Thoreau's "Walden" Major Themes


The Spiritual Journey

Walden is, above all, the account of Thoreau's own exploration of his capabilities and his search for spiritual understanding. Thoreau recounts his personal quest to demonstrate to his readers the possibility of surmounting the obstacles that materialistic society places in the path of the individual. He does not — cannot — spell out for the reader the spiritual truth that lies at the end of the journey. He focuses on the search itself and the compelling need to make it. Walden chronicles spiritual growth, but the progress of this growth is not linear. It has peaks and valleys, periods of latency as well as of inspired perception.

In "Economy," Thoreau explains his purpose in going to live at the pond. He distinguishes between the outer man — the ephemeral physical being that "is soon ploughed into the soil for compost," and the inner man. He points out the forces that dull and subjugate the inner man, materialism and constant labor in particular. He recognizes the pervasive malaise that results from society's suppression of what we might be — the "stereotyped but unconscious despair . . . concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind." In "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," he advises self-improvement, the cultivation of our intellectual and spiritual needs:

We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake . . . by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.

The ultimate goal of the author's experiment at Walden is not to prove the economic advantage of living simply, but rather to nurture understanding of self and of the universe.

In the "Conclusion," Thoreau urges us to seek "our own interior . . . on the chart," regardless of whether it proves to be good or bad, to investigate the "continents and seas in the moral world to which every man is an isthmus or an inlet." Actual voyages of exploration and discovery pale by comparison to the journey inward and upward. He encourages the reader to begin right now. We tend to "esteem truth remote, in the outskirts of the system, behind the farthest star." But, as the author writes in "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For":

. . . all these times and places and occasions are now and here. God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages. And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality which surrounds us.

Our existence occupies one moment in the continuity of time ("Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in," Thoreau writes at the end of "Where I Lived . . ."). From any particular point of existence, the universal is accessible. By living deliberately, self-reliantly, and independently in the present, we may transcend the limits of time, "walk with the Builder of the universe . . . not . . . live in this restless, nervous, bustling, trivial Nineteenth Century, but stand or sit thoughtfully while it goes by" (as Thoreau writes in his "Conclusion").

Life at Walden Pond provides Thoreau with the opportunity to journey into himself, into nature, and into the divine, but other men may have approaches of their own, reflecting their particular conditions and circumstances. Even for Thoreau, his Walden experiment is only one expression of the spiritual impulse. As he explains in the "Conclusion," he leaves Walden because he has "several more lives to live," and can spare no more time for the one he has so fully described in his book. He does not prescribe living at Walden as a remedy for the spiritual ills of others; he offers it only as an example.

Thoreau uses an astonishing range of metaphors to characterize the spiritual quest. Walden Pond itself, where Thoreau's own journey unfolds, is both real and symbolic. It represents the reality of nature, an expression of the divine, human potential for clear perception and understanding, and the mystery of the universe, which, although vast, may nevertheless be approached and understood. Thoreau's bean-field symbolizes the author's inner field, which must be planted, hoed, and tended. Others cultivate themselves by studying art in Boston or Rome, but Thoreau's Transcendental self-culture takes place in the bean-field. Described in "House-Warming" as "an independent structure, standing on the ground and rising through the house to the heavens," Thoreau's chimney symbolizes individual aspiration toward the spiritual and infinite. As it dives into Walden's depths, the loon that shows up repeatedly in the book stands for man in search of higher understanding. The imagery of morning and light in Walden suggests increased perception, insight, and inspiration. And the sand foliage in "Spring" represents the work of the creator, evident to man through nature.

Thoreau presents the spiritual journey of Walden in relation to the cycle of the seasons. The book is structured around the advancing seasons of a single year, beginning with the author's preparing to build his house in the spring, proceeding through fall and winter, and ending with the return of spring. The two years of his actual stay at Walden are compressed into a single year to provide narrative coherence and movement and to build toward the presentation of rebirth in "Spring." The narrator expresses optimism and anxiety at different phases of his spiritual journey. His mood is integrally connected to season. Winter, a time of spiritual dormancy, slows the journey. At the beginning of "The Pond in Winter," he awakens in a state of anxiety, with "the impression that some question has been put to me, which I have been endeavoring in vain to answer in my sleep." If winter delays the processes of perception and understanding, the arrival of spring brings celebration of the divine in nature, exuberant reawakening of all the narrator's faculties, and a renewed sense of spiritual possibility.

