Summary and Analysis
Chapter 14 - Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors
This chapter begins with the narrator attempting to preserve his happy, summer state of mind in the midst of winter. He buoyantly tells us, "I weathered some merry snow storms, and spent some cheerful winter evenings by my fireside." Yet, while making the best of his situation, it is not long before we hear a somber note in the narrator's voice. All nature is silent and still — "even the hooting of the owl was hushed" — and, indirectly, he is telling us that he received no natural stimulation. The deep snow made visits from friends less frequent and, in this solitary situation, he had to exercise his ingenuity to keep his mind active: "For human society I was obliged to conjure up the former occupants of these woods." Turning to memory and history to keep his mind busy, he describes the former inhabitants of the Walden area.
He recounts the residences of three former slaves: Cato Ingraham, whose Walden land was eventually taken away by "a younger and whiter speculator"; Zilpha, an elderly woman who spun linen and made the woods ring with her songs; and Brister Freeman, whose wife, Fenda, "pleasantly" told fortunes. There is the ruined farm of the Stratten family, and also the Breeds' house, which was burnt to the ground not long ago by mischievous children. The narrator recalls that he had been shown the Breeds' place by one of the family. This fellow was especially gratified to find that the well had not been destroyed, but was merely covered up and could again be tapped someday.
When considering the remains of Hugh Quoil's place, the narrator again focuses on a covered well. It makes him feel melancholy that "where once a spring oozed" there is now "dry and tearless grass." Such recollections make the narrator sad, and he gives them up for comforting sleep.
Since there were hardly any visitors, the narrator spent much time walking across the winter landscape, observing the snow-covered trees and an occasional animal. One time, he came upon a drowsy owl perched on the dead limb of a pine. The owl seemed as inactive as the rest of nature, but the narrator found this appearance to be deceiving when he moved too close to the owl. The owl abruptly came to life: "He launched himself off, and flapped through the pines, spreading his wings to unexpected breadth." Strolling farther, the narrator found other signs of nature's continuing vitality in the midst of winter.
When the narrator returned to his cabin from these jaunts, he sometimes found a friend waiting for him. Once, a "long-headed farmer" visited him, and they heartily recalled "rude and simple times, when men sat about large fires in cold, bracing weather, with clear heads." A poet also visited him, and together they made "that small house ring with boisterous mirth and resound with the murmur of much sober talk." A philosopher also stopped by. He was a great, ideal man whose personality made "plain the image engraven in men's bodies, the God of whom they are but defaced and leaning monuments." The narrator was inspired by his conversation with the philosopher and felt a heightened spiritual awareness.
In this chapter, the narrator turns to three possible sources of spiritual stimulation. The first, history, proved to be unstimulating, and even depressing. Finally he gave it up, declaring, "Alas! how little does the memory of these human inhabitants enhance the beauty of the landscape!" In considering this first part of the chapter, we should note a symbol that appears twice — the covered-up wells of the Breed place and the Quoil place. As was mentioned in the commentary on "The Ponds," springs and wells are often-used symbols for inspiration. That these particular wells are covered up and no longer flow indicates that the narrator's inspiration has been cut off in this spiritual "winter." It is significant, however, that the wells are merely covered up and that they are not destroyed; this signifies the hope of the narrator that he may once again "uncover" and tap his "well" of inspiration.
When the narrator turns from history to nature, the second possible source of stimulation, we again see him looking for confirmation of his hope that his spiritual life will not die. When he saw the owl, he observed a sign of torpidity in nature that reflected his own spiritual torpidity. But when the owl burst into flight, nature showed the narrator that there was still vitality in nature beneath the appearance of lifelessness; nature did not die simply because of winter. Watching the owl and discovering the skunk-cabbages which still grew in the swamps in winter, the narrator was taught by nature that he need not die spiritually simply because he was experiencing a psychological winter. This realization did not produce ecstasy in the narrator, but it did give him hope for spiritual survival. Like the "hardier bird" in the swamp, he hopefully awaited the return of spring.
After reading such chapters as "Solitude," "Visitors," and "The Village," the reader will find it ironic that the final, possible source of stimulation, human company, is the most vitalizing one. To the narrator, the philosopher made heaven and earth meet; he produced a sense of ecstatic integration in the narrator's spiritual "winter."