Walden

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Henry David Thoreau Character Analysis

The writer and narrator of Walden. Thoreau moves to the woods by Walden Pond in order to experience solitude, and the book is principally a record of his thoughts and observations. A believer in the Transcendentalist idea of self-reliance, he builds his own house, grows his own food in his bean-field, and stresses the importance of individuality and living according to his ideals. He critiques society for its pretensions and excesses, like clothes and travel, urging men to simplify their lives and escape societal institutions in order to elevate their lives. As a Transcendentalist, he reveres nature and strives to live a good life according to its example, combining the hardiness of nature with his intellect. He prefers solitude, though he also takes pleasure in companionship, and he believes in the power of work, both intellectual and physical, though not too strenuous, to dignify his life and bring him closer to a higher existence.

Henry David Thoreau Quotes in Walden

The Walden quotes below are all either spoken by Henry David Thoreau or refer to Henry David Thoreau. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Self-Reliance Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Dover Publications edition of Walden published in 1995.
Economy Quotes

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile away from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of Walden, Thoreau explains the source of the book: the "year and two months" he spent alone in the woods, self-reliant and self-sufficient. However, he also makes it clear that everything he experienced, which now finds its way into the book, was not a long-term lifestyle but rather a kind of experiment. Now, finding himself back in civilized society, Thoreau is able to reflect on what he experienced in that time alone and communicate that to other people by publishing his book. 

Already, Thoreau lays out the most important aspects of his time in the wilderness. He was alone, separate from society (even if a mile isn't exactly "far"), he lived amidst nature, and obtained what he needed through the work of his own hands. For the rest of the book, Thoreau will return to each of these aspects of his time in the woods, detailing exactly what they entailed and what he learned from them. But even at the beginning, we can recognize that Thoreau isn't necessarily telling everyone to leave society or abandon civilization: the fact that he has returned himself suggests that his book will be a sort of guide, attained through extreme measures but accessible to anyone.

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The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

As Thoreau meditates on the unhappiness shown by so many people, he begins to ask himself why this should be the case. In this famous quote, Thoreau suggests that there is a profound disconnect between how people assume they should act and live, and the resulting emotions they feel while aligning with these expectations. In general, Thoreau is arguing, people don't question how they should live. They assume that what others have told them and what received wisdom dictates are not to be challenged. And they assume that they have no choice in the matter: that there's no way they can choose their own way to live, rather than succumbing to eternal stasis in which their desperation never stirs them to action. 

The rest of Thoreau's book will propose means of countering such desperation, whether through work, simplicity, or independence. But this passage also points to the profound, even spiritual direction of Thoreau's thought. He's not simply going into nature because it will be an interesting experience or because he wants to test himself: he is deeply invested in questions of what it means to live well, of how it might be possible to live a meaningful life.

With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

Even as Thoreau entreats his readers to learn to think for themselves, as opposed to following the received wisdom handed down over generations, he himself does use the past as a guide in order to explain his own motivations for the kind of life he has chosen to live. Examples of wise people through the centuries have convinced Thoreau that material luxuries do not at all equate with spiritual advancement. Indeed, the opposite is the case: the more material comforts one has, the less likely one is to attain intellectual or spiritual wisdom.

Thoreau thus critiques an economic and social system in which progress is tied to ever greater material advancements, suggesting that this has nothing to do with wisdom or with the "good life." Of course, he is also clear that the "simple and meagre life" he experienced in his time alone must be actively chosen, not suffered out of necessity or poverty, for it to be meaningful.

All men want, not something to do with, but something to do, or rather something to be.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

As Thoreau begins his critique of society, he returns to humankind's basic needs of shelter, clothing, and fuel, and then he attempts to determine where people have gone awry in deforming or misunderstanding such needs beyond any recognition. For instance, he is suspicious of the obsession with clothes, when people really only need very basic clothing in order to survive. What clothing does, he argues, is to create social distinctions and thus erode the natural bonds that people share with each other.

