Walden Summary and Analysis
Chapter Thirteen "House-Warming"
In October, Thoreau picks grapes in the river meadows and there sees the cranberries that will be thoughtlessly cultivated and sent as jams to Boston and New York. He also collected wild apples and chestnuts, which he finds in the chestnut woods in Lincoln, sometimes stealing opened nuts from squirrels and sometimes climbing and shaking trees, using it as a substitute for bread. He also discovers the ground nut, like a potato, once eaten by the Indians and now almost forgotten. If nature were to reign again in New England, the corn would go extinct and the ground nut would thrive.
By September 1, he sees a few maples across the pond turn red and watches the change of their color reflected in the pond from week to week. In October, wasps settle on the windows and walls of his house, never bothering him but frightening visitors. In November, he sits sometimes in the sun on the northeast side of the pond for warmth during the day.
In preparation for building his chimney, Thoreau "studies masonry" by chipping the mortar of of the used bricks he has bought. He makes his mortar with white sand from the beach and gradually builds his chimney, even using the bricks as a pillow at night when he has a poet visiting him. The chimney, an independent structure that could survive even a fire, is finished at the end of the summer.
By November, the pond had begun to cool. Thoreau the shadows made by the fire reflecting shadows on the knotty unplastered walls but ultimately plasters them for warmth. "All attractions of a house were concentrated in one room," and he enjoys it all. Sometimes, he dreams of an enormous one-room house, with unplastered beams and an enormous fire, where all possessions and inhabitants are visible to any who enter or pass through. A place where you can see the fire that cooks your dinner and oven that bakes your break would be better than most houses, where parlors and kitchens and workshops are so removed from each other that all life becomes metaphor; "dinner even is only the parable of a dinner, commonly." Only two guests ever stayed in his small one-room house for a hasty pudding but many such puddings were made there.
He plastered the walls when the freezing weather began, bringing whiter sand from the opposite beach in a boat. He learned to admire the "economy and convenience" of plastering, creating a nice finish, and to see how "thirsty" his bricks were. At the same time, a small coat of ice had formed over the pond. Thoreau liked to lie stretched out over clear ice one inch thick and look down into the still water of the pond straight to the bottom. On mornings after it freezes, you can see a large number of bubbles pressed against the lower surface of the ice, reflecting your face. After a few warm days, the ice became discolored and the bubbles shifted. Thoreau cut out a block of ice to study and found that the ice had formed around the bubble, and realizes that the bubbles beneath the ice melt and rot it, making it "crack and whoop."
Once he finishes plastering, the winter begins and the wind starts howling. Geese come every night, bound for Mexico. In 1845, the pond freezes over completely on December 22, and the snow had covered the ground since November 25. All Thoreau does outside now is collect dead wood, of which the forest is full, and driftwood for his fire. He also hauls wooden raft, made by some Irish railroad workers and sunk in the earth for several years, across the ice of the pond and finds it burns beautifully. He grieves when any part of the forest is burned or cut down and thinks of the Romans who made an expiatory offering when cutting trees in a sacred grove.
Wood seems to have a value "more permanent and universal than gold." The cost of fuel wood in NY or Philadelphia is the same as the best wood in Paris, and the cost continues to rise in America. Everyone, Thoreau included, needs wood to heat them and cook food. He looks at his woodpile with affection, "warmed twice" but chopping stumps from his bean field, when chopping and when burning them. In previous years, he has gone "prospecting" for pine roots in the forest. He uses dried leaves from the forest, saved in his shed, for kindling and sometimes green hickory like wood-choppers use. Like the people in the village who light their fires, he announces he is awake to the Walden inhabitants from the smoke coming out of his chimney, a sentiment he echoes in lines of verse.
Sometimes, Thoreau left his fire burning when he took a walk but one day when splitting wood, he looked in to see that a spark had jumped onto the bed, burning a hole the size of his hand in the cover before he put it out. He sometimes lets it go out during the day because his low roof and the sun keep it warm. Moles nest in his cellar, like all animals who use their body heat to warm themselves after finding a "bed." Humans heat the air, making a perpetual summer, with light from windows and lamps, thus saving time for the fine arts. Still, when out in the "rudest blasts" for too long, Thoreau grows "torpid" and needs the warmth of his house to revive himself. The human race could easily be destroyed if the Great Snows were greater or Cold Fridays colder.
The next winter, he uses a cooking stove, which makes cooking cease to be poetic. It takes up room, scents the house, and conceals the fire, which always seemed to Thoreau to have a face. He recalls the words of a poet, addressing the flame, wondering why it is gone.
