Walden Summary and Analysis
Chapter Four "Sounds"
Thoreau reminds the reader that focusing only on books neglects a more universal language. It is important to always be alert and to see all of life. That first summer at Walden, Thoreau didn't read books and he was not always occupied hoeing his beans. Some days, he would sit on his doorstep from dawn till noon, amid the trees and the birds, always smiling and answering their trills with chuckles. This taught him about contemplation, valued by Eastern philosophers. He lived in the moment and though his townsmen would have thought him idle, he was living as naturally as the birds and flowers.
He found every aspect of his life to be a "pleasant pastime" and promises that if people pay close enough attention to what they are doing, they will never be bored. On days when he cleaned his house, Thoreau enjoyed getting up early, putting all his furniture outside, and scrubbing the floor with sand from the beach, finishing by the time the townspeople woke up in the morning. He was happy to see his furniture outside among plants and animals, like a part of nature.
Thoreau now describes the location of his house, on the side of a hill overlooking the pond at the edge of the woods, and the plants which surround it -- sand-cherry, whose "scarcely palatable" berries he tasted in May and sumach, whose berries grew so heavy in August that they broke the plant's limbs. On one afternoon, he sits at his window, watching a hawk, pigeons, and a mink in the woods. He can also hear the train on the Fitchburg Railroad, located a hundred yards south of his cabin, next to the pond. He uses its tracks to walk to the village.
Summer and winter, Thoreau can hear the locomotive whistle and he imagines it making merchants' announcements about their goods. He compares the train to a comet and suggests that men have so harnessed nature in making it they are almost a "new race" worthy of inhabiting the earth. In an extended metaphor, he talks about the "iron horse," awakened early in the morning and flying about the country even until midnight. Its actions are amazing and unwearied but not at all heroic. The railroad has so influenced life in the towns that people measure time by the train's coming and going, and life goes on at a faster speed than before, "railroad-fashion." Thoreau describes man's creation of the railroad as "a fate, an Atropos, that never turns aside."
There is bravery and enterprise to be found in commerce. Writing on the morning of a snowstorm, Thoreau says he is more affected by the men who work despite the weather and long hours than by men in battle at Buena Vista. Smelling the goods from distant parts on the freight train as it goes past, Thoreau is made to feel like a citizen of the world. He smells and sees sails, who rips tell stories of storms at sea, that will be made into paper; rags of all different types of cloth that will become paper of one color on which "true" stories will be advertised; salt fish, "the strong New England and commercial scent;" Spanish cowhides, with tails still intact, to be made into glue; and molasses and brandy on its way to Vermont. From the opposite direction, coming down from the Green Mountains, are carloads of cattle and sheep, which makes Thoreau imagine sheepdogs barking back in the mountains, looking for them.
When the train passes, he is once again alone. On some Sundays, he hears church bells from surrounding towns, depending on which way the wind is blowing, made magical by their passage through the woods. In the evenings, he sometimes hears cows or once, boys whose singing sounded like a cow, which Thoreau liked because it connected them to nature. At almost exactly seven thirty every evening in the summer, the whippoorwills would sing for half an hour. Later in the night, the screech owls, whom Thoreau likens to ghosts of humans lamenting their deaths, cry, as do the hooting owls, whose melancholy "hoo" reminds Thoreau of ghouls but nonetheless is pleasant to his ears. Owls, he says, should do the "idiotic and maniacal hooting for men."
Late at night, he hears distant wagons going over bridges, baying dogs, perhaps another cow, and along Walden's "Stygian lake," bullfrogs, whom he imagines passing a cup in a medieval banquet under the surface of the lake, bellowing "troonk." Though he never heard a cock's crow from his cabin, he suggests that the rooster (whom he calls "cockerel") be naturalized, so that his call would call everyone to awakeness. But in his cabin, Thoreau had no "domestic sounds," no roosters, cats, dogs, or even rats in the walls. Instead, his sounds are squirrels, whippoorwills, owls, loons, and foxes. Instead, nature reaches right up to his door. He doesn't have to worry about digging a path through the front yard in a snowstorm because he has "no front yard,--and no path to the civilized world!"
