Walden begins with the narrator informing his audience that this book was written in answer to questions posed about his two-year stay at Walden Pond. He hopes to explain the spiritually rich life he enjoyed and, at the same time, through presenting the example of his own life, teach his readers something about the shortcomings and possibilities of theirs. While living at the pond, he had the opportunity to view society from the outside and see that, in contrast to his happy situation, most men "lead lives of quiet desperation." While continually perfecting his life by living simply and close to nature, he could see other men wasting their lives by frantically scurrying here and there, foolishly chasing after wealth and social status which could never fulfill their deepest needs. He can only regretfully conclude that modern man, obsessed with material gain, has "not leisure for a true integrity . . . he has not time to be anything but a machine." The narrator is especially saddened that even farming, an activity which allows men to live close to the spiritually elevating influences of nature, has lost its noble character and has become simply another enervating and dehumanizing way to accumulate wealth and property.
The narrator's stay at Walden taught him that no one need resign himself to a dreary, drudging life; no man has to be "so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked." The narrator found that all men may confidently hope for a better life. They need take only the first step toward perfection: self-criticism. For all men, there is hope if they are willing to take a critical view of their lives, as the narrator has so acutely done, and then set about reforming themselves.
The narrator believes that once a man critically reviews his life he will immediately discover a major hindrance to personal growth and happiness: the blind acceptance of traditional, conventional ways of living as handed down by previous generations. Too many individuals unquestioningly accept what their parents and grandparents believed to be the meaning of life; this is the root of man's present predicament. The narrator scoffs at the materialistic view of life that enjoys such popular currency. He advises his readers to embark on life as he has done, approaching it as a unique, personal experiment. No one should be tied down by society's definition of himself or life, but should confront life in a new, fresh way. By discarding those values of society which are worthless and sometimes dehumanizing, each individual would be able to discover life's meaning for himself. This is exactly what the narrator achieved by living at Walden, and it is what made possible his consequent spiritual growth as an individual.
The most dehumanizing of our traditional values, the narrator says, is the emphasis placed on property. To those smothered and enslaved by property, he offers the lesson he learned from critically evaluating his life: freedom to adventure upon the real concerns of life comes only after one has reduced his belongings to those things which are absolutely "necessary of life." While other men spent all of their time and energies piling up luxuries and maintaining their superabundant property, the narrator moved to Walden, reduced his needs to a bare minimum, and thus had the time and peace of mind to approach seriously the task of creating a fulfilling way of life. He knew that clothing, shelter, food, and fuel were the basic essentials for survival. And, unlike others, he did not slave his life away to acquire the latest clothing from Paris, a palatial estate, luxurious food, and costly fuel. He wore inexpensive but durable clothing. He borrowed an axe and built a simple, comfortable cabin for $28.12½, and kept his furniture to a minimum: a bed, a table, three chairs, cooking utensils, a lamp, and a desk. At first he kept a piece of limestone on his desk, but later he threw it away when he discovered how much time had to be spent in dusting it. He cultivated a small garden of beans, potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips that provided him with most of his food, and made a profit of $8.71½ by selling his surplus produce. He collected his fuel, free, from the woodside. What little extra money he needed, he earned from various day-labor jobs; he found that a man is able to support himself for a year with what he can earn in a few weeks. He advises his readers to follow his example by similarly simplifying their lives. Once out of the economic rat race, he said, they will have the leisure and tranquility to study, meditate, enjoy nature, and begin creating a spiritually rich life. Like the narrator, they will find that life can be a cause for celebration; life does not have to be a reason for weary complaint.
The narrator concludes this chapter by advising his readers not to go out and try to change the world once they have thrown off the fetters of tradition and materialism. The beginning of all real reform, he says, is the perfection of each individual. Once an individual has critically observed his shortcomings, his first step in reforming his life should be to turn inward, as the narrator did when he left society, and discover what he, alone, is capable of being. Within his self, he will discover a near-infinite potential for spiritual perfection which can be actualized. If, like the narrator, he designs his life to realize his potential for spiritual perfection, and avoids the world of trade which "curses every thing it handles," life will become a constantly growing state of ecstasy.
