Summary and Analysis
After hoeing, reading, or writing in the forenoon the narrator bathed, and "every day or two," strolled to Concord to hear the latest news. He found that the news of the town, "was really as refreshing in its way as the rustle of the leaves." Unfortunately, the townsmen did not share his view of how a bit of news now and then can be refreshing. When he arrived in town, he found the people numbed by their addiction to the news. Walking down a main street, he observed that it was lined by bored men longing for the latest news.
The narrator was especially upset by the intense stares of these news-hungry villagers. He was even more disturbed by the advertising which seemed to try and draw him back into the materialistic life. The narrator resisted these lures by keeping his mind on "high things" as he proceeded down the street.
Once back in the woods, the narrator found it easier to think about "high things." When considering how people often lose their way in the woods on dark nights, he came upon a transcendental truth: "Not till we are completely lost, or turned around — for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost — do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of Nature." Transcendence depends upon creating a new vision of reality and one's relationship to it. To create a new life depends upon seeing a new world, as though one were "lost" and seeing a world never known before.
A chief obstacle to creating a new vision of life is the state and the society that supports it. The narrator moved to Walden Pond to create a new life, a personal life which would be vastly different from that proposed by society and enforced by the laws of the state. He did not wish to conform to the will of the majority; yet, he found that "wherever a man goes, men will pursue him and paw him with their dirty institutions, and, if they can, constrain him to belong to their desperate odd-fellow society." To illustrate this point, he tells how one day he was arrested because he did not pay his tax to a "state which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle at the door of its senate-house." Human slavery is not a part of his new vision of life, and he deeply resents the state's forcible attempt to make it a part of that vision. In fact, a government should not force anyone to do or believe anything. If a government feels obliged to try and guide men, it should do so by good example alone: "You who govern public affairs, what need have you to employ punishments? Love virtue, and the people will be virtuous."
Thoreau's sense of humor comes into play in this chapter as it did in "Visitors." There he began by overstating the narrator's love of society and then proceeded to show how little he relished society. Here the narrator begins by declaring how refreshing a visit to the town can be; then he spends the rest of the chapter describing how irritating such a visit actually is. Picture the narrator walking down the street, with the eyes of the curious town folk upon him; then consider what he says: "Sometimes I bolted suddenly, and nobody could tell my whereabouts."
The reader will once again note that this chapter began with the narrator's bathing. If this metaphor of purification seems belabored by now, it is because Thoreau is making sure that the reader realizes the deep significance of Walden Pond's purity — a point which is stressed in the next chapter. The pond, remember, is a metaphor for the narrator's purified soul.