There are seasons in the development of individual men and mankind as a whole, as well as in nature. In "Higher Laws," Thoreau discusses preoccupation with hunting and fishing as one stage in the evolution toward spiritual consciousness. Hunting and fishing, expressions of man's animal aspect, comprise one form of intense involvement with nature. The man who has "seeds of a better life in him" may progress to a broader, more poetic understanding of the natural world, and ultimately achieve true spirituality. Thoreau observes in certain individuals — fishermen, hunters, and woodchoppers — the ability to perceive the reality of nature clearly, and evidence of higher capacities as well. Openness to change and to new perspectives is necessary to elevate the rudimentary link with nature to a higher plane of awareness and understanding. As Thoreau writes in "The Village," we need to be lost to "appreciate the vastness and strangeness of Nature," to "begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations." Not many men can make the leap from hunting and fishing to higher pursuits. And many, like the Irishman John Field in "Baker Farm" and most of Thoreau's contemporaries in the village, are essentially disconnected from nature. Field cannot decide whether he wants to go fishing. When he actually makes up his mind to do so, he proves a poor fisherman. He cannot even begin the spiritual journey at the most elemental level.

Duality of Man and of Nature

Thoreau's appeal to the readers of Walden to spiritualize is predicated on the recognition of two sides of human nature — the animal and the spiritual — and upon his conviction that man must acknowledge and in some way reconcile these opposing tendencies. In "Economy," he discusses the physical necessities of life — food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. Until these needs are met, a person cannot rise above them. After he has taken care of the essentials, however, "there is another alternative than to obtain the superfluities; and that is, to adventure on life now, his vacation from humbler toil having commenced," and ultimately to turn his thoughts "into the heavens above."

All men have both animal instincts and higher capacities. Thoreau underscores this coexistence of animal and higher qualities in "Solitude," in which he describes man as simultaneously a physical entity and as an intellectual spectator within his own body. Some men show intelligence, perception, and a relation to nature. A few actually embark upon the spiritual quest. Those who are comfortable in nature — even if they do not actively seek to understand natural laws — and who are willing to think for themselves may progress from living in reality to a more spiritual life.

Thoreau is fascinated by simple men who live close to nature, and particularly by the French Canadian woodchopper (Alek Therien, unnamed in Walden). He describes the woodchopper in "Visitors" as a true "Homeric or Paphlagonian man," who appreciates epic poetry in his own way. He is both stout and a "great consumer of meat." He is deliberate and unhurried in his actions, good at his work, quiet, solitary, and happy. Thoreau writes, "In him the animal man chiefly was developed. . . . But the intellectual and what is called spiritual man in him were slumbering as in an infant." He is humble, reverent, respectful of his betters, and accepts life as it is. Thoreau detects in him a "man whom I had not seen before, and I did not know whether he was as wise as Shakespeare or as simply ignorant as a child." He approaches things with practical intelligence, displays an almost philosophical outlook, has a certain "positive originality," and is capable of "thinking for himself and expressing his own opinion." But Thoreau cannot move the woodcutter to "take the spiritual view of things." Thoreau suspects that there are unexplored depths of intellect and spirituality within this man:

He suggested that there might be men of genius in the lowest grades of life, however humble and illiterate, who take their own view always, or do not pretend to see at all; who are as bottomless even as Walden Pond was thought to be, though they may be dark and muddy.

But the woodcutter resists rising beyond his animal nature, and consequently offers no insight into the integration of man's animal and spiritual sides.

Thoreau considers man's dual nature — animal and spiritual — in "Higher Laws." He writes of his own urge to gobble down a raw woodchuck as an expression of animal impulse that is as much a part of him as of any man. Throughout the chapter, he writes of subduing the appetites, of subordinating the animal to the higher instincts. In writing of hunting and fishing, Thoreau writes that he himself, formerly a fisherman, no longer has a taste for fishing: "There is unquestionably this instinct in me which belongs to the lower orders of creation; yet with every year I am less a fisherman . . . at present I am no fisherman at all." In stating that if he lived in the wilderness he would be tempted "to become a fisher and hunter in earnest," Thoreau acknowledges that no matter how well developed a man is intellectually and spiritually, the animal is always present within. The individual's awareness of self, of nature, and of higher purpose provides the key to surpassing animal nature. The reconciliation of animal and spiritual — if sublimation can be considered reconciliation — takes place through human understanding.

Nature, too, has its duality in Walden. Thoreau clearly perceives and enjoys nature as reality. He writes at the beginning of "Sounds" of the "language which all things and events speak without metaphor." And yet, throughout the book, he repeatedly uses objects and creatures in the natural world — Walden Pond, his bean-field, and the loon, among others — metaphorically. He clearly shares Emerson's Transcendental understanding of nature (expressed in Nature in 1836) as symbolic of spirit. Thoreau writes that he values the very real beans in his bean-field not merely as beans, but as "tropes and expression, to serve a parable-maker one day." And in discussing just why particular species, and only those species, exist in nature, Thoreau comments that "they are all beasts of burden, in a sense, made to carry some portion of our thoughts."

