Summary and Analysis
Chapter 13 - House-Warming
October arrived and the narrator began to prepare for the winter months. While admiring the brilliant autumn foliage, he gathered grapes, collected half a bushel of chestnuts, and brought in a small store of wild apples for coddling. Gradually the weather got colder, and when the wasps began flocking into his cabin to hibernate, the narrator decided it was time to move indoors to the warmth of his hearth.
He describes at length how he built his chimney, "the most vital part of the house." As is usual with the narrator, this employment proved to be a source of great enjoyment. He cleansed his second-hand bricks, mixed his own mortar with sand from Walden, and happily engaged himself in the art of masonry. Throughout the winter, the fire in the hearth was like a friend; and once he had finished plastering its walls, the cabin became a comfortable "shell" into which he could withdraw.
While the narrator was completing his cabin, the pond began to freeze. The narrator welcomed the first ice and spent hours studying the bottom of the pond through the glasslike ice, viewing the furrows in the sand, the cases of cadis worms, and other interesting objects. But the ice itself was "the object of most interest." This was so because of the designs which the bubbles formed beneath it. The delight he received from viewing them may be gleaned from the language he uses to describe them: "They were no longer one directly over another, but often like silvery coins poured from a bag, one overlapping another."
Having told us about the beauty of the pond and the comfort of his cabin, the narrator thus begins the story of the winter he spent at Walden Pond.
After reading this chapter, one would probably not guess that it reveals the beginning of a crisis in the narrator's life. It is only after reading the next three chapters, the so-called winter chapters, that one can see that "House-warming" introduces the narrator's spiritual trial. Until now, we have seen the narrator happily living through the spring and summer — the seasons of nature's rebirth and fruition and the narrator's spiritual seasons of rebirth and maturation. Inspired by natural influences, he has been renewed and vitalized. Now, with nature's season of inactivity fast approaching, natural stimuli are being removed from the narrator's experience. Without external stimuli to keep up his spirits, he had to depend solely on himself for spiritual survival. He had to turn inward — metaphorically indicated by his preparations to move indoors — and keep alive his spirit with the strength he has "stored up" within his soul. As fall moved into winter, "the character of each tree came out"; likewise, the narrator's true character will "come out" and its spiritual strength will be tested. As the "winter set in in good earnest," the narrator prepared to preserve his spiritual life: "I withdrew yet farther into my shell, and endeavoured to keep a bright fire both within my house and within my breast."
This "fire" within his breast is a traditional symbol of inspiration, and when the narrator uses this symbol he prods the reader into realizing the spiritual significance of the fireplace and the chimney that he has built in preparation for winter. As a fireplace is necessary to keep an actual fire within the cabin, a spiritually strong self is needed to preserve the "fire" of inspiration. Hence, in building his chimney, the narrator is metaphorically describing his final attempt "to build" a spiritually strong soul that can contain the "fire." With this in mind, we can see the metaphorical significance of one particular description of the chimney. Like the narrator's soul, "the chimney is to some extent an independent structure, standing on the ground and rising through the house to the heavens; even after the house is burned it still stands sometimes." Thus Thoreau metaphorically links the house and chimney with the narrator's body and soul. That the narrator is describing his last attempt at strengthening his spirit is again indicated by his purifying the bricks for the chimney by scraping and washing them; moreover, it is no accident that he uses the terminology of spiritual rebirth when discussing the construction of his hearth: "I was surprised to see . . . how many pailfuls of water it takes to christen a new hearth." How many times already have we seen the narrator "baptize" his self, using much the same language to describe the process?
In the next three chapters, we will see how successfully the narrator has strengthened his soul so that it can survive a spiritual "winter."