Until this chapter, we have watched Thoreau experience the summer, a season of new life, at Walden. Now, as he endeavors to live out a harsh New England winter in a one-room cabin, he begins to face the real test of nature. As the months proceed, we can see nature's sympathies gradually waning. At first, during the fall harvest, Thoreau can readily find food to store up for the winter. In these activities, in which he encounters birds and squirrels doing the same, he is coming to embrace his animal nature through necessity.
Plastering is the first test of his ideals that nature puts to him. Thoreau prefers the look of his house before plastering its walls but is forced to do so by the cold winds. He admits that the house is more comfortable after he does so, but in plastering the walls, he has sacrificed the natural aspect of his wooden walls for the plaster of artificial Concord houses. It is no wonder then that Thoreau's fantasy of an enormous, unplastered one-room house occurs immediately after this. This fantasy house, in which all people and possessions share one big space, is a representation of Thoreau's ideal, in which all aspects of life can be integrated in a natural setting. Houses in town physically divide spiritual aspects of life with artificial barriers, separating rooms and people from each other.
The chimney that Thoreau builds a structure that reaches toward the sky and which will outlast the house itself represents his attempt to control his future and gain a degree of immortality. In building the chimney, he is metaphorically preparing himself for a long struggle. Just as the chimney, made with the very sand of nature's beach, will protect against nature's cold blasts, Thoreau seeks to build in himself a spiritual temple that can withstand the tests of his animal nature.
Winter imparts psychological as well as physical changes to Thoreau at Walden Pond. The pond, which until this chapter, has been the centerpiece of Thoreau's thoughts and his reason for building his cabin in that location. Now, the pond is frozen and can provide him little. No longer does he commune with and maintain a relationship with nature, as he has in the preceding chapters, but instead only ventures outside to obtain fuel this despite the fact that in "Economy," he compared wood to rich food.
Now, with the reality of physical cold a factor in his way of life, Thoreau comes to see the value of a wood pile, which he looks on "with affection," and to find comfort in the universality of this need for wood weather in lighting his fire at the same time as the inhabitants of Concord and realizing that the price of wood results from necessity. Thoreau compares wood to gold, and in doing so, he does more than emphasize the greater value of this product of nature, which is a necessity rather than a luxury. Rather, he admits and accepts that wood an economic tool as well as a physical need must play a part in his life, a fact further driven home by his reluctant purchase and use of a stove the following winter.
Chapter Fourteen "Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors"
Thoreau weathers "merry snowstorms" and spends "cheerful evenings" by his fire. But even the owl is hushed, and the only people he sees are those who come to chop wood and sled it to the village. Nature helps him make a path through deep snow, when oak leaves blow into his tracks, leaving a dry and visible path. To occupy himself, he must think about the former inhabitants of the woods, in a time when laughter filled the woods, though it was much more overgrown and the road was so narrow, trees scraped carriages passing and frightened women and children running through.
One inhabitant was Cato Ingraham, a former slave, whose master Duncan Ingraham, Esq. built him a house and let him live in the woods. He let a patch of walnuts grow for his old age but "a young and whiter speculator got them at last. His cellar-hole remains, hidden by pine trees. Another inhabitant was a black woman named Zilpha, who spun linen for townsfolk while singing shrilly, until her house was burned by British prisoners on parole during the War of 1812, killing her dog, cat, and chickens. Thoreau has seen the bricks that are all that remain of the house. Thirdly, Brister Freeman, "a handy Negro,' slave of Squire Cummings once" lived with his wife Fenda, a pleasant fortune-teller. Thoreau has seen his gravestone in the old Lincoln graveyard, placed by the unmarked graves of the British who died in the Battle of Concord. The apple trees he planted and tended now grow wild on Brister's Hill. The Stratten family, whose homestead was once farther down the hill, had an orchard that covered an entire slope that has no been taken over by pitch-pines.
Closer to town is the ground known for the pranks of a "demon" that has destroyed many families. This unnamed "mythological character" is New England rum. According to tradition, a tavern stood there, and water for men and their horses came from the same well. Breed's hut also stood there unoccupied for many years until some village boys burned it down on one election night. Thoreau had just fallen asleep reading Davenant's Gondibert, for his family has a tendency to lethargy, including an uncle that once fell asleep while shaving. He was roused by the bells ringing and rushed with the other men and boys, wagons, the Insurance Company agent, the fire engine, and finally the same boys who had both set the fire and given the alarm, to see where it was. Ultimately, they decided to let it burn rather than throw the water of a nearby frog pond on it and stood around watching. The next night, Thoreau past the spot and heard a moaning. He found the only living memory of the farmer, who had been off working in the river meadow and had come to see his childhood home. Finding it burned, he lay on his stomach and looked at the burning embers in the cellar, feeling comforted by Thoreau's presence.