This passage takes place in the context of Thoreau expressing suspicion about the societal norms requiring new clothes at certain times in life. Rather than donning new superficial costumes, he suggests that people should focus on changing their inner selves: on discovering and working on the person they want to be, rather than something they merely put on and take off. 

The farmer is endeavoring to solve the problem of a livelihood by a formula more complicated than the problem itself.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Bean-Field
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

Near his small cabin the woods, Thoreau has planted a small bean-field, and is pleasantly surprised by how fruitful it becomes over the year of harvest. He contrasts this simple, basic farming with the Concord farmers, who – out of greed, he says, but also perhaps just out of custom – use complex methods and a number of different animals to draw greater wealth out of the soil. As a result, he says, they have set up a complicated system of farming that is so expensive that they are forced to always try to extract more value out of their land through even more extensive and complicated methods of farming. In other words, they are stuck in a vicious cycle, rather than being able to live self-sufficiently off of the land.

Once again, Thoreau makes the case that what often passes, in society, for progress and advancement is actually a hindrance to living well, and living a good life. Work is important to him, but the kind of work he promotes is individual and simple rather than extravagant or elaborate. 

While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

As Thoreau continues his meditation on what is really necessary for people to live, he turns to the critique of extravagant homes, a sign of "progress" that to him is really a sign of decadence and waste. Thoreau underlines his skepticism regarding the way people usually talk about progress by drawing a distinction between improved materials and methods for building houses, and the moral weakness of the people that inhabit them – a weakness that certainly has not gone away over time.

Just as he promotes concentrating on the person wearing the clothes, rather than on the clothing itself, here he distinguishes the fancy homes from those who live in them – people who may be technically noblemen and kings, but whose moral development is undeserving of any such label. Through this rhetorically powerful argument, Thoreau calls for a greater simplicity in shelter, one that will give people the chance to think about other things that really matter, rather than on external, superficial signs of social difference.

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

Thoreau is, here, critiquing the Cambridge College students, who are eager to learn about things that have little basis in real life, and who lack any practical knowledge while they fill their head with such "distractions." In general, he says, our society is always focused on the next invention, always able to marvel at the newest innovation and to proclaim the way of progress in every achievement. Thoreau asks whether any of these things actually does represent "progress," or rather, whether they are all childish, distracting means of drawing us away from the important questions.

In some ways, Thoreau's stance might seem anti-intellectual, focused as it is on the "practical" knowledge that he thinks most important to lead a good life. In fact, Thoreau is deeply invested in abstract knowledge, and reading will be an important part of his time at Walden Pond. What he is critiquing instead is the endless, unthinking pursuit of "progress" that fails to step back and ask what the true, human purpose of it all is – a kind of critical thinking that should, in fact, characterize a place like a university.

Where I Lived, and What I Lived For Quotes

We are wont to imagine rare and delectable places in some remote and more celestial corner of the system, behind the constellation of Cassiopeia's Chair, far from noise and disturbance. I discovered that my house actually had its site in such a withdrawn, but forever new and unprofaned, part of the universe.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

Thoreau has characterized his time at Walden Pond as a retreat into solitude and from society – a potentially awkward claim, given that he's only a mile away from town, and that many people do in fact come to visit him. However, Thoreau is perfectly aware of this, and for him it doesn't represent a contradiction. Instead, he wants to suggest that one doesn't need to go far away in order to reach a "new and unprofaned" part of the universe.

Such spaces of solitude, he suggests, are actually all around us, even close to the places that we think of as humdrum normal life. Thoreau has cautioned before against romanticizing or assigning special value to foreign realms or distant places: for him, simplicity also applies to travel, such that people should concentrate on the opportunities for solitude and moral questioning that are around them, rather than searching for such things far and wide.

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred million to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

As Thoreau enjoys the "spiritual exercise" that he attains from bathing in Walden Pond, and the heightened attention that he has towards nature and towards his own life as a result, his thoughts turn to those quietly desperate people he has referenced before, many of whom fail to embrace the wonder of daily life. Thoreau uses a metaphor of sleep and wakefulness, characterizing most people as never fully awake, even while they are going about their daily lives. Since to be awake is to be alive, most people, he argues, are not fully alive even for most of the time they live. 