In the chapter "The Ponds," Thoreau suggests integration of nature as reality and nature as symbol. He writes of fishing on the pond at night:

It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element which was scarcely more dense. Thus I caught two fishes as it were with one hook.

The thinking man is thus abruptly brought back from the spiritual realm to reality. The pond is the work of the divine creator, a point of access to the universal for the alert seeker. Through the pond, through nature, man sits at the gateway between earth and heaven. The physical pond can be surveyed. But the symbolic pond seems bottomless to some men, and will continue to be so perceived as long as men need to believe in the infinite. Man (as Thoreau writes in "Spring") wants to understand things, and yet, at the same time, craves the inexplicable. Such synthesis as is possible between the reality and symbolism of nature takes place within the mind of the observer, through flashes of intuition, inspiration, and imagination.

Growth, Change, and Renewal

Walden is Thoreau's entreaty to his reader to begin a new life. The book affirms change over stasis, present over past, vitality over stagnation, life over death. It celebrates renewal, even immortality. In writing Walden, Thoreau tells of the course of his own spiritualization — a process of intense change and development — and counsels the reader on how to elevate. Optimism about change is evident in his own story and implicit in his advice to the reader.

Transformation and inertia are presented as conflicting forces, balanced against one another in a kind of universal tension. The individual changes biologically as well as intellectually and spiritually, but his physical progression from youth to old age follows a path more or less set by nature. Nature itself changes cyclically, but the cycle of the seasons — the cycle of life — is repeated over and over. The classics of literature possess permanence in their expression of universal meaning, their relevance to men in all times. They simultaneously have the life-altering power to change a man. Higher laws and divinity are absolute, but they are transformative for the man sensitive to the meanings of nature. Society, institutions, and the traditions of the past — expressions of the status quo — constitute the major hindrances to change throughout Walden. Technological development is a kind of change, but it prevents the individual's growth by creating a mind-numbing amount of labor and by imposing materialistic values. Thoreau therefore denies that it is true progress.

As a manifestation of vigorous nature and of God's work, Walden is eternal. It transcends time and change. Thoreau writes in "The Ponds":

. . . of all the characters I have known, perhaps Walden wears best, and best preserves its purity. . . . Though the woodchoppers have laid bare first this shore and then that, and the Irish have built their sties by it, and the railroad has infringed on its border, and the ice-men have skimmed it once, it is itself unchanged, the same water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the change is in me. . . . It is perennially young. . . . Why, here is Walden, the same woodland lake that I discovered so many years ago; where a forest was cut down last winter another is springing up by its shore as lustily as ever; the same thought is welling up to its surface that was then; it is the same liquid joy and happiness to itself and its Maker, ay, and it may be to me. It is the work of a brave man surely. . . .

The degree to which an individual may spiritualize, may comprehend divinity, depends on his ability to differentiate between permanent and transient values and his persistence in seeking the permanent, the absolute and ideal. Thoreau's spiritual journey provides one example of striving toward the absolute. The story of the artist of Kouroo, who aspired to perfection and, in the process of single-mindedly achieving it, transcended time and mortality, provides another.

Vitality and the ability to change are bound up with perception throughout Walden. The light of each new day brings fresh opportunity for understanding. Thoreau refers often to vision and to perception-enhancing experience. He writes in "The Village" of being lost in a snowstorm, which bestows a heightened appreciation of nature and an ability to see familiar things anew. At the beginning of "Winter Animals," he describes looking at the landscape from the frozen surface of Flint's Pond and marveling at the sensation of never having seen it before. Openness to taking new perspectives is essential to individual change.

In "Spring," the process of rebirth, the leap from death to life, represents radical change. Thoreau writes that Walden was dead, and is now alive again. The chapter concludes with the seasons "rolling on into summer" in a predictable cycle of endless change. The narrative of Walden thus ends with the integration of transience and permanence, of change and constancy.

The Individual — Centrality and Independence

As the story of Thoreau's own spiritual journey, Walden elevates the individual in a personal way. The experience of the author himself is central to the book. Thoreau emphasizes the first-person nature of his narrative in "Economy": "In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted. . . . 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 any body else whom I knew as well." He requires not only of himself but of every writer "a simple and sincere account of his own life." His life validates the narrator's work and confers the right to advise others. Thoreau emphasizes the fact that he proclaims his own experience through the image of himself as Chanticleer, the fabled rooster, in "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For": ". . . I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up."

