " ("Higher Laws").
.......He develops an aversion to animal food, explaining that.
The practical objection to animal food in my case was its uncleanness; and besides, when I had caught and cleaned and cooked and eaten my fish, they seemed not to have fed me essentially. It was insignificant and unnecessary, and cost more than it came to. A little bread or a few potatoes would have done as well, with less trouble and filth. ("Higher Laws")
.......Thoreau also prefers water to coffee, tea, and especially alcoholic beverages. If he has to be intoxicated by anything, he says, it should be by the air he breathes.
.......As to morality, he says, "Goodness is the only investment that never fails" ("Higher Laws"). He also says,
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. ("Higher Laws")
.......One day, Thoreau "visits" himself, becoming a hermit and a poet who talk to each other. The hermit comments on the silence in the woods. He has not heard a locust for three hours; the pigeons apparently are all asleep. Then he hears rustling in the leaves. He wonders, "Is it some ill-fed village hound yielding to the instinct of the chase? or the lost pig which is said to be in these woods, whose tracks I saw after the rain?" ("Brute Neighbors").
.......He asks the poet how the world is treating him. The poet says the great sight he has beheld so far on this day is the clouds, which show up in all the old paintings. The poet and the hermit go off to catch fish.
.......Thoreau then discusses animals, which he calls his "brute neighbors." A strange kind of mouse inhabits his house. It can climb the sides of the room like a squirrel. When Thoreau finishes his meals, it comes over and eats the crumbs, showing no fear. On one occasion, it runs up his leg and onto his sleeve. He sends one of these strange creatures to a naturalist, who finds it interesting to study. 
.......Thoreau becomes interested in the habits of partridges, in particular the way the young observe their mother's calls to evade humans. If a person approaches, the mother signals them to disperse, and they become part of the landscape—resembling dried leaves or twigs—making them difficult to detect. He also studies birds and otters and witnesses an all-out battle between red ants and blacks ants. These insects are fighting fiercely to the death, literally tearing one another limb from limb. He takes into the house a wood chip on which three ants are locked in combat and places it under a microscope.
Holding a microscope to the first-mentioned red ant, I saw that, though he was assiduously gnawing at the near fore leg of his enemy, having severed his remaining feeler, his own breast was all torn away, exposing what vitals he had there to the jaws of the black warrior, whose breastplate was apparently too thick for him to pierce; and the dark carbuncles of the sufferer's eyes shone with ferocity such as war only could excite. They struggled half an hour longer under the tumbler, and when I looked again the black soldier had severed the heads of his foes from their bodies, and the still living heads were hanging on either side of him like ghastly trophies at his saddle-bow, still apparently as firmly fastened as ever, and he was endeavoring with feeble struggles, being without feelers and with only the remnant of a leg, and I know not how many other wounds, to divest himself of them; which at length, after half an hour more, he accomplished. I raised the glass, and he went off over the window-sill in that crippled state. . . .I never learned which party was victorious, nor the cause of the war; but I felt for the rest of that day as if I had had my feelings excited and harrowed by witnessing the struggle, the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle before my door. ("Brute Neighbors")
Thoreau ends his discussion of his brute neighbors with a description of the wild sound of the loon and the ways ducks escape the guns of hunters.
.......The leaves begin taking on their autumn colors in September, and in October wasps by the thousands begin taking refuge in Thoreau's cottage from the coming cold weather. 
Moles find a home in his cellar, along with Thoreau's store of potatoes, which they nibble on. 
.......Meanwhile, he builds a chimney from old bricks after studying masonry. He also plasters the walls of his house, making it warmer. 
All the attractions of a house were concentrated in one room; it was kitchen, chamber, parlor, and keeping-room; and whatever satisfaction parent or child, master or servant, derive from living in a house, I enjoyed it all. Cato says, the master of a family . . . must have in his rustic villa "cellam oleariam, vinariam, dolia multa, uti lubeat caritatem expectare, et rei, et virtuti, et gloriae erit," that is, "an oil and wine cellar, many casks, so that it may be pleasant to expect hard times; it will be for his advantage, and virtue, and glory. I had in my cellar a firkin of potatoes, about two quarts of peas with the weevil in them, and on my shelf a little rice, a jug of molasses, and of rye and Indian meal a peck each. ("House-Warming")
.......Thoreau tells of blacks who once lived in the region. One was Cato Ingraham, the slave of Duncan Ingraham, of Concord, who constructed a house for Cato in Walden woods east of what is now Thoreau's bean field. Cato may have come from Guinea. Another was Zilpha, who made linen for Concord residents and was noted for her excellent singing voice. English troops burned her house—which was at the corner of Thoreau's property—during the War of 1812. A third was Brister Freeman, the slave of Squire Cummings, who lived just down the road. The apple trees he planted continue to bear fruit. His wife, Fenda, was a fortuneteller.
.......Occasionally, Thoreau has visitors.
Sometimes, notwithstanding the snow, when I returned from my walk at evening I crossed the deep tracks of a woodchopper leading from my door, and found his pile of whittlings on the hearth, and my house filled with the odor of his pipe. Or on a Sunday afternoon, if I chanced to be at home, I heard the cronching of the snow made by the step of a long-headed farmer, who from far through the woods sought my house, to have a social "crack"; one of the few of his vocation who are "men on their farms";(13) who donned a frock instead of a professor's gown, and is as ready to extract the moral out of church or state as to haul a load of manure from his barn-yard. We talked of rude and simple times, when men sat about large fires in cold, bracing weather, with clear heads; and when other dessert failed, we tried our teeth on many a nut which wise squirrels have long since abandoned, for those which have the thickest shells are commonly empty. ("Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors") 
.......A poet also visits Thoreau, sometimes traipsing through deep snow or tempests to reach Walden. So does Ellery Channing, a minister who organized groups to oppose slavery, war, and drunkenness. 
.......During the cold months of winter, Thoreau spends most of his time alone except for the animals that entertain him—muskrats, owls, mice, squirrels, foxes hunting for partridge, red squirrels, rabbits. Sometimes Thoreau puts out sweet corn for the animals. There are birds, too, that catch his attention, such as chickadees and jays.
.......At times, there is a great deal of activity at Walden Pond from laborers cutting blocks of ice for merchants.
.......When spring thaws the pond and the countryside, Thoreau enjoys another show, the rebirth of nature.
.......Thoreau concludes the recounting of his stay at Walden Pond with these observations: 
I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now. ("Conclusion")