By modifying the definition of what it means to be alive, Thoreau hopes to galvanize his audience into understanding that they must learn to "awaken" themselves – that is, to become alert to everything around them. This does not necessarily mean changing the material facts of their lives. Instead, it involves changing the attitude towards or perspective on the life that one already leads.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

In this statement, Thoreau for the first time lays out clearly and succinctly his motivations in going to live at Walden Pond for a time. Part of these motivations are negative in nature: they involve cutting out and cutting back, removing himself from the hectic rush of society in order to have time for himself, time to think. By getting rid of the duties and obligations of daily life, of the distractions of society, Thoreau hopes to pare down his life until he can grasp what is "essential" about life in general, through a more simply way of living. 

However, this process of paring down is ultimately meant to add something new: to replace the inessential with the essential, and to learn from nature what cannot be learned in society. Thoreau returns to the definition of life that he has just developed, in which life only counts as such if it is experienced alertly and in a state of wakefulness. Only by experiencing the world around him in such a way, Thoreau believes, can he hope to have really lived. The stakes, then, could not be higher, as it is the meaning of life itself that Thoreau goes in search of in the woods.

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

As Thoreau continues to describe his motivations for going out into the woods, he strongly critiques the prevailing ideas of society. Thoreau is impatient with the highly complex workings of society, which people have come to believe are absolutely necessary and, indeed, indicative of human beings' important standing in the world. In fact, we don't need most of what we think we need, Thoreau says. Indeed, we become so obsessed with the complicated details of daily life that we don't even really know what it means to live.

Only by distancing ourselves from the requirements of society, however, can it become clear that simplicity is to be embraced. It may be easy to revert to the most basic needs of daily life in the woods, but Thoreau is aware of how difficult it is in society to insist on simplicity. That is why he repeats the word here with such urgency, in an attempt to break through to the reader about the importance of this idea.

God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

While Thoreau is certainly far from being an atheist, his suspicion towards established, complicated institutions extends to the religious ones as well. For Thoreau, we don't need elaborate services or fancy churches in order to have a relationship to God. Instead, God's presence can be felt around us. However, it is difficult to sense this, he argues, when we are distracted by the petty details of everyday life, wrapped up in our social lives. By going into nature, by distancing ourselves from society, we can have a more truthful and authentic relationship with God.

Such insistence on a direct relationship with God is part of Thoreau's transcendentalism, a set of beliefs which held that divinity pervades all of nature and which emerged in the United States in the 1830s and was most powerfully argued by Thoreau's mentor and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Thoreau has embraced these beliefs and has used them to develop his own notion of an omnipresent God that is fully present in human time, even as He exists beyond human time.

Reading Quotes

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Thoreau has been critical, earlier, about the useless knowledge often learned at school, this doesn't mean that he is against learning at all – to the contrary, he believes the knowledge contained in books to be one of society's greatest gifts. However, he believes that another problem with social life as so many people live it, is that its distractions draw people away from the crucial knowledge of literature and history, as we focus on conversations with other people and on the material possessions we covet. 

Similarly, while Thoreau has critiqued most people's view of "progress," he doesn't think society hasn't progressed at all – for him, society's greatest achievements are held within the pages of books. He believes, though, that too many people mistakenly think of progress as the hectic social activity of daily life, and not as the careful, reasoned arguments to be found by reading. The fast pace of everyday life makes it difficult to have time or attention for reading: therefore, once again, removing himself into nature gave him the opportunity to wrestle with the most difficult, but also most rewarding, ideas to be found in books.

Sounds Quotes

Will you be a reader, a student merely, or a seer?

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

Although Thoreau has spent the last section praising reading and arguing for its benefits, here he suggests that reading alone is not enough. Thoreau makes a distinction between "reading" and "seeing." The first is work, but passive work: it is the work of the student learning his or her lessons. This labor is important and necessary, but ultimately insufficient, because the student must subsequently go out and actively apply this learning. That doesn't mean applying it to a trade or something materially useful, for Thoreau: indeed, "seeing" for him is a kind of active work, a way to use what one has learned in order to better appreciate the surrounding world. 

