Walden by Thoreau


Walden by Thoreau

Walden by Thoureau

Source: https://www.danieljoderphotography.com/walden-ponds-a-late-summer-afternoon/

💬 In Walden, Henry David Thoreau invites us to embrace a simpler, self-reliant, and nature-inspired life, guiding us towards greater meaning and fulfilment.

Key Facts

Title: Walden, or Life in the Woods

Published in: 1854

Genre: Memoir (a non-fiction narrative based on author’s personal memories)

Themes: Nature, Transcendentalism, Spirituality, Self-Reliance, and Simplicity

Key Idea: A life that is lived simply and spiritually with solitude and self-reliance is a life well-lived.

Introduction to Walden

Henry David Thoreau, an American poet, author and transcendentalist, sought to explore the experience of leaving society and living in the woods. In the 1850s, he embarked upon an experiment lasting two years, two months, and two days during which he lived in a house in the woods at Walden pond. Thoreau wanted to discover what makes life meaningful, through solitude amongst nature. The result of his experiment was his book “Walden, or Life in the Woods” (1854). The book condenses his time at Walden pond into one year, sharing the themes, main idea, and conclusions he derived from his period of seclusion.

Background to Walden

Walden or Life in the Woods (1854) was written by Henry David Thoreau, an American, writer, poet and orator. Thoreau lived in New England for the majority of his life. He was involved in the Transcendentalism movement (a 19th century philosophical movement of writers, poet, and philosophers in the United states, cantered in New England, that asserted the importance of Nature, individualism and the innate goodness of people) and sought to understand the connections between man and nature more deeply. To do so, he lived in a wooden cabin in relative isolation for around two years. The area in which he lived is refered to as Walden Pond, given the pond on the property, and it is from this pond that Thoreau titled this collection.


Walden is an experimental work by Thoreau that is part essay collection, part memoir, part scientific observation, and part poetry. Divided into multiple chapters, the book shortens his two-year stay at Walden Pond, to the span of one year. The changing seasons in the book is an important literary tool for illustrating Thoreau’s ideas about humanity.

The book opens with a simple declaration that Thoreau is spent two years in Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts, living a simple life supported by no one. Thoreau says that he now resides among the civilised again. The episode of his life in the woods was clearly both experimental and temporary.

In the first chapter called “Economy”, Thoreau shares his thoughts on society and his initial experience at Walden Pond. He talks about how people were skeptical and curious about his pond project but defends his decision to live away from society. He recounts the circumstances of his move to Walden Pond, alongwith a detailed account of the steps he took to construct his rustic habitation and the methods by which he supported himself in the course of his wilderness experiment. The chapter is full of facts and practical advice, but it also explores bigger ideas about living as an individual versus being part of society. Thoreau’s writing style is both scholarly and humorous, making it an interesting read.

Thoreau finished building his cabin in the spring of 1845 and moved in on July 4th of that year. He managed to build it mostly by borrowing or finding materials and tools from other places. The land he lived on belonged to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. He details a cost-analysis of the entire construction project. To earn some money, Thoreau cultivated a small bean-field, which kept him busy in the mornings. But he reserved his afternoons and evenings for contemplation, reading, and taking walks in the countryside. Thoreau believed in living simply and alone, and he loved how little he needed to be happy. He constantly contrasts his freedom with the lives of others who are obsessed with getting more and more material things, highlighting the contentment that can come from living a minimalist life.

Despite living in isolation, Thoreau still feels the presence of society around him. The noisy Fitchburg Railroad often disturbs his peaceful moments at Walden pond, making him reflect on the power of technology. Thoreau also interacts with different people, like farmers, railroad workers, and occasional visitors to Walden. He describes in some detail his association with a Canadian-born woodcutter, Alex Therian, who is grand and sincere in his character, though modest in intellectual attainments. Thoreau occasionally visits his old friends in Concord and takes care of some business. During one visit, he ends up spending a night in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax, as he believes the government supports slavery. One released, Thoreau returns to his solitude at Walden.

Thoreau devotes great attention to nature, observing the changing seasons and the creatures living in the woods. He talks about various animals, like woodchucks and partridges, and sometimes gives them deeper meanings, like spiritual or psychological significance. For example, the hooting loon that plays games with Thoreau represents nature’s playful spirit and its laughter at human efforts. Another example is the ant war he comes across, which makes him think of human warfare. Thoreau’s interest in animals is not just about scientific observation; he sees them as having moral and philosophical lessons to teach him.

