I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.— Henry David Thoreau
Part memoir and part spiritual quest, Walden opens with the announcement that Thoreau spent two years at Walden Pond living a simple life without support of any kind. Readers are reminded that at the time of publication, Thoreau is back to living among the civilized again. The book is separated into specific chapters, each of which focuses on specific themes:
Economy: In this first and longest chapter, Thoreau outlines his project: a two-year, two-month, and two-day stay at a cozy, "tightly shingled and plastered", English-style 10' × 15' cottage in the woods near Walden Pond. He does this, he says, to illustrate the spiritual benefits of a simplified lifestyle. He easily supplies the four necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing, and fuel) with the help of family and friends, particularly his mother, his best friend, and Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Waldo Emerson. The latter provided Thoreau with a work exchange -– he could build a small house and plant a garden if he cleared some land on the woodlot and did other chores while there. Thoreau meticulously records his expenditures and earnings, demonstrating his understanding of "economy", as he builds his house and buys and grows food. For a home and freedom, he spent a mere $28.12½, in 1845 (about $934 in 2018 dollars). At the end of this chapter, Thoreau inserts a poem, "The Pretensions of Poverty", by seventeenth-century English poet Thomas Carew. The poem criticizes those who think that their poverty gives them unearned moral and intellectual superiority. Much attention is devoted to the skepticism and wonderment with which townspeople greeted both him and his project as he tries to protect his views from those of the townspeople who seem to view society as the only place to live. He recounts the reasons for his move to Walden Pond along with detailed steps back to the construction of his new home (methods, support, etc.).
Where I Lived, and What I Lived For: Thoreau recollects thoughts of places he stayed at before selecting Walden Pond, and quotes Roman Philosopher Cato's advice "consider buying a farm very carefully before signing the papers." His possibilities included a nearby Hollowell farm (where the "wife" unexpectedly decided she wanted to keep the farm). Thoreau takes to the woods dreaming of an existence free of obligations and full of leisure. He announces that he resides far from social relationships that mail represents (post office) and the majority of the chapter focuses on his thoughts while constructing and living in his new home at Walden.
Reading: Thoreau discusses the benefits of classical literature, preferably in the original Greek or Latin, and bemoans the lack of sophistication in Concord evident in the popularity of unsophisticated literature. He also loved to read books by world travelers. He yearns for a time when each New England village supports "wise men" to educate and thereby ennoble the population.
Sounds: Thoreau encourages the reader to be "forever on the alert" and "looking always at what is to be seen." Although truth can be found in literature, it can equally be found in nature. In addition to self-development, an advantage of developing one's perceptiveness is its tendency to alleviate boredom. Rather than "look abroad for amusement, to society and the theatre", Thoreau's own life, including supposedly dull pastimes like housework, becomes a source of amusement that "never ceases to be novel." Likewise, he obtains pleasure in the sounds that ring around his cabin: church bells ringing, carriages rattling and rumbling, cows lowing, whip-poor-wills singing, owls hooting, frogs croaking, and cockerels crowing. "All sound heard at the greatest possible distance," he contends "produces one and the same effect." Likening the train's cloud of steam to a comet tail and its commotion to "the scream of a hawk", the train becomes homologous with nature and Thoreau praises its associated commerce for its enterprise, bravery, and cosmopolitanism, proclaiming: "I watch the passage of the morning cars with the same feeling that I do the rising of the sun."
Solitude: Thoreau reflects on the feeling of solitude. He explains how loneliness can occur even amid companions if one's heart is not open to them. Thoreau meditates on the pleasures of escaping society and the petty things that society entails (gossip, fights, etc.). He also reflects on his new companion, an old settler who arrives nearby and an old woman with great memory ("memory runs back farther than mythology"). Thoreau repeatedly reflects on the benefits of nature and of his deep communion with it and states that the only "medicine he needs is a draught of morning air".
Visitors: Thoreau talks about how he enjoys companionship (despite his love for solitude) and always leaves three chairs ready for visitors. The entire chapter focuses on the coming and going of visitors, and how he has more comers in Walden than he did in the city. He receives visits from those living or working nearby and gives special attention to a French Canadian born woodsman named Alec Thérien. Unlike Thoreau, Thérien cannot read or write and is described as leading an "animal life". He compares Thérien to Walden Pond itself. Thoreau then reflects on the women and children who seem to enjoy the pond more than men, and how men are limited because their lives are taken up.