The potential problem with reading, Thoreau implies, is that it can lead us to another kind of distraction, preventing us from truly seeing and engaging the world around it. Reading thus will give us the tools to see, but then we must engage with nature itself in order to fully appreciate those tools.

Solitude Quotes

I experienced sometimes that the most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object, even for the poor misanthrope and most melancholy man. There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

Thoreau has spent most of his time at Walden alone, without company. It occasionally crosses his mind that social companionship might also be a part of the good life, despite his embrace of solitude. However, Thoreau then decides that nature itself counts as a companion. Solitude is often considered as negative in society, which tends to consider one who is "alone" as being "lonely." Here Thoreau challenges such an assumption by broadening the idea of "society" to include the living creatures, and the pulsing nature, that is around him. The solitude of nature can even, he suggests, be a remedy for those who feel utterly alone and solitary among other people, and who are led to melancholy as a result. 

Visitors Quotes

I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 91
Explanation and Analysis:

As is often the case in Walden, Thoreau modifies his previous arguments – or at least modifies the way we might interpret them – as he adds further layers to his exploration of living in the wilderness. Although he embraced solitude, this did not mean that Thoreau was entirely cut off from society. Many people, indeed, have criticized Walden for embracing a solitary lifestyle far from civilization, when in fact Thoreau was only a mile from town and regularly hosted visitors.

Here, however, Thoreau himself sees no contradiction between insisting on solitude and welcoming company. Instead, he suggests that even "society" should ideally abide by the rules of simplicity that he has set for himself alone. Simply drawing up chairs, and hosting people with kindness rather than preparing elaborate meals, for instance, can be a way to reconcile the demands of society with those of a simple life. By assigning a purpose to his three chairs, Thoreau implies that there is a time and a place for different kinds of social relations – and no need to abolish society entirely.

Objects of charity are not guests.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

Thoreau is detailing the various visitors he had while living in the wilderness. Some of the people who came were the poor, who asked for for Thoreau's charity. However, here he openly claims that he did not help these people, and indeed that he was right not to. His explanation is that for him, visitors are guests, and this definition can't apply to those who beg.

After all his talk about living the good life, this anti-charity claim might seem shocking, even hypocritical. It does, though, make more sense as an extreme variation on Thoreau's pre-existing views about self-reliance and independence. For Thoreau, if someone is lacking something, then he should go out and find a way to obtain it himself, rather than relying on others. Relatedly, people should break their solitude and join in society as equals, rather than one party maintaining some superiority over another – a relationship that may well result from the work of charity. By emphasizing hospitality over charity, Thoreau seeks to be consistent on his philosophical beliefs (even if they may make him seem cold and unfeeling, here, to us).

The Village Quotes

I was never molested by any person but those who represented the State.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Thoreau has recounted how he spent a night in jail when, as he made an excursion into town, a policeman found him and cited him for refusing to pay his taxes. In fact, Thoreau's refusal had a political basis, as part of his principled refusal of supporting the Mexican-American war and the expansion of the institution of slavery into the Southwest (he objected to both things, and felt that they were connected). Not paying his taxes also, however, is another way by which Thoreau distances himself from society and attempts to live on his own means, without the complex structures that dictate how most of us live. 

Here, Thoreau portrays the State as made up of people who are far more likely to "molest," that is, bother regular people. He is skeptical that the state is more helpful or necessary than not, and instead senses a need for individuals to find a way to give their lives meaning outside social and political structures.

The Ponds Quotes

A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature. It is the earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Thoreau rapturously describes the beauty of Walden Pond, and also relates certain characteristics of some of the ponds that surrounds it. Here, Thoreau makes clear that for him, these descriptions are not simply in the service of a heightened realism or naturalism – they are directly related to human beings' search for meaning, a task to which he has devoted this book as well as his own time in the woods. By personifying the lake, Thoreau attempts to make Nature more familiar to people, more connected to people, rather than a separate facet of existence separate and different from people. 

