The author of Walden, Thoreau is the book's narrator and its only main character. In 1845, at the age of twenty-eight, he built a cabin at Walden Pond in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts, and lived there for two years in an attempt to "live deliberately" and discover the essentials of life away from the distraction of village life. Educated at Harvard, he is a admirer of great literature, especially Homer, and has a wide knowledge of Eastern religions. A true nonconformist, he sees society and the "progress" of industrialization as destructive forces which keep people slumbering and unable to see and appreciate the true beauty of life. He finds companionship and inspiration in nature, exploring the relationship between humans, nature, and divinity. Though winter tests his spirits, the coming of spring rejuvenates his belief that he is a part of the ongoing life of nature. After two years, he leaves the pond, seeking new experiences and urging his readers to voyage into themselves to discover the truth.
An Irishman who works for the Fitchburg Railroad. Thoreau buys his shanty from him and uses the boards to build his cabin at Walden. As he passes on the way to the house, he watches the Collins family with their possessions passing him on the road.
James Collins' wife, who shows Thoreau the shanty and assures him that the boards are good.
An Irishman who, as someone later informs Thoreau, removed the staples, nails, and spikes from the Collins shanty to his own pocket, while Thoreau carts the wood to Walden, and stands by greeting him innocently.
Owner of the Hollowell place
A man who is about to sell his farm to Thoreau, who has already given him ten dollars, when his wife changes her mind. Thoreau lets him keep the ten dollars, deciding both of them are better off.
A trader from Cuttingsville, Vermont, who is actually the product of Thoreau's imagination as he envisions where the hogsheads of molasses or brandy on the passing railroad are headed.
An old settler
The original proprietor of Walden Pond, believed to be dead, who stoned around the pond and fringed it with pine woods. Thoreau says he visits him in long winter evenings, implying he imagines encounters with this man, who may symbolize God as creator of the pond. They have long talks about old times and eternity. He is a beloved, though secret, friend to Thoreau.
An old dame
Another imagined inhabitant of Thoreau's neighborhood, she is invisible to most people. Thoreau strolls in her herb garden and listens to her fables, going back to the origins of mythology. She is hardy and will outlast all of her children, and seems to be metaphorically linked to nature.
A French Canadian man about twenty-eight years old who has been working in the United States for a dozen years, hoping to save up money to buy his own home in Canada. He works chopping wood near Concord, bringing a stone bottle of coffee and the cold meat of a woodchuck, caught by his dog to eat for lunch. He has a "stout but sluggish body," dark bushy hair, and dull blue eyes. He can pronounce Greek and will read Homer with Thoreau, when he visits his cabin, but has no real intellectual curiosity. Instead he is a prime example of man's animal nature.
One older man
An excellent fisherman, skilled at woodcraft, who sometimes winds his fishing lines on Thoreau's doorstep. The two sometimes fish together, and as the old man has lost his hearing, they do not converse. Instead, he hums psalms, which Thoreau finds harmonizes well with his silent philosophizing.
An Irishman who lives with his wife and several children in a hut near Baker's Farm. He is an honest, hardworking, but shiftless man who works as a "bogger," digging up meadows and bogs for farmers. He came to America to have access to luxuries like milk, coffee, tea, and meat everyday, and Thoreau is unable to convince him that if he were to do without them and work less, he would need to spend less money on food and clothing and live more simply and comfortably. Thoreau shelters in his house during a rain storm, after which Field leaves off bogging for the afternoon and fishes, albeit unsuccessfully, with him. He is Thoreau's nearest neighbor. His name, which relates to his work, suggests he is an amalgamation of many poor working men whom Thoreau knew.
John Field's wife who hopes to improve her condition someday. Thoreau finds her brave to cook so many successive dinners in that same stove. She seems to be compelled by the possibility of a simpler, easier life which Thoreau suggests but ultimately unable to make the arithmetic work out and the idea become a reality.
One of John Field's several children, his oldest son is a broad-faced boy who assists his father at his work as a bogger.
John Field's baby, a wrinkled, sybil-like cone-headed infant who seems unaware that he is "John Field's poor starveling brat" and not the last of a long line of nobility.
Another product of Thoreau's imagination or an amalgamation of many farmers, he sits in his door one September evening, thinking about work, until he hears the sound of a flute (Thoreau's), which awakens him and suggests the possibility of a glorious existence rather than a mean condition. The entire encounter is a metaphor for the effect Thoreau hopes his book will have on his reader.