Further in the woods is the place where Wyman the potter and his descendants squatted. The sheriff was always unsuccessful in trying to collect taxes from them. One day when he was hoeing, a man stopped and asked Thoreau if he knew where Wyman the younger was, saying he had once bought a potter's wheel from him. Thoreau was pleased to hear that this art, which he had only read about in Scripture, was once practiced in his neighborhood. A final inhabitant was an Irishman, Hugh Quoil, who lived in Wyman's tenement, a ditcher by occupation, capable of manners and civil speech but afflicted with a trembling delirium, with a face "the color of carmine." He died in the road near Brister's hill shortly after Thoreau came to the woods. Until his house was pulled down, people avoided it as unlucky, but Thoreau visited it and saw his clothes curled up on his bed, his pipe broken on the hearth, soiled cards on the floor, a black chicken still living next door, and an overgrown garden. Now, only a dent in the earth is visible where his house was, all overgrown with bushes, and the well is sadly covered up. But the lilac still grows where the door was, outliving the children that had planted it. Thoreau wonders why this small village in the woods failed when Concord remains. Maybe his house, built on a spot on which no one else has ever built, will be the first in a new hamlet.
Thoreau has few visitors, often none for a week or two at a time when the snow is deep, but he lives snug in his house, like animals which survive buried in snowdrifts or like story he has heard about a man whose house was completely buried by snow in 1717 when he was away from home. An Indian saw the chimney smoke from a hole in the drift and dug out the family. In the Great Snow, men in the village are forced to cut down the shade trees in their yards because they cannot get to the woods for firewood. In the deepest snow, the half-mile path between Thoreau's house and the road is like "a meandering dotted line" of footprints, for he walks in his tracks for weeks. In all weather, he walks outside, sometimes walking 8-10 miles to see a tree, sometimes creeping on hands and knees, once watching a barred owl that could hear but not see him, as it perched half-asleep in broad daylight. He walks to town over the railroad tracks, where the wind is the most blustery, even in weather when drifts pile up over his footprints in half an hour. Even in winter, he finds swamps where grass and skunk cabbage are green.
Sometimes, in the winter, he returns home to see the tracks of a wood-chopper leading to his door and his house filled with the odor of his pipe. On Sunday afternoons, a "long-headed farmer" visits, and they talk "of rude and simple times" and eat nuts the squirrels have abandoned as too tough. A poet comes through deepest snows and furthest distances, to visit, and together they make the house "ring with boisterous mirth and resound with the murmur of much sober talk." During his last winter at the pond, a peddlar from Connecticut who is "one of the last of the philosophers" visits, and they, with the old settler, have amazing discourses. A friend from the village also visits occasionally, and that is the last of his society.
As the winter continues so too does Thoreau's psychological test. No more does he get external stimuli from nature. Even the owl is hushed, in stark contrast to the many calls of birds he described during summer nights. For weeks at a time, he does not see another person and must therefore look inward for inspiration. When pressed to find his own diversions, it is notable that Thoreau's thoughts turn to other people. Human company, which he pledges to do fine without, able to live snugly in his house like a hibernating animal, has clearly become a tantamount concern to him as we can see through the detailed descriptions of all his visitors in this chapter.
It is notable that the first four "former inhabitants" that Thoreau choses to reflect upon are all former slaves. Thoreau was an active abolitionist though not a member of any abolitionist society because he opposed societies and in his descriptions of these four peoples' lives, we can see his implicit criticism of Northern involvement in slavery and treatment of former slaves. For example, the burning of Zilpha's house by British war prisoners seems to have been implicitly condoned by an establishment more concerned with making war for economic reasons than with the humanity of all people's lives. In fact, the location of these former slaves' houses, hidden in the woods and now all but erased from memory and visibility, is a physical metaphor for their invisibility in public life and consciousness. Thus, Thoreau's invocation of these long-dead people and his noting of the physical reminders of their homes is a political act in addition to being a psychological means of providing himself with society while alone in the woods.