In his first chapter, Thoreau proposed to explore his connection to nature and to portray human beings as part of a continuum of nature, rather than a separate, dominating force they were thought to be during the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. In this chapter, Thoreau contrasts two disparate views of humankind through his description of the sounds he hears in the forest. While the passing of the locomotive is just as regular as the sunrise in Thoreau's world at Walden, the juxtaposition of these two daily occurrences illustrates the inescapable effects of the Industrial Revolution on the natural world.
Thoreau uses hyperbole in his descriptions of the locomotive, likening it to a mythological dragon or winged horse, and calling it heroic. His effusive and overblown descriptions of the locomotive are deliberately excessive. They serve to parody his nineteenth-century contemporaries who worship technological progress, like those people he says profess to do everything "railroad-fashion." In saying that these people have created fate in the form of the railroad, Thoreau is not praising them. Rather, he is illustrating the irony in their actions -- in creating the railroad as a way to make their lives easier, people have created something which ultimately controls them.
In contrast with the railroad, Thoreau depicts the sounds which emanate from nature. That he is "more alone than ever" after the railroad passes by is not a bad thing. Thoreau, in his recorded observations of nature, proves the proposition he makes at the beginning of the chapter -- that intelligent people can avoid boredom by close attention to their environment and actions. Just by listening closely to the changing wrought on them by the woods through which they pass, Thoreau can turn the echo of church bells into magic. He uses simile -- "as the sparrow had its trill, sitting on the hickory before my door, so had I my chuckle or suppressed warble which he might hear out of my nest" -- and personification -- "the natural day is very calm, and will hardly reprove his indolence" -- to emphasize the strength of the link between himself, as a human being, and nature.
Thoreau's embrace of nature and criticism of the influences of human technology must not be read as a whole-sale dismissal of human culture and civilization. One of his most creative original moves in these two chapters, as in Walden as a whole, is to link literature and nature as natural, noble phenomena. Though Thoreau spends much of the summer sitting on his doorstep, watching and listening to nature, rather than reading, he is not rejecting literature in doing so. Rather, keeping his eyes open to nature is the natural progression of the deliberate attention he pays to books. He makes allusions to classical mythology -- calling Walden Stygian, or like the river Styx, and naming the locomotive Atropos, the name of one of the three Fates -- and to English literature -- describing the screech owl's scream "Ben Jonsonian," a reference to seventeenth century poet Ben Jonson.
Chapter Five "Solitude"
On one "delicious" evening, Thoreau walks along the shore of the pond. It is dark but in nature, "repose is never complete." Waves continue to dash against the shore and animals seek their prey. He returns home to find that a visitor has been there. He can usually tell a visitor has called by things left behind purposefully -- a bunch of flowers, for example -- or accidentally -- footprints or the scent of a pipe on the train tracks. From these things, he can often figure out their age, gender, or quality.
Since people usually have enough space around them, Thoreau asks, why does he have such a great deal of privacy -- several square miles of forest? His closest neighbor is a mile away, no house is visible from his. He finds it as solitary as the prairies and supposes he could be on another continent even, since he has a "little world" all to himself. No visitors ever stop by at night, except for some men who came in the spring to fish but left quickly. Thoreau supposes people are still a little afraid of the dark.
No one who lives in the midst of nature can be unhappy because there is companionship to be found in any natural object. Thoreau believes nothing nature does can make life a burden because he is a part of nature. If the rain makes him stay indoors, it is still good for his bean crops. If it rains so much his bean seeds rot, it is still good for the upland grass and thus good for him. He feels "favored by the gods" because he is never lonely. Only once, a few weeks after he moved to the woods, did he worry that being near to other people might be necessary for a happy life, but rain drops on his roof and all the other sounds of nature suddenly began to seem friendly and kindred. He realized "no place could ever be strange to me again."
Thoreau has spent pleasant hours in his house during long rain storms in the spring or fall. While in the village, maids stand at the door with mops to keep the rain out, he feels save and dry in his little cabin. Eight years ago, a tall pine across the lake was struck with lightening, which made a spiral groove in it from top to bottom; Thoreau passed it the other day and looked at it with awe. Though some people say they think he would be lonely, especially on rainy or snowy days, Thoreau wants to remind them that the earth is just a point in space, an immeasurable distance from the inhabitants of any other star. Besides, "no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another." The wise man will not want to build his house near any store or building or fashionable location but in nature, "the perennial source of our life."