Indeed, Thoreau stresses in this passage the close, even mystical connections between nature and people. This connection takes place through a kind of mutual gaze: the beholder's eye meets the eye of the earth, that is, the lake, so that each comes to better understand the other. Here as elsewhere, Thoreau wants to stress that nature isn't something totally separate from human activity, but is instead crucial to what makes human life meaningful.

Baker Farm Quotes

My Good Genius seemed to say,—Go fish and hunt far and wide day by day,—farther and wider,—and rest thee by many brooks and hearth-sides without misgiving. Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth. Rise free from care before the dawn, and seek adventures... Grow wild according to thy nature.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

Thoreau has gone to visit a farmer, John Field, whom he describes as unambitious though hardworking: Field is uninterested in the solitary, distanced life that Thoreau has embraced, since he is much more a man of society. Thoreau has claimed before that he wants his time at Walden Pond to serve as a lesson to other people, but here he doesn't seem too upset by Field's lack of interest in his lifestyle. Instead, Field's apathy actually encourages Thoreau to carry on, as it seems to make clear to him the correctness of his own position. 

Here as elsewhere, Thoreau espouses a transcendental belief in the omnipresence of God – the Creator is everywhere, even perhaps inside human beings, and Thoreau must constantly remind himself of this presence as he enjoys all that nature offers to him. Thoreau embraces the challenges set by nature, the labor and solitude that are necessary there: for him they are not unpleasant hurdles to be surmounted, but rather positive elements of a close relationship with nature.

Winter Animals Quotes

I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:

Thoreau has already made clear that he doesn't miss the society of other people while he's in the woods, since for him nature provides companionship enough. Here he underlines the warm, inviting side of nature, which is so easily lost on those who live in society and who think of nature as something separate and apart.

In this quote, Thoreau takes great pleasure in how comfortable this sparrow obviously feels around him, since it dares even to rest on his shoulder. He implies that, even though he is participating in work meant for human purposes, there is a kind of unspoken communion between him and the bird. And for Thoreau, it is an utter privilege to be welcomed into the bird's world in such a way. Here he stresses once again how little he cares for the empty accolades of the social world, instead striving after simple companionship with nature, which he prizes all the more for being less valued in society's eyes.

Conclusion Quotes

Be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought... It is easier to sail many thousand miles... than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one's being alone.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 207
Explanation and Analysis:

As Thoreau concludes his work, he returns to one of the motivations he set forth in writing: to serve as an example in describing all he did to try to figure out how one should live. With his journey concluded, Thoreau entreats his reader to embark on a journey of his or her own. However, he is not literally asking his reader to go out and travel the world – indeed, he has been open all along about the fact that he was hardly a mile from civilization all along himself. Instead, Thoreau uses the idea of travel as a metaphor to convince his readers to look inside themselves, to enact change within themselves – a journey just as long and arduous as any physical one.

Indeed, Thoreau acknowledges that it is more difficult to gain an understanding of oneself than to travel "many thousand miles," even if the latter is what modern technology strives after and believes to be a signal of progress and greatness. Thoreau, on the other hand, is convinced that it is through the simple life, and the careful attention to the world and oneself, through which one can fully understand him- or herself and thus better understand how to lead a good life. 

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

Thoreau has explained previously that he went into the woods in order to learn how to live. While he has assured the reader of the many lessons he learned during his time in the woods, he doesn't claim to have found the "key" to a successful lifestyle – that is, he won't try to convince his readers that what they should do, in order to live a good life, is to pick up and move into the woods by themselves.

Instead, Thoreau expresses here a respect for diversity in life experiences. No one set of principles or bullet points can tell a person how to live well: instead, each person must attempt a number of different ways, trying out a number of different lives. Having learned a great deal in the woods, Thoreau now wants to return to society to try to put some of what he's learned into practice. But he also wants to underline what he sees as an essential value of humility in the various ways people try to find a meaning in their lives.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him... and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

As Thoreau describes leaving Walden Pond, he continues to meditate on what he learned there – importantly, as part of what he calls an "experiment," rather than a new, rigidly programmatic lifestyle. Although he has been largely critical concerning the overpowering negative influence of society on modern people, here he embraces a more optimistic viewpoint. He urges his readers to pursue their own understanding of success, their own "dreams" rather than what society tells them to do. If they do so, they will not only achieve what they want – they will also learn to think of success differently, and become more in tune with the universal laws of nature and spirituality that actually have little to do with society's laws.