Discovery and Enlightenment

.......In Chapter 2 ("Where I Lived, and What I Lived for") Thoreau enunciates the main theme, discovery and enlightenment, when he explains why he decided to live alone in the woods for a time.

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 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, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it . . . .

.......In choosing to live alone in the woods, Thoreau also chose to rely primarily on himself to sustain his body and his mind. He devoted substantial portions of the book to how he built his house, how he planted and harvested his crops, how he obtained supplementary food through fishing and foraging, how he entertained himself and enriched his life by observing nature and forest life, how he educated himself through books and contemplation, and how he remained active in the world through visits to Concord and through positions he took on major issues of the day, such as slavery, and activities he undertook to promote his positions.

Respect for Nature and Wildlife

.......Throughout Walden, Thoreau exhibits respect for nature and its wildlife. His experience at Walden, in fact, breeds in him a desire to give up his gun and fishing pole. Of Walden Pond, he says in "The Ponds":

I am its stony shore, 
And the breeze that passes o'er; 
In the hollow of my hand 
Are its water and its sand, 
And its deepest resort 
Lies high in my thought.
Opposition to Slavery

.......Thoreau makes many references to the inhumanity of slavery in Walden, written before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. When Thoreau encountered a runaway slave at Walden, "I helped [him] toward the northstar," he says. 

Living Simply

.......Less is more, Thoreau declares in Walden. Living simply frees you of worry about material possessions and rewards you with more time for what really counts in life. Throughout his book, Thoreau returns again and again to the theme of a simple life. Following are quotations from the first chapter, "Economy," that focus on this theme.

The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward. 

It is desirable that a man be clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark, and that he live in all respects so compactly and preparedly, that, if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety. 

Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas! we do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveller with their chattering and unmusical notes. 

if one would live simply and eat only the crop which he raised, and raise no more than he ate, and not exchange it for an insufficient quantity of more luxurious and expensive things, he would need to cultivate only a few rods of ground, 

I learned from my two years' experience that it would cost incredibly little trouble to obtain one's necessary food, even in this latitude; that a man may use as simple a diet as the animals, and yet retain health and strength. I have made a satisfactory dinner, satisfactory on several accounts, simply off a dish of purslane (Portulaca oleracea) which I gathered in my cornfield, boiled and salted. 