One night, Thoreau ran into a man he knew, who owned some "handsome property" driving his cattle to market. When the man asked how he could give up life's comforts, Thoreau told him honestly he liked it passably well. Material circumstances are just distractions in the process of "awakening." In nature, one is closest to divinity. Thoreau says he can chose whether or not to be effected by external events. He compares life to a play in which he plays a double role, as actor and as spectator, making friendships difficult in life.
Thoreau loves to be alone and often finds company tiring. Solitude has nothing to do with distance. A student while studying or farmer while chopping wood won't feel lonely; likewise, Thoreau is employed in his observations at Walden and is not alone. He thinks that people come into contact with each other too much and therefore lose respect for each other. They could see each other less frequently and maintain important communications. A man dying in the forest of famine and exhaustion collapsed at the foot of the tree and hallucinated people around him. In recognizing that nature can provide society, Thoreau can likewise have companionship. He is not any more lonely than the lake or the loon in it or a plant or insect.
Sometimes in the winter, Thoreau says, an old settler who some say dug Walden Pond and others believe to be dead, visits him and tells him stories. He loves this friend even though he keeps himself a secret. Likewise an old woman "invisible to most persons" has an herb garden which he visits, where she tells him fairy tales and the origins of every fable. Nature, to Thoreau, is innocent and beneficent, with a sympathy to humankind. There is no good reason he shouldn't talk with the earth since he is part of it himself.
The medicine that will keep people well isn't the "quack vials" sold out of wagons but "our great-grandmother Nature's." Morning air should be bottled and sold in shops but it would go bad before noon. Thoreau doesn't worship Hygeia (the goddess of health) but Hebe, cup-bearer to Jupiter, "who had the power of restoring gods and men to the vigor of youth."
Once more, Thoreau's use of mythological allusions reveals the extend to which he was influenced by a classical education. For him, Aurora, Hygeia, and Hebe are useful as symbols for the properties they, as divinities, oversee. Thoreau's use of mythological figures is more creative than most because of his juxtaposition of them not with intellectual matters but with everyday, nineteenth-century life. Of Hebe, he says, "She was probably the only thoroughly sound-conditioned, healthy and robust young lady that ever walked the globe, and wherever she came it was spring." Thus, Thoreau's choice of Hebe over Hygeia provides a way for Thoreau to reformulate notions of health and nature with symbols familiar to a nineteenth-century educated audience.
Thoreau's use of nature metaphors in his descriptions of society and his use of social metaphors in his descriptions of nature deliberately blur the line between society and nature. For example, Thoreau writes, "The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervish in the desert." In attempting how to explain how a person in the physical midst of civilized society might be more alone than he is, without human companionship, in the woods, Thoreau uses two images of nature -- the metaphor of the beehive, to represent the teaming social scene at the university, and the desert, as an image of physical solitude. Similarly, by giving human form to aspects of nature -- as with the old man and old women who tell him stories, really personifications of the nature which inspires him -- Thoreau destroys the notion that nature cannot provide companionship for a person.
Here, Thoreau is not rejecting society per se. It is important not to read him as a misanthrope. Rather, he seeks first to explain why he is not lonely while living "alone" in the woods, and second to argue for more meaningful connections between human beings. Instead of simply practicing artificial etiquette in our relations with others, we ought to abandon this pretence and only engage with others for "all important and hearty communications." Quality, not quantity, indeed.
Thus, this chapter is not about "solitude," at all, as the term in normally understood. Rather, it is about Thoreau's townsmen's misapprehensions regarding his solitude. Thoreau has shunned their company for what he calls a "more normal and natural society." He takes care to emphasize that all parts of nature -- the lake, bumble bees, the north star -- are companionship for him and that he is not lonesome. In refuting his neighbor's notion that he must be especially lonesome on rainy or snowy nights, Thoreau creates a hierarchy in which the intellect is higher than social contact. That, for him, it is an adequate replacement is evinced in his personifications of elements of nature -- the founder of Walden Pond or the elderly dame in the herb field -- through his imagination.
