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Self-Reliance Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Self-Reliance Theme Icon
Work Theme Icon
Simplicity Over "Progress" Theme Icon
Solitude and Society Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
Transcendentalism, Spirituality, and the Good Life Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Walden, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Self-Reliance Theme Icon

Thoreau’s life at Walden Pond embodies a philosophy set out most famously and directly in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, "Self-Reliance." In fact, Emerson was Thoreau’s friend and fellow Transcendentalist, and Emerson owned the land by the pond where he allowed Thoreau to live and build his cabin. Self-reliance is a set of ideals according to which one must live one’s life, combining abstract philosophy with practical advice. According to these ideals, one must have unfailing trust in oneself and confidence in one’s faculties, choosing individuality over conformity to society. By leaving society and living in solitude, Thoreau makes the ultimate commitment to self-reliance, in order to, as he says, "follow the bent of [his] genius." He stresses the importance of living independently, as he builds his own house and lives off his own land. When he does take a job, he works as a day laborer, which he says is the best living because it does not commit him to an employer and leaves him freest to pursue his own affairs.

He believes, moreover, that a student in a university receives a lesser education listening to lectures about metalwork, for example, than if he would teach himself and attempt to forge a knife on his own. Self-reliance is based on a critical stance toward society, which Thoreau believes forces people into making compromises that trap them and make them unhappy. Thoreau writes, for example, that people spend too much money and energy on clothing, following changing taste and fashions frantically. Self-reliance, instead, places value on one’s own worth and individuality: quoting others is not as important as listening to one’s own thoughts, and society’s restrictions matter little in the face of one’s own beliefs, even if one is unpredictable and inconsistent. As Emerson writes in "Self-Reliance", "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." This commitment to inconsistency is a moral stance, and Thoreau takes it seriously, creating a book that is full of contradiction as he figures out the way of life that is right for him individually.

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Self-Reliance ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Self-Reliance appears in each chapter of Walden. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Self-Reliance Quotes in Walden

Below you will find the important quotes in Walden related to the theme of Self-Reliance.
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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Where I Lived, and What I Lived For Quotes

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.

Visitors Quotes

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.

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.

Conclusion Quotes

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.