Encroachment of Technology

.......Thoreau acknowledges the importance of technological advancement, represented in Chapter 4 ("Sounds") by the railroad. But he also bemoans its detrimental effect on the environment and on his peaceful existence at Walden. Disturbed that the railroad carries trees stripped from forests, he writes, "Warned by the whizzing sound [of a train], I look up from my book and see some tall pine, hewn on far northern hills, which has winged its way over the Green Mountains and the Connecticut, shot like an arrow through the township within ten minutes." He then comments that " I will not have my eyes put out and my ears spoiled by [the locomotive's] smoke and steam and hissing."

Social Criticism

Thoreau criticizes American society for not doing more to improve itself. For example, in the following paragraph, Thoreau criticizes the town of Concord for failing to take the necessary steps to improve its educational system.

We boast that we belong to the nineteenth century and are making the most rapid strides of any nation. But consider how little this village does for its own culture. I do not wish to flatter my townsmen, nor to be flattered by them, for that will not advance either of us. We need to be provoked, —goaded like oxen, as we are, into a trot. We have a comparatively decent system of common schools, schools for infants only; but excepting the half-starved Lyceum in the winter, and latterly the puny beginning of a library suggested by the state, no school for ourselves. We spend more on almost any article of bodily aliment or ailment than on our mental aliment. It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure—if they are indeed so well off—to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives. Shall the world be confined to one Paris or one Oxford forever? Cannot students be boarded here and get a liberal education under the skies of Concord? Can we not hire some Abelard to lecture to us? Alas! what with foddering the cattle and tending the store, we are kept from school too long, and our education is sadly neglected. ("Reading")
Writing Approach and Style

.......While living at Walden Pond, Thoreau wrote notes for use in Walden and other works. Then he pieced together his notes, memories, impressions, and so on to write of his days at Walden and the thoughts he incubated there on social, moral, and other issues. He did not necessarily want the reader to imitate his lifestyle; rather, he wanted to prod the reader into thinking independently.
.......His writing style is succinct. His sentences are sometimes short and—though he preached simplicity in writing—sometimes long and involved. Following are examples from the first chapter, "Economy," of the long and the short of his sentence structure.

Example 1
The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. 

Example 2
What I have heard of Bramins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging suspended, with their heads downward, over flames; or looking at the heavens over their shoulders "until it becomes impossible for them to resume their natural position, while from the twist of the neck nothing but liquids can pass into the stomach;" or dwelling, chained for life, at the foot of a tree; or measuring with their bodies, like caterpillars, the breadth of vast empires; or standing on one leg on the tops of pillars,—even these forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes which I daily witness.

.......Allusions and obscure references occur frequently in Walden. An example is this passage in "Economy": It is said that Deucalion and Pyrrha created men by throwing stones over their heads behind them. (In Greek mythology, Deucalion was the son of Prometheus, who created humankind. Pyrrha was Deucalion's wife. The king of the gods, Zeus, decided to destroy humanity in a great flood, but Deucalion and Pyrrha survived on an ark they constructed. After the ark came to rest on a mountain, they created a new crop of humans by throwing stones of Mother Earth backward, over their shoulders. Deucalion's stones became males; Pyrrha's became females.)
.......Thoreau was deft at fashioning quotable and pithy axioms. Here are examples:
  • The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly. 
  • I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion. ("Economy")
  • 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. ("Economy") 
  • I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. ("Economy") 
  • To be awake is to be alive. ("Where I Lived and What I Lived For")
  • A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone. ("Where I Lived and What I Lived For")
  • I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when nobody calls." ("Solitude")
  • Things do not change; we change. ("Conclusion")
  • "What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new." - Walden
Thoreau's Use of Anaphora

.......Thoreau frequently uses anaphora, a figure of speech in which a word or group of words occurs at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or sentences. Following are examples.

Some have asked what I got to eat; if I did not feel lonesome; if I was not afraid; and the like.

Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt? Why should they begin digging their graves as soon as they are born? 

It is hard to have a southern overseer; it is worse to have a northern one. 

I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion. I would rather ride on earth in an ox cart with a free circulation, than go to heaven in the fancy car of an excursion train and breathe a malaria all the way. 