Once again, in addition, Thoreau makes a case for simplifying one's life in order to drown out the hectic, tempting voices of social "progress," voices that, he suggests, make what is important seem unimportant and vice versa. In general, Thoreau is less concerned here with asking his readers to follow his example of literally moving into the woods, than with explicitly suggesting conclusions and lessons that they can draw from his experience and apply in their own lives.

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

As Thoreau concludes, he stresses once again the importance of following one's own dreams rather than the ideas set out by society. "March to the beat of a different drummer" is a phrase so often repeated nowadays that it has become a cliché: but we should remember the more radical context in which Thoreau originally wrote it. All throughout the book, he has cautioned against the powerful conformism of society, which makes it difficult not only for us to follow our own dreams, but also even to understand what is right and what is wrong, since society twists these values so much. The "music" of which Thoreau speaks is thus not just an individual whim, but a powerful spiritual force that people can draw upon as an alternative to the corrupted, and corrupting, moral values of society.

Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.

Related Characters: Henry David Thoreau (speaker)
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Thoreau makes perhaps his most definitive statement about the values by which he wants to live – values that he has learned to embrace through his time in Walden Pond. "Money" and "fame" are, obviously, values that society holds up as important, and here as elsewhere in Walden, Thoreau battles against this assumption of what the good life means. But his injunction against "love" is more startling. Why might Thoreau dismiss love in favor of truth, or even see them as opposed? Perhaps because love can often complicate people's affairs, preventing the simplicity that Thoreau so embraced; perhaps, too, because love can make one reliant on another person. While we might not agree that this dependence is altogether a bad thing, it's important to understand Thoreau's position in light of his general insistence on self-reliance – and of his remarkable consistency in his views (though the fact that Thoreau remained a bachelor throughout his life might help to explain his position as well).

Instead of these values, which Thoreau considers as distracting and ultimately transient, he holds truth to be the one value worth pursuing, the one around which he wants to live. The good life, then, for Thoreau, is tied to what is true even more than it has to do with being kind to others – the true, for him, is the good.

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Henry David Thoreau Character Timeline in Walden

