Walden

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Solitude and Society 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.
Solitude and Society Theme Icon

Thoreau deeply values both solitude and society and brings these two seemingly contradictory impulses together in creative, paradoxical ways. On one hand, his purpose in going to Walden, where he stayed for more than two years, is to be alone, so he can "transact some private business." The book is for the most part a record of a man’s time spent in solitude, and the reflections he has in that state. He stresses the importance of an independent life, in which he relies on no one for his everyday existence, and he writes that society’s changing taste is a distraction to personal development. Solitude leaves him open to commune with nature, yet he writes that he is really never alone because he always has the sweet company of the natural world. On the other hand, he entertains many guests in his cabin, sometimes one or two at a time and sometimes in groups of dozens. In addition, he lives not in the wilderness but on the edge of a pond close to the town, which he visits from time to time.

Thoreau takes pleasure in the company of others who live in the woods and describes several of these people in detail in character sketches throughout the book, though these characters never appear again in Walden. Thoreau believes that the community of humankind is constant and has everyone as a member. For him, solitude is, unexpectedly, a way to belong to this community. He believes that a real connection with others depends on a real connection with oneself, so if true society is possible, it stems from each person’s solitude. Reading especially bears out his argument: it allows him to connect in the most profound ways with the greatest minds over time and space and to do so while remaining alone in his cabin.

Solitude and Society ThemeTracker

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Solitude and Society Quotes in Walden

Below you will find the important quotes in Walden related to the theme of Solitude and Society.
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

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.

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.

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 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.