A projection of part of Thoreau's self in an imagined dialogue between Hermit and Poet. Hermit wants to sit and philosophize. He has nearly been resolved into the essence of things as he has ever been in his life when Poet interrupts him to go fishing. This represents the dialectical conflict between spiritual and animal natures.
In the dialogue with Hermit, Poet simply wants to look at the sky and go fishing. He represents the animal nature in man, in his interest in the material aspects of life, and perhaps disappointingly to Thoreau, it is he who overcomes Hermit in their conflict.
Mr. Gilian Baker
The owner of a "winged cat," who lives near the pond in Lincoln. The cat's wings are really long matted fur which grow during the winter.
When Thoreau drops by to see the winged cat, the mistress of the house describes to him how she grows "wings" every winter and even gives him a pair of her old wings to keep. The cat, however, is out hunting, and he does not see her.
A friend who boards with Thoreau for a week during the time he is building his chimney, which leads him to sleep with his head upon the bricks for want of room. The two men work together building the chimney and cooking.
A former inhabitant of the woods near Walden, who Thoreau thinks about during the winter months. Cato had been the slave of Duncan Ingraham, Esq. of Concord. Duncan built his slave a house, east of Thoreau's beanfield, and gave him permission to live in the woods. Cato, who was said to be a Guinea Negro, let a patch of walnuts grow up near his house to be used in his old age but a younger, whiter speculator got them. The cellar-hole of Cato's house still remains, though it is hidden by weeds.
A black woman who had a house where the corner of Thoreau's field is located. She spun linen for the townspeople and sang shrilly while doing it. British war prisoners on parole during the War of 1812 burned down her house, with her dog, cat, and chickens inside. Thoreau has seen bricks amid the oaks where her house was.
The former slave of Squire Cummings, whose house was on Brister's Hill, where his apple trees still grow. His gravestone, in the Lincoln cemetery, where he is buried near the unmarked graves of British soldiers from the Revolution, reads Sippio Brister, though Thoreau compares him to Roman general Scipio Africanus, and "a man of color."
Wife of Brister Freeman, she was a hospitable woman who "told fortunes, yet pleasantly." Thoreau describes her as "large, round, and black, blacker than any of the children of night, such a dusky orb never rose on Concord before or since."
A family whose homestead was near Brister's Hill. Their orchard covered the hill but was overgrown by pitch pines.
The name of a family whose house and tavern stood at the edge of the woods. The house stood empty for a dozen years until some boys from the village lit it on fire on an election night. Thoreau was one of the crowd who ran to fight the fire but it was decided to let the house burn. The next day, Thoreau encountered the only remaining member of the Breed family, who had come to look at the old house and found it burned.
A potter who squatted with his family in the woods near the pond, never paying any taxes when the sheriff tried to collect. When a man who bought the potter's wheel from Wyman's son inquired of his whereabouts, Thoreau was glad to hear that such an ancient art had been practiced in his neighborhood.
An Irishman, called Colonel Quoil, rumored to have been at Waterloo, who lived in Wyman's house and worked as a ditcher. A man of manners, afflicted with a trembling delirium, he wore a coat in the summer and had a carmine-colored face. He was found dead in the road soon after Thoreau moved to Walden and so he did not know him well, though he did visit the man's house when others worried it was unlucky.
A long-headed farmer
One of Thoreau's winter visitors, who walks through the snowy woods to his house to "have a social crack'" with whom Thoreau talks of simpler times.
A poet (2)
One of Thoreau's few winter visitors, he came the farthest and through the worst weather to Thoreau's house, at all hours. They spoke at length both in mirth and sober talk, making theories of life.
A visitor during Thoreau's last winter the pond. He is originally from Connecticut, he came through the village in snow and darkness and sees Thoreau's lamp through the trees. They have long philosophical talks during the winter evenings.
An old hunter
A man who swims in Walden in the summer and then visits Thoreau. He tells Thoreau of seeing a fox, pursued by distant hounds, stop and wait near Walden many years ago. He shot it and the hounds, curious, were surprised to find it dead.
The old hunter tells Thoreau about Nutting, who hunted bears on Fair-Haven Ledges and sold their skins for rum.
Men who come in January to cut the ice of Walden Pond and cart it away. They are Irish laborers with Yankee overseers, working for a man who already has $500,000. Walden freezes over again and when the ice blocks left behind melt they return to the water of the pond.
Walden Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Walden is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Thoreau's experiment allowed him to clear his mind of the trivial habituations of society. He was able to let go of the greed, sel-interest, and stress of material society: Thoreau was able to contemplate the true meaning of life.