Summary and Analysis
Chapter 2 - Where I Lived, and What I Lived For
The narrator tells us that for many years he thought of buying a farm in the Concord countryside. He considered many sites and even exercised his Yankee shrewdness by haggling over the price with several farmers. But he followed his own advice, as expressed in "Economy," and avoided purchasing a farm because it would inevitably tie him down financially and complicate his life. Besides, he reasoned, why did he need to own a farm? All that is of real value to the individual in living on a farm — close, personal contact with the spiritually invigorating influences of nature — can be had for nothing.
The Hollowell place did, however, offer a special advantage that the narrator desired: "its complete retirement, being about two miles from the village, half a mile from the nearest neighbour, and separated from the highway." He desired solitude, but not the Hollowell mortgage, so he created a suitable substitute — a primitive, inexpensive "farm" on the shore of Walden. He declared his own independence from society and mortgages on July 4, 1845, by moving into his pond-side hut. There he found himself free from the trivialities of village life, free from the economic rat race, and free to be inspired by nature.
He relates the spiritual ecstasy that came to him immediately after moving to Walden. He was so content, so totally happy while enjoying the ripeness of summer and the songs of various birds that he came to see his new residence as no longer a simple hut but as a "new and unprofaned part of the universe." To some, it might have seemed a poor excuse for a house, but to the inspired narrator it had a divine character.
The narrator especially enjoyed his mornings at Walden. He found each one to be "a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself." As he bathed in the pond, he was both physically and spiritually invigorated; he realized that he was truly awakening to not only the day, but to life itself.
Having provided an example of how his life became fresh and vitally alive, the narrator turns to his readers and asks why they continue to live as drably as they do. He wonders why men persist in living "meanly, like ants" when life can be a joyful celebration. He complains that "our life is frittered away by detail," and that most men's personalities are uncomfortably split into many opposing parts. Holding up his own example of spiritual wholeness, he offers his readers the remedy for spiritual disintegration that he discovered and announced in "Economy": "Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand. . . . Simplify, simplify." Moreover, he declares that we should push aside all of the trivialities of life and immediately get down to the real, genuine concerns of life. For example, we should quit wasting our time reading the worthless, repetitive gossip that fills the daily newspapers and seek out the real truths of existence.
The narrator was able to do this, and we watch him as he continues his "burrowing" toward truth; "I would mine and burrow my way through these hills. I think that the richest vein is somewhere hereabouts." As Walden progresses, we shall see the spiritual riches that he "mined" from living at Walden Pond.
In considering this chapter, the first thing the reader should note is the similarity between the image of the narrator at the beginning of the chapter and that at the end. At the beginning, he described the poet — himself — who had the ability to "skim off," from the landscape that which was of value to his soul. He did not buy the Hollowell farm, but he did retain in his mind the landscape; "and I have since annually carried off what it yielded without a wheelbarrow." At the end of the chapter, we find him mining reality, digging out of life those values that make him complete. Throughout Walden, we will see the narrator acting thus: approaching books, animals, sounds, and all the aspects of life in terms of their value to his process of self-growth. In effect, anything in the world exists for the sake of what it can contribute to his quest for perfection. As he states midway in this chapter, "I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."
This chapter dramatically illustrates the success of the narrator's attempt at "mining," "skimming off," and "sucking out" that which is of spiritual value. As in "Economy," the narrator's growing state of inspiration is signaled by the songs of birds; again Thoreau's special symbol of inspiration appears as "the wood thrush sang around, and was heard from shore to shore." As the narrator bathes in the pond, we discover still other symbols of spiritual purification, that of water and the religious ceremony of baptism. The narrator is careful to make this allusion clear: "I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did." That this symbolic action takes place in the morning is also significant. As the new day is born, the narrator believes that with each dawn a new life begins for him: "Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me." The narrator believes that he daily moves further out of the spiritually asleep state that he once shared with the majority of men, the "sleepers." He is no longer like the half-thawed snake of "Economy" that slumbered on the bottom of Walden Pond.
At the conclusion of "Economy," the narrator announced that the first step to personal reform is the act of turning inward to discover one's potential for greatness. As this chapter indicates, one thing that the narrator found within himself was the faculty of imagination which enabled him to see himself and the world in a new, more spiritually perfect way — hence his discovery that his hut near the pond was actually a palace, in terms of its value to the development of his spiritual life. The most noteworthy imaginative act that the narrator performs is to create a new definition of his relationship to the world. When he declares, "Wherever I sat, there might I live, and the landscape radiated from me accordingly," he is making a declaration of independence even more significant than his act of moving to the pond. He is reversing a view of man's nature which had enjoyed currency for centuries. The narrator rejects the old, specifically the eighteenth-century, vision of man's relation to the universe. For centuries, the popular idea of this relationship was that an individual was supposed to fit into his preordained place, or "slot," in the world — that is, conform to a pre-established plan for his role in life. Theoretically, this "slot" was assigned by God, who had arranged a tight order in the universe in which all forms of existence had a definite place. Practically speaking, the individual's "slot," then as now, was determined by tradition and authority. The narrator dramatically reverses this scheme by announcing that he, his consciousness, is the center of the universe. He will not fit into the world; rather, the world will fit around him. He will not exist in relation to the world; because he is the center of all existence, the world will exist in relation to him. He chooses not to fit into a particular place in life and be limited to it — which would have occurred if he had bought the Hollowell farm; instead of having his life ordered for him by the routine of farm life or the laws of society, he will give his order to his life and to the world around him. In effect, he is creating not only a new inner self, but also a new world as well, his world. By placing himself at the center of his universe, he once again emphasizes the primary significance of the "I" voice of Walden; again the reader's attention is directed to the subjective entity in the process of moving toward perfection.