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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.
Work Theme Icon

Thoreau sees work as the basis of self-reliance, a source of spiritual fulfillment, and a path to a morally good life. His central motivation in going to Walden is to figure out what kind of life he should be living (what he calls his attempt to "live deliberately"), and in large part that attempt comes down to determining what kinds of work he should be pursuing. Unlike most people, whom he believes work too hard and therefore struggle through their lives and exaggerate the importance of the work they do, Thoreau believes that work should not be difficult or excessive or distract from one’s proper pursuits but instead be indistinguishable from leisure, because all parts of life should be rewarding. The contentment and self-respect that a person earns through this kind of work, he believes, can elevate him and bring him closer to nature and to himself.

The individual must discover what work is right for him, Thoreau writes. He focuses on two kinds of work: physical labor and intellectual pursuits. On one hand, he builds his own house, a modest cabin made of wood and brick. In addition, he works every morning in his bean-field, turning up the soil for the good of the plants, not strenuously but meditatively. He takes pride in earning his living by his own hands, and it is his physical labor that provides him with shelter, food, and the other necessities that make his time at Walden possible. On the other hand, he devotes himself to reading, has great reverence for literature and philosophy, and wishes more people would see themselves as perpetual students, as he sees himself. The book is peppered with quotations from Eastern philosophers, English poets, and other writers whom he believes enrich him spiritually. Thoreau seeks a lifestyle that combines these two kinds of work, each with their own type of nobility, in a mutually beneficial and complementary way.

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Work ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Walden related to the theme of Work.
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.

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. 

Where I Lived, and What I Lived For Quotes

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.

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.

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

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.

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.