When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence,—that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of the reality. ("Where I Lived and What I Lived for")

Yet I experienced sometimes that the most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man. ("Solitude")

Many of our houses, both public and private, with their almost innumerable apartments, their huge halls and their cellars for the storage of wines and other munitions of peace, appear to me extravagantly large for their inhabitants. ("Visitors")

Need help with Shakespeare? Click here for Study Guides on the Complete Works

.......Examples of symbols in Walden are the following:

Walden Pond: (1) Thoreau's self-reliance, implied by the fact that the pond has no detectable inlet; (2) the depth of Thoreau's convictions. Regarding the latter, note the following passage in "The Pond in Winter": 

I fathomed it easily with a cod-line and a stone weighing about a pound and a half, and could tell accurately when the stone left the bottom, by having to pull so much harder before the water got underneath to help me. The greatest depth was exactly one hundred and two feet; to which may be added the five feet which it has risen since, making one hundred and seven. This is a remarkable depth for so small an area; yet not an inch of it can be spared by the imagination. What if all ponds were shallow? Would it not react on the minds of men? I am thankful that this pond was made deep and pure for a symbol. 
Ice Cutters: Society's invasion of nature for profit. The icemen cut away ten thousand tons of ice for commercial use. 
Railroad: (1) Progress; (2) technology's invasion of the countryside; technology's unwholesome effects on civilization. 
Spring: Rebirth. Thoreau begins "giving birth" to Walden in the spring of 1845.
War of the Ants: The brutality of war between humans.
The Bean-Field: Thoreau's connection with the earth and nature. Note the following passage in the chapter entitled "The Bean-Field": "I came to love my rows, my beans, though so many more than I wanted. They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus." (In Greek mythology, Antaeus was a Libyan giant who challenged all passers-by to a wrestling match. He was unbeatable so long as his feet touched the earth, his mother. Hercules defeated him by lifting him off the ground and crushing him with his arms.
July 4: Date of Thoreau's personal declaration of independence. (He moved into his new home at Walden Pond on July 4, 1845.)

Thoreau's Arrest

.......In late summer during Thoreau's first year at Walden Pond, he was arrested when he was in Concord to pick up a shoe at a cobbler's. "I was seized and put into jail," Thoreau says,  because, as I have elsewhere related, I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the state which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house."
.......The arresting officer was Sam Staples, a tax collector and constable. He was attempting to collect poll taxes. After spending the night in jail, Thoreau gained his freedom the following morning after a woman paid his back taxes. The incident demonstrated Thoreau's willingness to back up his words with action. 

Thoreau and Transcendentalism

.......Thoreau believed every human being has inborn knowledge that enables him to recognize and understand moral truth without benefit of knowledge obtained through the physical senses. Using this inborn knowledge, an individual can make a moral decision without relying on information gained through everyday living, education, and experimentation. One may liken this inborn knowledge to conscience or intuition. 
.......Thoreau and others who believed that this inborn knowledge served as a moral guiding force were known as transcendentalists—that is, they believed that this inner knowledge was a higher, transcendent form of knowledge than that which came through the senses. Because Thoreau and his fellow transcendentalists trusted their own inner light as a moral guiding force, they were possessed of a fierce spirit of self-reliance. (A central theme in Walden is self-reliance.) They were individualists; they liked to make decisions for themselves. If the government adopted a policy or a law that offended their consciences, they generally reacted strongly. 
.......Walden and other works by Thoreau express his reaction and measured response to government dictums that legitimized slavery and the Mexican War. Transcendentalism, as Thoreau’s moral philosophy was called, did not originate with him or his fellow transcendentalists in New England but with the German philosopher Emanuel Kant. He used the word transcendental to refer to intuitive or innate knowledge—knowledge which is a priori rather than a posteriori. 


Study Questions and Essay Topics
  • How do Concord residents view Thoreau's decision to live alone at Walden Pond?
  • Would you characterize Thoreau as a hermit?
  • If he were alive today, would Thoreau install a computer and Internet connection in his cottage at Walden Pond?
  • Write an essay evaluating the impact of Thoreau's writing and ideas on later writers and thinkers. Use library and Internet research. 
  • Write an essay that explains the transcendentalist movement.
  • Thoreau opposed the Mexican War. Why?
  • Do you agree with Thoreau's observation that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation"? Explain your answer.