In his first chapter, "Economy," Thoreau introduces his purpose in writing the book, saying he intends to answer questions people have asked about his reasons for living alone in a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond for two years. He explains that most people live their lives as if sleeping, blindly following the ways of their parents, and become trapped into these lives by owning property and slaving in jobs to maintain their way of life. In contrast, he sought to discover the true necessities of life and built a cabin, for the cost of $28. 12 _ near Walden Pond, where he lived for two years, beginning in the summer of 1845. Making a profit of $8.71 _ by selling the beans he grew and working occasionally at odd jobs, he found he was able to support himself with very little work and much time for contemplation of himself and nature.
Thoreau, in the second chapter, "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," talks about how he once considered buying the Hollowell farm for himself but the purchase fell through. Instead, he created a new existence for himself at Walden, where he found joy and fulfillment in nature, truly awakening in his mornings there, while most of society remains perpetually asleep, living mean lives when the possibility of a much better life is possible. The key to achieving such a life, he says, is simplicity. In the third chapter, "Reading," Thoreau describes how he derives enlightenment from reading Homer and other great writers, men who spoke of the truth and speak of life in terms too noble for most to understand. Most of society, however, is not content to strive after such truths and instead wastes their time reading popular fiction and newspapers, when they should instead be dedicated to improving the intellectual culture, making the village of Concord become a university.
However, as Thoreau relates in the fourth chapter, "Sounds," he spent his time during his first summer at Walden hoeing beans, rather than reading, or sitting all morning watching and listening to the birds. That reverie is broken by the whistle and rumble of the passing train, which reminds Thoreau of the destruction of nature and country life by progress and industrialization. In the evening, the hoots of the owls make him melancholy, reminding him of human cries of sorrow. In the fifth chapter, "Solitude," Thoreau feels so much a part of nature that he scoffs at the suggestion of one of his townsmen that he might be lonely at Walden. Instead, he relates his distaste at village life, where people see too much of each other, so that human interaction becomes trivial. In the sixth chapter, "Visitors," Thoreau is pleased that those who would bother him with trivial matters don't visit him at Walden. Instead, his visitors are Canadian woodcutter, whose straightforward thinking and love of life please Thoreau. Other visitors include half-wits from the almshouse, who Thoreau thinks are more intellectual than most overseers, and men of business, who no longer really enjoy nature. The happiest people to visit the pond are children and young women.
In chapter seven, "The Bean-field," Thoreau describes how he hoed and tended two acres of beans, some of which he sold, for a profit of $8.71 _. Though passing farmers criticized him for not using a plow or fertilizer, having to work so long and hard made him grow close to the soil, truly enjoying his work rather than seeing it as a means of profit, like most farmers. The eighth chapter, "The Village," recounts Thoreau's discomfort in visiting town every few days, where people's stares and thirst for gossip are invasive and where the attractions of pubs, stores, and shops are a temptation. He is always relieved to return home to his cabin but worries that society will seek one out wherever he goes. One day, he went to the village to go to the cobbler and was arrested for not paying taxes to a government which supports slavery. He spent a night in jail. (The experience would prompt Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience.")
Living in the woods, Thoreau devotes his time to experiencing nature, as he describes in chapter nine, "The Ponds" sometimes fishing with an elderly man who is hard-of-hearing and sometimes floating about in his boat playing his flute. He gives detailed descriptions of surrounding bodies of water Flint's Pond, White Pond, Goose Pond, and Fair-Haven Bay but finds Walden, with its pure clear water, to be the epitome of nature's offerings. In chapter ten, "Baker Farm," Thoreau describes a visit to go fishing at Baker Farm. When caught in a rain shower, he takes refuge in the hut of Irish "bogger" John Field and his family. Though he tries to convince Field that a simpler, easier life could be attained with far less work, Field cannot conceive of such a possibility. When the rain stops, he even does extra work to catch fewer fish than Thoreau.
In the book's eleventh chapter, "Higher Laws," Thoreau describes a feeling of animality that occasionally comes across him, making him want to devour a woodchuck raw. He sees in himself duelling impulses, to animality and to spirituality, and seeks to strengthen his spiritual self, refraining from hunting or eating meat. He hopes that boys who hunt will grow to be men who appreciate nature on spiritual level. Chapter twelve, "Brute Neighbors," opens with a dialogue between Hermit, who represents Thoreau's contemplative nature, and Poet, who tempts him to abandon his meditations and fish instead. He goes on to describe his animal neighbors, including friendly mice and partridges, as well as a war he witnessed between red and black ants and a loon who he followed around the pond in his boat but could never catch.
Chapter thirteen, "House-warming," begins Thoreau's description of the winter months. As the weather grows colder in October and November, he builds a chimney and plasters the inside of his walls. When the pond freezes, he studies the bottom of the lake and the formation of ice bubbles within the ice itself. In the fourteenth chapter, "Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors," nature is all but silent and snow prevents Thoreau from venturing out much. He instead reflects on the former inhabitants of the woods, including former slaves, Cato Ingraham, Zilpha, and Brister and Fenda Freeman, and an Irishman Hugh Quoil. Only a few remnants of their houses chimney stones and covered wells remain. Sometimes Thoreau ventures out for walks, once seeing a seemingly-inactive owl who suddenly flies away, and returns home to find visitors, including a farmer, a poet, and a peddlar-philosopher.
In chapter fifteen, "Winter Animals," Thoreau describes looking at the transformed landscape from the centers of lakes and seeing it in a new light and hearing animals, including owls and foxes chased by hounds. One day, he sees a rabbit which looks miserable to him until it leaps away, clearly a strong and worthy part of nature. In chapter sixteen, "The Pond in Winter," he awakens one morning after a night of questioning to realize that nature is serene and asks no questions. He cuts holes in the ice of Walden, measuring the depth of the pond, which some people have called bottomless. In January, Irish laborers working for a rich man arrive to cut and cart away the ice to sell. This upsets Thoreau, until he realizes people all over the world will have a taste of Walden. The lake soon refreezes. In chapter seventeen, "The Thaw," the lake gradually begins to crack and groan and break apart. Thoreau describes in great detail the sand which breaks through the snow and flows like foliage down the banks of the railroad. The birds begin to return and the trees become greener. Soon, summer comes, and after two years at Walden, Thoreau leaves.
In his "Conclusion," Thoreau explains he left Walden because he had many more lives to live. He urges his readers to turn inward on immense spiritual journeys of self-discovery; to find fulfillment in nature rather than riches; and to avoid conformity and live his own life as he must. He concludes with the story of a bug which emerged from the wood of a table after sixty years and hopes that human beings will likewise awaken and emerge into a new life.