Walden | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

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Walden | Chapter 11 : Higher Laws | Summary



Returning from John Field's cabin, Thoreau spots a woodchuck and is briefly tempted to "seize and devour him raw." What he wants to consume, he says, is the animal's wildness, not its flesh. This yearning for the wild is what draws him to fishing.

Still, having given up hunting Thoreau begins to feel ashamed of eating fish. The imagination and the body "should both sit down at the same table"; one should not disapprove of one's food. He says that bread or potatoes are as sustaining as fish, "with less trouble and filth."

"The wonder is ... how you and I can live this slimy, beastly life, eating and drinking," adds Thoreau. He's not squeamish about the food itself but about his appetite. Why can't he subdue his greed—or his other sensual appetites? He will have to "practice some new austerity" to redeem himself.


One precept of Transcendentalism—perhaps a holdover from the Puritan days—is that people should try to practice asceticism (self-discipline without indulgence). A natural loner, Thoreau subdues his sexual appetite, and he drinks no alcohol. What he eats is another matter.

Thoreau reveals some very human conflicts in this chapter. Like most people, he likes to eat. Like a good Transcendentalist, he feels ashamed of himself for caring about food: "There is something essentially unclean about this diet and all flesh," he states. He mentions that larvae eat more than butterflies, which "content themselves with a drop or two of honey or some other sweet liquid ... The gross feeder is a man in the larva state." This entirely misinformed analogy proves only that Thoreau worries about liking food too much.

As a Transcendentalist, sensuality in general seems to upset Thoreau: "Nature is hard to be overcome, but she must be overcome," he states. A curious statement from a man who so often professes to find the divine in nature—but what Thoreau is talking about here is human nature. If he could, he would bleach himself of every carnal urge.

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