As autumn turns to winter, Thoreau begins preparations for the cold weather. He observes animals like squirrels, rabbits, and foxes as they gather food for winter. He also watches birds that are flying away to warmer places. Thoreau also welcomes the pests that come into his cabin to escape the cold. He prepares his walls with plaster to shut out the wind. During the day, he studies the snow and ice, specially the beautiful blue ice of Walden Pond. At night, he listens to the wind outside his door. Thoreau occasionally sees some fishermen come to cut out huge blocks of ice that are shipped off to cities, and contemplates how most of the ice would melt and flow back to Walden Pond. Occasionally, Thoreau receives a visit from a friend, but for the most he is alone. In one chapter, he imagines the life of past residents of Walden Pond, people who are now forgotten, including tradesman and former slaves. Thoreau feels more connected to them than to the wealthy and the privileged classes.

Thoreau spends time at Walden pond, and the nearby ponds, he becomes curious about their layout and depth. He discovers that Walden Pond is not as deep as people believed, proving it is not bottom-less. Thoreau sees the pond as a symbol of infinity that people need in their lives. When winter ends and spring arrives, the ice of Walden Pond melts dramatically, and Thoreau compares it to a grand transformation, like the coming of Judgement Day, when all sins are forgiven.

Thoreau announces that his project at the pond is complete and he returns to civilization on September 6, 1847. The revitalization of the landscape reflects the restoration of the full powers of the human soul. In the final chapter of Walden, Thoreau switches from his narrative observations to a more direct message, urging us to embrace life and live it to the fullest. In a visionary way, he encourages us to seize the untapped potential within ourselves.

Central Idea of Walden

In Walden, Thoreau ultimately sets out to determine what makes life meaningful and concludes that self-reliance, solitude, simplicity and spirituality are all components of a meaningful life. A person must determine what job they should do by what calls to them, and what they can do with conviction. If everybody worked with purpose and appreciates nature and lives with purpose, they can be closer to an ideal kind of life.

Themes in Walden

Themes concerning nature, independence, Transcendentalism and simplicity are interspersed Walden. Some major themes are:

Self-reliance and Independence

One of the main themes throughout Walden is the importance of people developing their own self-reliance and sense of independence. Thoreau believes that it is essential for people to be true to themselves and not just follow what everyone else does. Inspired by one of the central tenets of Transcendentalism, Thoreau abhor the way society makes people conform and be like everyone else. So, he wanted people to break free from those expectations. He thought that living a simple and free life is the best way to find happiness and spiritual fulfilment. Thoreau also didn’t like how society focuses on petty gossip and meaningless things, which he believed kept people from truly growing and improving themselves.

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.

—Walden, Ch.1

Transcendentalism and Spirituality

Throughout Walden, Thoreau’s observations embody transcendentalist values such as individuality, conviction, and the innate goodness of people. He also details the importance of spirituality. Thoreau is critical of organized religion and recommends that people should have a personal connection with God. Thoreau thinks that people often get caught up in petty concerns and miss out on spiritual growth. To live a more ideal life, he encourages embracing nature, relying on oneself and recognising the goodness in others.

The Importance of Nature

Similar to the previous two themes, much of Walden deals with the importance of nature. Thoreau uses the passing of seasons throughout Walden as a way to represent how nature can relate to and reflect humanity. He believes that like nature people should constantly renew and reinvent themselves. By establishing a connection with nature, we can gain a deeper understanding of the world and ourselves. By connecting with nature, we can feel closer to a higher power, like God.

Leading a Simple Life

Finally, if there is one message that can be taken away from Walden, it is Thoreau’s ultimate presentation of a simple life. He believes that society is full of distractions that don’t really matter. A well-lived life is one that is humble and finds joy in simple things. Thoreau suggests having more free time, abstaining from the desires for material things, and not getting caught up in what society says is important. Instead, he invites us to embrace a simpler and more meaningful way of living.

You can read this Introduction to Ecocriticism to understand the genre of Thoreau’s Walden.




© 2023 Md Rustam Ansari [profrustamansari@gmail.com]


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