For Thoreau, history does not provide an adequate substitute for human society; in fact, it turns out to be depressing. All the people he describes have been all but forgotten, their existence and homes erased. Though Thoreau posits that his house might be the first in a thriving new village, from his many previous examples, it is clear that he knows it is more likely that what happened to the other inhabitants of the woods might happen to him. He too might be forgotten and ignored by society. The repeated image of the covered up well symbolizes the obstacles to Thoreau's imagination.
Similarly, the other inhabitants of the woods whom Thoreau describes are all disenfranchised members of society, made invisible by their existence at its edges squatter Wyman, physically disabled Quoil. Quoil, said to be a soldier at Waterloo, does not warrant any respect or notice from the townspeople until his death leads them to deem his house unlucky. Only Thoreau is willing to visit it and ponder the man who lived there through the artifacts clothing, chicken, woodchuck skin he had left. The villagers instead, seek to actively erase Quoil's existence by pulling down his house, just as the village boys who burn Breed's hut are unaware of the building's emotional meaning for the only remaining Breed descendant and only see it as a means of diversion for themselves.
Thoreau criticizes these villagers who cannot conceive of society beyond themselves but instead endeavor to force their meanings onto those at its edges, containing their possibly transgressive examples. For example, Brister Freeman's grave, marginalized by its placement with the unmarked graves of British soldiers, calls him "Sippio Brister," when Thoreau compares him instead to Scipio Africanus, a Roman general of great acclaim, and labels him "a man of color,' as if he were discolored." Whether by erasing, as in the case of the British soldiers, or renaming, as in the case of Brister, dominant society seeks to control anyone who diverges from their example.
Finally, Thoreau's reactions to and descriptions of his living visitors diverges greatly from his previous chapter on "Visitors," in which he displayed his distaste for society. Here, the harsh weather acts as a deterrent from any undesirable guests. In this case, nature remains a friend to Thoreau; for it keeps all but the most determined guests from visiting him. With all the farmer, the poet, the peddler philospher Thoreau's greatest joy comes from conversation. Though he continues to seek out inspiration from nature, visiting trees and owls in the snow, he depends upon these people for intellectual stimulation. The winter, in effect, draws a line between nature and culture, physically separating Thoreau from the village and thus forcing him to appreciate the offerings of culture in his decreased contact with it.
Chapter Fifteen "Winter Animals"
When the ponds freeze, Thoreau uses them as shorter routes and finds new views from their surfaces. Standing in the middle of Flint's Pond, he is reminded of Baffin's Bay, surrounded by snowy hills and hunters with their dogs who remind him of Eskimo. He walks over the pond to get to Lincoln, where he lectures, passing no houses and only a muskrat colony on his way. Walden has very little snow on its surface, and he slides and skates on it. In winter nights, he hears the hooting of the owl, which sometimes sounds like "how der do." One night, honking geese fly by and the owl begins howling at them for interrupting his time of night. The ice of the pond also whoops, like restless sleeper with flatulence, and the ground itself cracks with frost.
Sometimes, he hears the foxes barking like dogs and supposes that perhaps animals are gradually becoming civilized. The red squirrel wakes him at dawn, running over his house, and he throws out ears of unripe sweet corn. The squirrels come and go, maneuvering stealthily as if they're being watched, finally grasping an ear and eating it on top of the woodpile for hours, selecting new ears, and running off with one to the top of a tree at last. The screaming jays arrive, thieves who steal the kernels the squirrels, who worked for their meal, have dropped and swallowing whole kernels too big for their throats, almost choking. Chickadees also pick up kernels and peck at them until they are small enough to swallow. Titmice pick dinners from the woodpile or crumbs at the door and gradually become so familiar that one sits on and pecks at an armful of wood Thoreau is carrying. The squirrels also become familiar and run over Thoreau's foot if it is in their path.
Before the snow covers the ground and once it begins to thaw, the partridges fly out of the woods at morning and evening to feed. They eat the buds of the wild apple trees, where hunters sometimes wait for them, but is "Nature's own bird" because it "lives on buds and diet drink." Sometimes in the winter, Thoreau hears packs of hounds and a hunting horn and sometimes sees men in the evening returning with a single fox tale. The fox could get away if he were to run straight but instead he circles around or waits till the hounds are close. He does know to go through water to make the hounds lose the scent, and one hunter said he saw a fox run through puddles on the frozen pond. Sometimes, the hounds run around Thoreau's house as if crazed until they find the scent of the fox. One man whose dog had been hunting on its own for a week inquired about it at Thoreau's house but was so interested in knowing what Thoreau was doing living there, he didn't listen to Thoreau's response about the hound.