Walden begins with the narrator's explanation of why he chose to address himself to his audience in the first person singular voice. "In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well." This declaration is immediately understandable in terms of Thoreau's strategy for his book. Thoreau desires Walden to have a forceful impact on society. His narrator will be explaining the rich changes in his life and how superior his life is when compared with that of the average American. He will explain how he achieved such a marvelous life, hoping to convince the reader to improve his own life. In doing this, he may become liable to the charge of hyper-egotism or smugness. The narrator may be judged a braggart by the reader, and Thoreau counters this possibility by having his narrator immediately admit that his life is the subject at hand. Later the narrator almost deferentially tells his reader that "unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience." Thus Thoreau further attempts to gain sympathy and a degree of empathy from the reader by creating a narrator who is almost reluctant to tell his unusual history.
There is, however, a more sophisticated level of meaning in the narrator's early comments about himself and his story. In emphasizing his use of the "I" voice, the narrator focuses the reader's attention on what is the primary subject of Walden: the subjective entity, the inner being, the self that will experience spiritual rebirth and growth at Walden Pond. Natural scenery, social criticism, economic and political theory — all of these have a prominent place in Walden, but all are subservient to the book's core: the quest to realize the "I" voice's vision of an ideal existence. The narrator moves through the objective, external world, but the real focus of the book is on the internal, subjective world of the narrator's self, or soul, as it moves toward spiritual fulfillment and ecstasy.
This movement toward spiritual perfection, the main movement of Walden, is expressed through metaphors. When the narrator starts to construct his cabin in March 1845, he also, metaphorically, informs the reader that he is beginning to "build" a new self and a new life. As he proceeds, signs of rebirth and renewal suddenly appear. He tells us that "the ice in the pond was not yet dissolved," but as he works at his cabin ("builds" a new self), the iced pond (signifying his state of spiritual rigidity and lifelessness) continually thaws. The narrator makes clear this significant correspondence between the thawing ice and his own movement out of a spiritual "winter": "They were pleasant spring days, in which the winter of man's discontent was thawing itself as well as the earth, and the life that had lain torpid began to stretch itself." Nature "spring-ing" to life thus becomes a metaphorical expression of the new vitality the narrator was coming to feel. Next, he mentions a snake that ran into the pond and "lay on the bottom . . . more than a quarter of an hour; perhaps because he had not yet fairly come out of the torpid state" of winter hibernation. The narrator sees this half-awake snake as significant of his and other men's spiritual states. He finds hope for himself and others in considering that eventually the snake will be thawed by the sun; likewise, he and all men may be awakened from "their low and primitive condition" if they allow themselves to feel the revivifying power of nature. He proclaims his belief that men "should feel the influence of the spring of springs arousing them"; if they do, he says, "they would of necessity rise to a higher and more ethereal life." The narrator is now moving toward this higher state of life, signaled by the song of "one early thrush." In Thoreau's writings, the songs of birds, particularly the thrush, are often used to symbolize inspiration.
Metaphors of rebirth are also used in the narrator's discussion of clothing and furniture. In criticizing man's obsession with fancy clothing and the fact that most people judge a man by his appearance rather than by the quality of his character, he indicates his own concern for the inner being that exists beneath the external shell. Man should first concern himself with the growth of inward perfection, since true beauty is born within the soul. To illustrate this, he turns to the natural phenomena of rebirth and renewal and points out that natural, true beauty must grow from within and cannot be externally applied: the "new" snake emerges from the old skin in the spring after having developed his new skin within the old; the caterpillar achieves its butterfly state by withdrawing and completing itself within its cocoon; and the loon renews its appearance by molting, shedding its old feathers, and growing new ones. As animals transform themselves into more beautiful, more perfect creatures through internal growth, so must man concern himself with casting off the old, imperfect self and creating a new, more perfect one within if he is to become spiritually beautiful.
The subject of furniture provides the narrator with yet another opportunity to depict how he shed his old way of life for the sake of the new. Furniture, to the narrator, is like a "spider's web" which may entangle the "butterfly," Thoreau's symbol for the spiritually perfected man. Hence the narrator avoids collecting furniture — or rather, "sheds" it from his life. Alluding to the snake's sloughing-off process, he asks, "pray, for what do we move ever but to be rid of our furniture." Again making the same allusion to the snake's renewal, he praises the savages who annually go through the ritual of burning their belongings so as to start each year of their lives anew, unencumbered by property — "they at least go through the semblance of casting their slough annually." The narrator wishes that all men would "in like manner purify and prepare themselves" as he has done. He has cast off furniture, tradition, debts, and the worries of an ordinary, materialistic life. He has cast off his old social personality for the sake of developing a new, more perfect soul.
The preponderant number of metaphors associated with purification, rebirth, and renewal leads the reader to conclude that the "I" voice's main concern, and Walden's most important theme, deals with the possibility of transcending one's old life and being reborn into a spiritually elevated one.