In Walden, as throughout Thoreau's writings, anything that encourages individual conformity to the status quo — society, institutions, the historical past — is criticized. In "Economy," Thoreau compares primitive and civilized life: "[T]his points to an important distinction between the civilized man and the savage . . . the life of a civilized people [is made] an institution, in which the life of the individual is to a great extent absorbed." Thoreau stresses how costly this assimilation is. Institutions — church, the marketplace, government, the political arena — impose their own values and curtail the individual's freedom to think independently. The village is full of shops that beckon to the passerby, but their materialistic appeal distracts a man from the pursuit of nature and spirit. In "The Bean-Field," the noisy members of the military training band (ironically described as keepers of "the liberties of Massachusetts and of our fatherland") blur into an indistinct, humming swarm. In "Economy," the train — regarded by most as progress — transports the products of trade and commerce, metaphorically running over most of those who rush to board it. When Thoreau describes his July 1846 arrest in the village for refusing to pay his poll tax, his freedom to protest slavery and the Mexican War is compromised by government as personified in the jailer (Sam Staples, unnamed in Walden). Government infringes upon the "virtues of a superior man." Wherever the individual goes, "men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society." The thinking man is necessarily opposed to the social structure. In Walden, Thoreau exalts the change required for individual spiritualization. Society and its institutions are conservative, inertial forces, obstacles to transformation.

Thoreau writes disparagingly of organized reform in Walden, particularly at the end of "Economy": "If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life. . . ." The reform of society rests within the individual. Each man is a microcosm. If he works at improving himself, he reforms the world more effectively than can any philanthropic scheme or organization. Thoreau perceives in the externally-directed reformer "not his sympathy with his fellows in distress, but . . . his private ail." He adds, "Let this be righted, let the spring come to him, the morning rise over his couch, and he will forsake his generous companions without apology." The man who minds his own business — tends to his own spiritual health — is the true reformer of society. The individual alone is capable of meaningful, far-reaching change.

Thoreau emphasizes the individual's need to maintain independence. Independence of thought requires self-reliance and some degree of separation from others. Significantly, he moves into his house at Walden Pond on July 4, 1845 — more than a literal Independence Day. His chimney, symbol of the narrator himself in "House-Warming," is described as an independent structure. As he points out in "Solitude," a man thinking and a man working are always alone. Thoreau distinguishes between solitude and loneliness. In solitude, there is a sufficiency of companionship in self and nature, and the possibility of spiritual understanding. Loneliness is not a consideration. Men should stay away from the busy places where crowds congregate, and seek instead "the perennial source of life." Meaningful interaction with others — when companions begin "to utter big thoughts in big words," as he writes in "Visitors" — must allow both distance and silence, which impart perspective. Physical and intellectual independence from narrowing influences protect the individual's ability to make the spiritual journey.

The Simple Life

In "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," Thoreau urges, "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail." This passage is one of the most frequently quoted from all of Thoreau's writings. Throughout Walden, Thoreau devotes considerable attention to the subject of the simple life. In "Economy," he presents the details of his simple, efficient, self-reliant life at Walden Pond, calculating the costs of shelter, food, clothing, and other necessities to the half penny. He is so specific and precise that many readers have approached Walden as a manifesto of particular social, economic, and political points of view, in the process sometimes overlooking Thoreau's larger purpose in describing his life at the pond.

Thoreau emphasizes the crushing, numbing effect of materialism and commercialism on the individual's life. Property ownership and technological progress consume men before they have a chance to consider how they might live. The author encourages his contemporaries to be content with less materially. In "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For," he tells how he himself came close to purchasing the Hollowell place (a Concord farm), but in the end did not. He thus remains able to enjoy the landscape without obligating himself and giving up his freedom. In "The Bean-Field," he laments the commercialization of agriculture, which has lost its archaic dignity. In "The Village," he exposes the at once comic and grotesque seductiveness of the shops on Concord's Mill Dam, and describes his own hasty escape from town. In "Baker Farm," he sketches the character of John Field, a poor man who regards as necessities tea, coffee, meat, and other dispensables that are obtained only at the cost of precluding higher life. Thoreau's own simple lifestyle contrasts throughout with the multiple, insistent expressions of society's materialism.

But never in Walden does Thoreau suggest that every man should move to Walden Pond, bake his own bread, and grow beans. His experiment in simplicity is but a means to the end of self-realization and spiritualization — not the end itself. He stresses that there may be as many ways of transcending worldly values as there are men. He writes in "Economy":

. . . I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way, and not his father's or his mother's or his neighbor's instead. The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do.

There are other approaches than Thoreau's own to the dilemmas that society creates.

At the end of "The Pond in Winter," Thoreau provides a suggestive example of the translation of commercial enterprise into the spiritual realm. He writes of the shipment of Walden ice to Madras, Bombay, and Calcutta, enabling others to drink from his own spiritual well, while at Walden he immerses himself in the Bhagavad Gita. This perfect turning of the tables on materialism underscores that Thoreau's equation of the simple life with the spiritual quest is more subtle than a straightforward correspondence of the two.