The timeline below shows where the character Henry David Thoreau appears in Walden. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Economy
Solitude and Society Theme Icon
For two years and two months Thoreau lived alone in the woods by Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, where he wrote the... (full context)
Self-Reliance Theme Icon
Work Theme Icon
Simplicity Over "Progress" Theme Icon
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Most men, says Thoreau, work too much. Men who have inherited farms suffer personal and financial restrictions and spend... (full context)
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What is the chief purpose of man? Thoreau asks. Most men live in despair because they have forgotten that they have a choice... (full context)
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Human advancements throughout time have not changed "the essential laws of man's existence." Thoreau designs a primitive life for himself in order to figure out what are the barest... (full context)
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...Being poor in outward riches is often a sign of being rich in inward riches. Thoreau calls his way of life "voluntary poverty" and suggests it is a good vantage point... (full context)
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Before coming to the woods, Thoreau spent time as a newspaper reporter, (though the editor never published his writing), a self-appointed... (full context)
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Clothing, Thoreau argues, is an embarrassingly excessive concern for most people. They worry more about having new,... (full context)
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...a place for comfort and affections. What is the barest kind of shelter we need? Thoreau asks. Humankind began by requiring only caves for shelter. He sees large boxes by the... (full context)
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What are the differences between "the civilized man" and "the savage"? Thoreau asks. The civilized man conceives of institutions into which the individual is absorbed for the... (full context)
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The best art, Thoreau asserts, is made out of man's desire to free himself from the constraints of civilization.... (full context)
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In March 1845, Thoreau recounts, he went to Walden Pond and began to cut down trees for his house,... (full context)
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Perhaps if all men built their own houses, Thoreau suggests, the poetic faculty would be developed universally, just as all birds sing while they... (full context)
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Thoreau keeps meticulous records of all his expenses in building his house and includes a chart... (full context)
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Like the college system and other modern advancements, railroads and traveling in general, Thoreau believes, are a ridiculous waste of money and another symptom of an unhealthy way of... (full context)
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In order to defray his expenses, Thoreau plants a bean-field of couple of acres and makes a modest gain. The next year... (full context)
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Men should not be judged by their architecture or material wealth, Thoreau believes, but by the richness of their abstract thought: not by the temples of the... (full context)
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Continuing with his record-keeping, Thoreau makes charts of all his purchases for household goods and food, detailing all that he... (full context)
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After many experiments in making bread, Thoreau finds that the best way is to use just meal and water, not even salt.... (full context)
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For furniture and household goods, Thoreau chooses to have only the basics, including a table, a desk, three chairs, two knives... (full context)
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Thoreau finds that he can meet all his expenses by working six weeks out of the... (full context)
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Some townsmen have accused Thoreau of being selfish. It is true, philanthropy and charity do not agree with his constitution,... (full context)
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Philanthropy, Thoreau believes, is the selfish thing. Instead of spreading courage and personal fulfillment, it spreads despair.... (full context)
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Organized religion is about consoling man's fears, not nourishing his hope, Thoreau believes, and has thus failed even in simple praise of God. To cure any ill... (full context)
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Thoreau closes the chapter with a poem called "The Pretensions of Poverty" by English poet Thomas... (full context)
Where I Lived, and What I Lived For
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Where should his house be located? Thoreau considers. He has talked to all the nearby farmers and imagined buying their houses and... (full context)
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The nearest Thoreau came to possessing a house was when he intended to buy the Hollowell farm, but... (full context)
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On Independence Day, 1845, Thoreau begins living in the woods full-time, during nights as well as days. The house, not... (full context)
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Thoreau's first impression of the pond, which is sometimes misty in the early morning, sometimes still... (full context)
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Though men are in the habit of imagining faraway lands, Thoreau finds that his new living place, so close by, has all the glories of nature... (full context)
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Morning is Thoreau's invitation to make his life simple and commune with nature. Every morning he bathes in... (full context)
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Thoreau urges each man to awaken fully and "elevate his life by conscious endeavor." It is... (full context)
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Thoreau laughs about the absurdity of a man who wakes from a nap and asks for... (full context)
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Men often confuse the appearance of things with reality, Thoreau believes, but with true wisdom and unhurriedness it is possible to get past "petty pleasures"... (full context)
Reading
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Reading, Thoreau writes, is the pursuit of truth, which is immortal, while wealth and material possessions are... (full context)
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Thoreau calls on people to strive to read well. Instead, he says, most people aim too... (full context)
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Concord and places like it are culturally empty, Thoreau says, and need to be provoked to strive for greater achievements. Concord's schools for children... (full context)
Sounds
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Thoreau believes that man must be not only a reader, but also a seer and a... (full context)
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Nearby to Thoreau's house, the railroad passes. He knows the men who work on it and its daily... (full context)
