Walden | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

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Walden | Chapter 1 : Economy | Summary

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Summary

Thoreau's stated purpose in "Economy" is to explain the circumstances of his moving into a small cabin near Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He's eager to answer the many townspeople who've asked him how he survived alone there, "living sturdily and Spartan-like." He's even more eager to describe how his two-year stay at Walden Pond helped him to live out his principles, which he sets forth in great detail.

This chapter covers the basics of universal survival. Thoreau's basic philosophies speak to his determination to avoid a conventional life:

  • "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," Thoreau states, and argues that to banish this feeling, people should drastically simplify their lives and follow their individual instincts.
  • Working for pay is a form of enslavement and penance from which people should free themselves.
  • People must shake off culture's materialism as demonstrated by the love of fashionable clothes and luxuriously furnished homes.
  • If people want to learn how best to live, nature is a better teacher than society.

Thoreau is not sure whether being "confined" to one subject—himself—lessens the impact of his message. Nor is he sure who the book's audience will be. But he trusts his readers to "accept such portions as apply to them."

Thoreau is troubled by what he sees as the needless busywork going on around him. He fears that his fellow citizens "are so occupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits cannot be plucked by them." He hopes that his example may show that it's possible to live a simple, unfettered, and independent life if one is willing to "march to a different drummer."

Analysis

"Economy" is a tough opener. Walden's longest chapter, it is so densely packed with ideas that it could have been its own book. Some of the pronouncements in "Economy" have stood the test of time; others seem lofty on a first reading: "Most men lead lives of quiet desperation" is less impressive when the reader considers that during his Walden years, Thoreau was only 30 years old and had barely been out of Massachusetts.

The chapter reveals that apart from the fire, Thoreau felt out of place in Concord. He speaks of doing volunteer work clearing forest trails and paths, looking after "the wild stock of the town, which give a faithful herdsman a good deal of trouble," and watering forest plants that "might have withered else in dry seasons." He concludes, half-jokingly and half-plaintively, that because his fellow citizens were disinclined to pay him for this kind of thing, "I turned my face more exclusively than ever to the woods."

Read as a manifesto, "Economy" can seem overwhelming. Read as a young man's wish to explain his search for a meaningful life, it becomes poignant.

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Questions for Chapter 1

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