Walden | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

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Walden | Chapter 14 : Former Inhabitants; and Winter Visitors | Summary

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Summary

Winter isolates Thoreau more than ever. For weeks he sees only the occasional woodchopper. For company, he is "obliged to conjure up the former occupants of these woods," now long dead. Many of these remembered characters are African Americans, some of them former slaves, and most of them lived lonely, troubled lives.

The stories he remembers are not exactly cheery. Thoreau mentions a poor, half-crazy African American woman whose house was torched. Changing the subject, he introduces the topic of a fire that burned down the hut of an alcoholic man, then moves on to the time he finds the dead man's alcoholic son moaning and muttering over the ruined home. Next, readers meet an alcoholic ditch-digger named Hugh Quoil, who was once a gentleman and whose house was pulled down: "All I know of him is tragic," Thoreau recalls.

Even in winter Thoreau has the occasional living visitor from Concord. He mentions four: a Woodchopper, a Poet, a Philosopher, and someone he calls the Old Immortal. And he always awaits the Visitor who never comes.

Analysis

"I weathered some merry snow-storms," this chapter begins. Merry snowstorms? Could Thoreau be trying to cheer himself up? It appears that despite his protestations elsewhere, he does get lonely from time to time. Or is he showing that he can take care of himself and survive under the worst conditions?

At one point in the chapter, Thoreau becomes truly morose. Consider the progression of images in the paragraph beginning "At this season I seldom had a visitor." Thoreau compares himself to a snug meadow mouse; then to cattle and poultry buried in snowdrifts with no food; then to an early settler who almost lost his entire family when his cottage was covered by snow: "The Great Snow! How cheerful it is to hear of," Thoreau remarks immediately after this description. It's not clear if he's being sarcastic.

In another mournful passage, Thoreau describes the way people who move to another house cover the well with a stone before they leave, presumably to prevent animals from falling in: "What a sorrowful act that must be—the covering up of wells!" says Thoreau. "Coincident with the opening of wells of tears." The reader can't help wondering if Thoreau brings up these sad memories to remind himself how lucky he is to have a place to lay his head.

What genuinely cheers Thoreau as he ends the chapter is visits from his friends in Concord. Voluntary loneliness is one thing; enforced loneliness quite another.

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