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After the train passes, Thoreau is more alone than ever, he writes. He listens to the bells of the nearby... (full context)
Solitude
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Walking along the pond, enjoying the animals, Thoreau believes that his solitude makes him a part of nature and therefore allows him to... (full context)
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From nature, Thoreau gets "the most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society," which prevents every... (full context)
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Some of his most enjoyable hours, Thoreau writes, were the long rainstorms in which he stayed in his house thinking. Loneliness is... (full context)
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Thoreau believes that people are distracted by being polite and that they spend too much time... (full context)
Visitors
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Thoreau says that he is no hermit and that he loves society. He entertained many visitors... (full context)
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Once, Thoreau spent some time with a Canadian woodchopper (he chooses not to print his name), a... (full context)
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Among Thoreau's other visitors include those who ask for water (he points them to the pond); a... (full context)
The Bean-Field
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Thoreau's daily work is hoeing his bean-field, which he says connects him to the earth He... (full context)
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Thoreau does his work in the bean-field daily, in the early morning. The pigeons and hawks... (full context)
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Thoreau harvests twelve bushels of beans from his bean-field and sets out charts of all the... (full context)
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Farming, which Thoreau calls "husbandry," has sacred origins and, as ancient poetry reminds us, was once considered a... (full context)
The Village
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Every day or two, Thoreau goes to the village to hear the gossip, which he finds refreshing, like the sound... (full context)
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One afternoon, when Thoreau was in the village, he says, he was apprehended by the police and put in... (full context)
The Ponds
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The features of the landscape in the woods are humble, Thoreau writes, but Walden Pond is remarkable. It is deep, pure, sometimes blue and sometimes green,... (full context)
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There are tracks around the pond that, Thoreau thinks, were made by aboriginal hunters. According to an Indian fable, a group was holding... (full context)
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...Sandy Pond, which is much larger and more shallow, less pure, and has more fish. Thoreau laments that pond's boring name and wishes that natural features were named not after the... (full context)
Baker Farm
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Thoreau writes that there were "shrines" he visited in the woods, pine groves and other groups... (full context)
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Once, while Thoreau was walking through Baker Farm, he says, it began to rain, so he went into... (full context)
Higher Laws
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Once, Thoreau says, when a woodchuck crossed his path, he had the urge to kill and eat... (full context)
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...defiles a man is not food, however, but the appetite with which he consumes it, Thoreau believes; the animal inside a man wakes insofar as his higher faculties sleep. By living... (full context)
Brute Neighbors
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Thoreau talks with a recluse who lives in the woods, the Hermit, about going to the... (full context)
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Thoreau notices a war between two races of ants, red on one side and black on... (full context)
House-Warming
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When it begins to get cold, Thoreau builds his chimney out of bricks and sand and stones and mortar, and he plasters... (full context)
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The first ice that forms over the pond, Thoreau says, is hard, dark, and transparent, and through it he studies the bottom of the... (full context)
Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors
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When Thoreau is alone in the winter and wants company, he says, he thinks about the former... (full context)
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In the winter, Thoreau rarely has visitors. Once, when he walks a long way in the snow, he returns... (full context)
Winter Animals
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In the winter, Thoreau hears a host of animals around his house: the hooting owl, whose sad sound is... (full context)
The Pond in Winter
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One night, Thoreau says, he woke up with questions on his mind but was quieted by serene nature... (full context)
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Wondering how deep the pond is, Thoreau determines the shape of its bottom using a stone and a cord. He makes a... (full context)
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...the pond to collect peat. Occasionally, one of these men fall into the water and Thoreau takes him into his house to get dry. (full context)
Spring
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In deciding to come to the woods, Thoreau says, one attraction he anticipated was watching spring arrive. The ice on Walden Pond is... (full context)
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Thoreau likes to watch the flowing sand and clay by the railroads as the spring thaws,... (full context)
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Thoreau celebrates spring as a glorious influx of light and warmth, and he details the first... (full context)
Conclusion
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The universe is wide and no man needs to be tied down, Thoreau believes. He advocates exploration, however, not of distant lands, but of the lands within, urging... (full context)
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...robbery in order to see what it would take within him to oppose society, but, Thoreau says, this was unnecessary because any man can find himself opposing society by following higher... (full context)
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Thoreau says he left the woods because he had "several more lives to live." Within a... (full context)
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Are modern men intellectual dwarfs compared to the ancients? Thoreau considers. Even if it is true, it is no matter, he says, because men must... (full context)
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Thoreau tells the parable of an artist in the city of Kouroo who strove for perfection... (full context)
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However poor one's life is, Thoreau says, one must live it and take pleasure in it and not insult it. The... (full context)
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Any moment can be the moment when one's new life begins, Thoreau believes. Life within a person is like a river that can one year flood higher... (full context)