The Bean-Field: Reflection on Thoreau's planting and his enjoyment of this new job/hobby. He touches upon the joys of his environment, the sights and sounds of nature, but also on the military sounds nearby. The rest of the chapter focuses on his earnings and his cultivation of crops (including how he spends just under fifteen dollars on this).
The Village: The chapter focuses on Thoreau's reflections on the journeys he takes several times a week to Concord, where he gathers the latest gossip and meets with townsmen. On one of his journeys into Concord, Thoreau is detained and jailed for his refusal to pay a poll tax to the "state that buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house".
The Ponds: In autumn, Thoreau discusses the countryside and writes down his observations about the geography of Walden Pond and its neighbors: Flint's Pond (or Sandy Pond), White Pond, and Goose Pond. Although Flint's is the largest, Thoreau's favorites are Walden and White ponds, which he describes as lovelier than diamonds.
Baker Farm: While on an afternoon ramble in the woods, Thoreau gets caught in a rainstorm and takes shelter in the dirty, dismal hut of John Field, a penniless but hard-working Irish farmhand, and his wife and children. Thoreau urges Field to live a simple but independent and fulfilling life in the woods, thereby freeing himself of employers and creditors. But the Irishman won't give up his aspirations of luxury and the quest for the American dream.
Higher Laws: Thoreau discusses whether hunting wild animals and eating meat is necessary. He concludes that the primitive, carnal sensuality of humans drives them to kill and eat animals, and that a person who transcends this propensity is superior to those who cannot. (Thoreau eats fish and occasionally salt pork and woodchuck.) In addition to vegetarianism, he lauds chastity, work, and teetotalism. He also recognizes that Native Americans need to hunt and kill moose for survival in "The Maine Woods", and eats moose on a trip to Maine while he was living at Walden. Here is a list of the laws that he mentions:
- One must love that of the wild just as much as one loves that of the good.
- What men already know instinctively is true humanity.
- The hunter is the greatest friend of the animal which is hunted.
- No human older than an adolescent would wantonly murder any creature which reveres its own life as much as the killer.
- If the day and the night make one joyful, one is successful.
- The highest form of self-restraint is when one can subsist not on other animals, but of plants and crops cultivated from the earth.
Brute Neighbors: is a simplified version of one of Thoreau's conversations with William Ellery Channing, who sometimes accompanied Thoreau on fishing trips when Channing had come up from Concord. The conversation is about a hermit (himself) and a poet (Channing) and how the poet is absorbed in the clouds while the hermit is occupied with the more practical task of getting fish for dinner and how in the end, the poet regrets his failure to catch fish. The chapter also mentions Thoreau's interaction with a mouse that he lives with, the scene in which an ant battles a smaller ant, and his frequent encounters with cats.
House-Warming: After picking November berries in the woods, Thoreau adds a chimney, and finally plasters the walls of his sturdy house to stave off the cold of the oncoming winter. He also lays in a good supply of firewood, and expresses affection for wood and fire.
Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors: Thoreau relates the stories of people who formerly lived in the vicinity of Walden Pond. Then he talks about a few of the visitors he receives during the winter: a farmer, a woodchopper, and his best friend, the poet Ellery Channing.
Winter Animals: Thoreau amuses himself by watching wildlife during the winter. He relates his observations of owls, hares, red squirrels, mice, and various birds as they hunt, sing, and eat the scraps and corn he put out for them. He also describes a fox hunt that passes by.
The Pond in Winter: Thoreau describes Walden Pond as it appears during the winter. He says he has sounded its depths and located an underground outlet. Then he recounts how 100 laborers came to cut great blocks of ice from the pond, the ice to be shipped to the Carolinas.
Spring: As spring arrives, Walden and the other ponds melt with powerful thundering and rumbling. Thoreau enjoys watching the thaw, and grows ecstatic as he witnesses the green rebirth of nature. He watches the geese winging their way north, and a hawk playing by itself in the sky. As nature is reborn, the narrator implies, so is he. He departs Walden on September 6, 1847.
Conclusion: This final chapter is more passionate and urgent than its predecessors. In it, he criticizes conformity: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away", By doing so, men may find happiness and self-fulfillment.
I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn. The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.