Walden By Henry David Thoreau Summary and Analysis Chapter 7 - The Bean-Field

Summary

A principle activity of the narrator was tending his bean-field. It was a large one, "the length of whose rows, added together, was seven miles," and it provided him with food and a source of cash — beans and other vegetables gave him a profit of $8.71½. Early each morning, he attacked the weeds with his hoe, examined the arrowheads and bits of pottery he turned up, and — most important of all — enjoyed his work. For it was more than just work; it was an opportunity to experience prolonged close contact with nature. Here was yet another chance to enjoy life to the fullest, and the narrator sharply criticizes those farmers who till the soil only for a financial gain. The narrator recalls that "husbandry was once a sacred art," an activity of genuine spiritual value. His is, and will continue to be, a more valuable crop than that which fills barns. His experience has taught him that the "true husbandman," the man who approaches nature with a spiritual harvest in mind, "will cease from anxiety." Fulfillment, contentment, and tranquility are the real produce that the narrator reaped from his bean-field.

Analysis

In the previous chapter, the narrator was finally not able to accept the way of life that the woodchopper represented. He admired the woodchopper's close ties with nature, but he saw it as a limitation that the woodchopper lacked the intellect, intuition, and imagination necessary for complete transcendence. The narrator wished to live a spiritual life, but he also wanted it to be a natural life — one that was intimate with earth, as well as with heaven. And thus we come to the profound value of growing beans: "They attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus." (Antaeus was the son of the goddess of the earth and derived his strength from contact with his mother; Hercules could defeat him in battle only by lifting him from the ground, thereby cutting off the source of his energy.) This is one value that the narrator derived from working in his bean-field, and there are others. One is that his method of raising beans enabled him to establish a way of life in a state between wild, untamed nature and well-ordered civilization; in this way, he was able to derive what was of value to him from both worlds. From the world of man, he derived his occupation: cultivating the soil. But he attempted to remain as natural as possible by not manuring his fields or using any farm implements except a hoe. The parable is obvious enough. When the narrator says of his bean-field, "mine was, as it were, the connecting link between wild and cultivated fields," he is claiming that he was civilized to a degree short of the excessive artificiality and unnaturalness of society, and he was natural to a degree short of uncultivated, untamed wilderness. He sees himself, then, as a symbol of humanized nature and naturalized civilization. He has forged in his personality a link between two worlds and is able to enjoy the best of both worlds.

The reader should note above that the bean-field has been interpreted to signify the narrator's inner state. The bean-field remains a literal bean-field and a source of physical stimulation to the narrator, but it is also a metaphor for the narrator's self — a self that needs the simultaneous experience of nature and spirit, and of wildness and civilization. In the chapter entitled "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," the narrator parenthetically mentioned, "I have always cultivated a garden," the garden being a metaphor for his self. And at the beginning of "The Bean-field," he attempts to prod the reader into considering this significance of his "garden." He indicates that there is a deeper meaning to his bean-field by asking, "what was the meaning of this," "why should I raise them," and "what shall I learn of beans or beans of me?" That the bean-field has a spiritual significance is suggested offhandedly by his answer: "only Heaven knows." The narrator has come to Walden Pond to cultivate and improve himself and, with this in mind, we might profitably read his description of how he cultivated the "soil": "This was my curious labour all summer — to make this portion of the earth's surface, which had yielded only cinquefoil, blackberries, johnswort, and the like, before, sweet wild fruits and pleasant flowers, produce instead this pulse." With the narrator's process of inner development and perfection in mind, we can see the metaphorical significance of his assertion that cultivating a garden was his "day's work" in this "summer" of spiritual growth. As a cultivated garden gives birth to beans instead of weeds, the narrator's soul will develop finer attributes because of his efforts at self-culture. He is an artist creating, like a sculptor with his clay, a soul, making his self express its spiritual perfection.

As would be expected, such a deliberate and successful cultivation of self enables the narrator to experience ecstasy. The metaphors of summer, morning, and dew (a metaphor expressing the freshness of morning) have already indicated this, but other metaphors of inspiration are also presented. As he worked his field, the narrator remembers that "near at hand, upon the topmost spray of a birch, [sang] the brown-thrasher — or red mavis, as some love to call him — all the morning." He remembers looking up to the sky and seeing a nighthawk circling his cabin. And he makes the inspirational significance of hawks clear when he describes "a pair of hen-hawks circling high in the sky, alternately soaring and descending, approaching and leaving one another, as if they were the embodiment of my own thoughts." Like the hawks, the narrator is also "high" — ecstatic — because of the delight he receives from cultivating his "garden."

The intense degree of this ecstasy is indicated by the following statement: "When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labour which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop. It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans." The "crop" that the narrator harvests is total, immediate, ecstatic integration with nature, and thus the divine. It is a nirvana-like state that he experiences; he is no longer distinct from nature or spirit: all is One. It is no longer beans (an object apart from himself) that he hoes, or an "I" (an entity apart from beans) that hoes the beans. All individuality disappears in this mystical fusion with nature and the divine.

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