Thoreau's personification of nature marks his significant contribution to the Transcendentalist philosophy. For him, nature was not just a symbol of divinity; nature embodied divinity. (For this, some accused him of being an Animist.) Thoreau's invocation of the divine -- "the workman whose work we are" -- in this chapter refutes Unitarian notions of the divine as perceivable by the five senses. Thoreau quotes passages that instead describe God as all around but unperceived -- "identified with the substance of things, they cannot be separated from them"; "everywhere, above us, on our left, on our right, they environ us on all sides." Thus, Thoreau finds not only companionship but divine companionship from nature. At Walden, because he is with nature, he is not alone but is with God.
Within this personified portrayal of nature, Thoreau makes the noticeable move of gendering the figure of Nature as feminine. In part, this is a rejection of strict, patriarchal values. "Our great-grandmother" Nature is an alternative to "my or thy great-grandfather." Nature is a maternal figure, and in relation to her, Thoreau is alternately portrayed as a child and as a feminized figure." "I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature, a part of herself," he says. This strange liberty erases the strict boundaries of gender, time, and society.
Chapter Six "Visitors"
Thoreau thinks he likes society as much as most people. At his cabin, he has three chairs: "one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society." As many as thirty people have been in his house at one time, and then they've all stood up. Most houses are so big that it makes Thoreau imagine their inhabitants as "vermin which infest them." The small size of his house only bothers him when he wants to talk with a friend about big ideas, which take a great deal of space to speak about. Often, they will find themselves with chairs pushed up against opposite corners, speaking their big thoughts. Sometimes to communicate most intimately with other people, we need to be so far apart we can't hear each other speaking.
On nice summer days, Thoreau takes his guests outside to his "best' room," the pine woods behind his house. If he has one guest, they share his "frugal meal." If twenty people come, out of politeness no one speaks of eating. Thoreau says he is deterred from visiting people who make a big show of feeding him. He recounts a story of Winslow, a Pilgrim leader at Plymouth, who went to visit Massasoit at his lodge. The Indians did not mention eating when the Pilgrims arrived, and in two nights, they only had one meal, some fish shared with the Indian villagers. Winslow complained in his written account of the journey about the lack of food, but Thoreau believes that the Indians, who had no other food to give them, could have done nothing else, since apologizing would have been worse.
Thoreau had more visitors while living in the woods than at any other time in his life, but fewer of these visitors came on trivial business, because of his distance from town. One morning, a twenty-eight year old French-Canadian woodchopper , who has been living in the US for twelve years, hoping to save money to buy a farm in Canada, visits him. This man, who was taught to pronounce Greek by a Catholic priest, reads Homer with Thoreau, who translates for him, but he has no real intellectual appreciation of it.
This man brings his lunch, often a woodchuck his dog has caught, with him into the woods, where he works. He enjoys his work, smiling as he chops trees, and sometimes amuses himself by firing salutes into the air with his pistol. He is a prime example of the "animal man" but the intellectual and spiritual components of his being are "slumbering." Thoreau attributes this to his education by priests who never awakened his consciousness but only educated him to the degree of trust and reverence found in a child. This man is "simple and naturally humble" and reverences the writer and the preacher. Thoreau sometimes finds his name written in the snow and asks if he thinks of writing down his thoughts, but the man says it would be too hard to decide what to put first and to worry about spelling at the same time.
Thoreau heard that a reformer asked him if the world wanted to be changed, but he said he liked it well enough. He doesn't know if the man is wise or ignorant. He likes to ask him about various reforms of the day to get his opinion. For example, when Thoreau asks if he could do without money, he describes how difficult it would be for him to buy needles and thread by mortgaging part of an ox. He can defend institutions better than a philosopher because his practical contact with them leads him to give the real reason they are necessary. He says he loves to talk, but when after not seeing him all summer, Thoreau asks if he's gotten any new ideas, he says if a man has work to do, it's all he can do to hold on to the ideas he already has. No matter what questions he asks, Thoreau cannot get the man to look at things spiritually. He only thinks of expediency, like an animal or like most men. However, Thoreau is interested in asking his opinion. Though little comes of it, he suggests that there are men of genius in the lower grades of life, who are as bottomless as Walden Pond.