One old hunter who visits the pond in the summer saw a old hound and her three pups following a fox by themselves in the morning. In the afternoon, he could hear still them at a distance, and suddenly the fox appeared near him and sat on a rock with its back to him. He watched for a moment but then shot it. The hounds approached and were silenced by the mystery of the dead fox until they saw the man. Their owner, a man from Weston, inquired about his hounds at a Concord hunter's cottage, saying they had been off hunting for a week. The next day he learned they had crossed the river and had stayed the night at a farmhouse before leaving in the morning. This hunter told Thoreau about Sam Nutting, who hunted bears with his fox-hound Burgoyne, on Fair-Haven Ledges. In an old trader's book, Thoreau has found notes of John Melven, who killed a gray fox, and Hezekiah Stratton, "a sergeant in the old French war," who killed a wild-cat, as well as men who got credit for deer skins and horns. He remembers the hunters used to be a "merry crew" in the woods, including "one gaunt Nimrod" who played music from a flute made of a rolled-up leaf.
Sometimes at night, hounds in the woods cross Thoreau's path and skulk away. He competes with squirrels and wild mice for nuts. The previous winter, mice gnawed "girdles" around pitch pines, using the bark for food, and after another winter, the pines died. Thoreau finds it remarkable that mice can in effect consume an entire tree for dinner but supposes it is necessary to thin the forest. There is also a hare who lives under Thoreau's house and bumps her head jumping out every morning when she hears him stir. The hares nibble potato-parings he leaves at his door at night and can barely be distinguished from the ground. Close by, the incite pity, like one bony, ragged-eared hare who sits two paces from Thoreau's door one nightbefore leaping away gracefully when he takes a step, "asserting its vigor and the dignity of Nature." Rabbits and partridges are basic to nature, sure to thrive even if the forest is cut down, becoming numerous in the sprouts and bushes.
Thoreau's melancholy remains apparent at the start of this chapter. Though nature has ceased its silence, the sounds it reflects are not those of happiness and life as in the summer. Thoreau seems to desire companionship in the owl, imagining its "hoo hoo hoo" sounds like "how der do," but the owl, who hoots away the gregarious geese, does not seem to comply. The misanthropic owl is a projection of Thoreau's fears over having rejected society's companionship.
Similarly, Thoreau projects his melancholy onto the lake itself. Previously, he has described the lake as a mirror. Now the frozen lake groans as if it is sleeping poorly, having bad dreams. Unlike the animals, neither the lake nor Thoreau himself can quietly and comfortably sleep the winter months away.
In the conflict between the hounds and the fox, Thoreau further depicts the conflict between society and nature. The domesticated hounds do their owner's bidding in hunting the fox even when he is not with them. Though this is in part a result of instinct, the instance in which the hounds work tracking the fox leads the hunter visiting Walden to shoot the fox for himself demonstrates the extent to which the hounds are an extension of society. In contrast, the fox is both helped and bound by his wild nature, able to escape the hounds by instinctually crossing water but put in danger but its propensity to circle about its home and sit until the hounds are close. In this, the fox represents Thoreau's fear that he cannot escape his nature and will ultimately be destroyed by it.
We can see further evidence of Thoreau's winter-induced melancholy in the manner in which he describes the animals. In contrast to previous instances in which he found spiritual inspiration in nature, here his descriptions are relatively straight-forward descriptions of the his observations of the animals' behavior. Here, his cynicism seems to emerge, in his depiction of the jays as "thieves" who take the corn the squirrels have worked for. He seems to see the same faults he has observed in the villagers paralleled in the animals kingdom, which has ceased to represent the ideal. The foxes' inability to save himself and the squirrel's roundabout path to the corn frustrate Thoreau, for in some ways these animals seem to waste time and their live the way people do.
There is evidence of hope offered through the final image of the rabbit. At first, looking closely at the rabbit, Thoreau's depression colors what he sees. The rabbit seems gaunt, ragged, "its eyesyoung and unhealthy, almost dropsical." Such an image recalls the torpor of his own Thoreau saw reflected in the hushed owl in the previous chapter. However, Thoreau is surprised from his pity for the rabbit, when it hops away, showing itself to be free, vigorous, and slender because of its nature. Far from being ill or dropsical, the rabbit thrives in nature. Thoreau's final sentiments in the chapter, asserting that the rabbit and partridge can thrive even if the forest is cut down, demonstrates his own reawakening from winter torpor. Nature, in fact, has been revealed to continue to thrive, the metaphor of the leaping rabbit illustrating a leap in Thoreau's sprits and understanding.
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
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