Walden | Study Guide

Henry David Thoreau

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Walden | Chapter 2 : Where I Lived and What I Lived For | Summary

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Summary

Thoreau describes his long search for the perfect place to conduct his experiment in living. On his walks he has talked to several farmers about buying their homes, although he had no intention of actually taking ownership. The writer imagines that he has "bought all the farms in succession" but "never got [his] fingers burned by actual possession." He clearly prefers his meager cabin.

Thoreau's cabin is not quite finished when he moves in on July 4, 1845, but it's the first structure beside a boat and a tent that he has ever owned. He feels that he's "settling in the world." He describes the cabin's surroundings on the shore of a small pond. It's a remote setting, "forever new and unprofaned." He recalls that every morning in the cabin seemed to bring him closer to the divine.

The cabin, he says, offered him a chance to live "sturdily and Spartan-like" and to learn some eternal lessons:

  • "Simplify, simplify."
  • Human inventions like the post office and the railroad trivialize people's lives; what people think of as "news" is trivial compared to what nature can teach.
  • Time is an invented construct and one people should ignore; the only way to live is to focus on the present moment.

The cabin is located about one-and-a-half miles from Concord, in the middle of the forest and on the shore of Walden Pond. Its location is not that far from society—but seemingly "as far off as many a region viewed nightly by astronomers." For Thoreau, the world centers around Walden Pond.

Analysis

Like "Economy," this dense chapter can be hard to follow. However, it is important that Thoreau moves to the cabin on Independence Day. He's declaring his independence not only from other people but also from the cares and responsibilities society demands. He sounds comfortable with pretending he wants to buy a place of his own and then "withdraw[ing] when [he] had enjoyed it long enough, leaving [the farmers] to carry it on." Throughout the book, Thoreau displays a notable lack of sensitivity to other people that is at odds with his astute and perceptive nature writing.

When he begins to describe his actual, nonimaginary life at Walden, Thoreau's language sheds this harsh tone. He is visibly happy with the concrete details of his new life—"I had made some progress toward settling in the world"—and it's these details that stand out, especially when he compares his unframed cabin to a birdcage.

This chapter includes the famous line: "Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in." Because he loved reading the classics, Thoreau may have been inspired here by a line written by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: "Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current." This line exemplifies the frequent citations and references Thoreau weaves into Walden.

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