Many travelers who come wanting to see inside Thoreau's house ask for a drink of water as an excuse. He gives them a dipper and sends them to the pond, out of which he drinks. At the beginning of April especially he has many visitors, including half-witted men from the almshouse. He engages them in intellectual conversations and finds them to be wiser than the overseers of the poor. One "simple-minded pauper" who visits tells Thoreau truthfully and simply that the Lord made him "deficient in intellect" and that it was "the Lord's will." He finds this man a "metaphysical puzzle" because his humility and sincerity seem to promise valuable intercourse. Other poor people come to visit, and Thoreau only requires his visitors "not actually be starving," because "objects of charity are not guests." One runaway slave comes and Thoreau helps send him north.
Thoreau notices that girls and boys and young women seemed happy in the woods. Men of business, including farmers, were all concerned about solitude and employment and distance. They and some women and young men were nosy and critical. Old people mostly worried about the danger his distance from the doctor put him in if he were sick or injured. Of them, Thoreau says that we're always in danger of dying but since we're all going to die, we have to run that risk. The most boring are the "self-styled reformers." However, most of his guests make him happy. They came to the woods from the village looking for a little freedom and he is eager to greet them.
Since his death at an early age, Thoreau has developed an unwarranted reputation as a hermit. From this chapter, "Visitors," it is clear that Thoreau did not retreat from Concord village life because of any misanthropic impulses. He emphasizes, first at the beginning and again at the end, of this chapter that he likes society as much as other people and that the majority of his visitors made him happy. However, the character and social position of the particular unwanted visitors businessmen and farmers who question his mode of living, ministers who act as if they had a monopoly on the subject of God, and reformers who criticize his lack of "charity" illustrate the reason such a negative reputation developed.
Thoreau is criticizing the patriarchal structure of nineteenth-century New England society. The guests who make him happy and to whom he give a voice are those who viewpoints were excluded from public life a "halfwit," a Catholic immigrant, a runaway slave, women, and children. Thoreau's writing, like his actions in refusing to pay taxes which would support slavery (which would become the essay "Civil Disobedience"), were deliberately subversive a means of revealing the fallacy of conventions accepted as natural and right in his world.
The halfwit whom Thoreau engages in a conversation about wit itself is a foil for the supposedly intellectual Concord citizens whom he seeks to criticize. "With respect to wit," he says, "I learned that there was not much difference between the half and the whole." The values Thoreau appears to value most in men are humbleness, sincerity, and truthfulness. The halfwit contrasts markedly with the supposedly intelligent and upstanding men of business who "said that they loved a ramble in the woods occasionally, [though] it was obvious they did not." They are the men who can talk "cheek by jowel," without really hearing each other. Thoreau, in contrast, needs space to talk with anyone because he really endeavors to communicate with them.
The Canadian woodsman provides an ambivalent symbol in Thoreau's lexicon. On the one hand, he represents the absence of intellectual and spiritual life and thus is a symbol for the majority of men Thoreau knows. Thoreau's difficulty in awakening this man's spirituality even through direct attention represents his (failed) attempts to do the same with the majority of his townsmen and readers of the book. On the other hand, the woodchopper represents the pure "animal spirit" of man and therefore proves Thoreau's arguments about man as part of nature. Thoreau admires the man's unselfconscious and honest response to life because, despite his difficulty in awakening his spirituality, it undoes accepted notions about the real location of genius. The genius slumbering in the Canadian gives Thoreau hope about the possibility of wakening genius in everyone and thus undercuts the monopoly "upstanding" townsmen have on thoughts and ideas.
Walden Essays and Related Content
- Walden: Major Themes
- Walden: Essays
- Walden: E-Text
- Walden: Questions
- Walden: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- Henry David Thoreau: Biography
- Walden Summary
- About Walden
- Character List
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-3
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4-6
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7-9
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 10-12
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 13-15
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-18
- Related Links on Walden
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources