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Walden | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Walden, Chapter 1 ("Economy") what point does Thoreau make with his extended passage about "Bramins" (Brahmins) torturing themselves?

History and folklore are both rife with accounts of high-caste Indian priests (Brahmins) torturing themselves by holding painful postures for long periods—sometimes, it was rumored, for their entire lives—so as to bring themselves closer to the divine. From a 19th-century American perspective, such practices must have seemed insane. For Thoreau, an agnostic whose feelings about the divine were elastic, these "forms of conscious penance" must have seemed pointless as well. Thoreau says the neighbors are like Brahmins. He is far more troubled by watching his neighbors work. How, he wonders, can people so "torture" themselves just for the sake of money? It would have been better for them to have been born in a field and raised by wolves; at least that way "they might have seen with clearer eyes what field they were called to labor in."

In Walden, Chapter 1 ("Economy") why does Thoreau ask, "Why should they eat their sixty acres, when man is condemned to eat only his peck of dirt?"

An old proverb states that we must all eat a peck of dirt before we die. The implied message is that there is no way to escape suffering; all humans will suffer some form of hardship during their lives. Thoreau is using the proverb somewhat more literally here by making "dirt" mean both actual dirt and hardship. To paraphrase what Thoreau is saying, maybe it's true that we all have to eat some dirt, but we're not required to consume more than our share. A peck of dirt is one thing; 60 acres of dirt is another. Why bother torturing ourselves when we don't have to?

In Walden, Chapter 1 ("Economy") what analogy does Thoreau make using the classical allusion of Deucalion and Pyrrha?

According to Greek mythology—a potent source of inspiration for Thoreau—a husband and wife named Deucalion and Pyrrha were the only people to survive a world-cleansing flood. An oracle told the couple that throwing stones over their shoulders would bring back the race of humans. The stones Deucalion cast behind him turned into men; the ones Pyrrha threw became women. As myths go, this isn't that outrageous: "It is a fool's life, as [people] will find when they get to the end of it." Just as rocks are pulverized into dust, so we'll become dust ourselves. It was idiotic of Deucalion and Pyrrha to listen to "a blundering oracle" without considering what a pointless exercise repopulating the earth would be.

In Walden, Chapter 1 ("Economy") how might Thoreau's attitude toward the poor be influenced by his decision to simplify his own life?

Born into a middle-class family, Thoreau has never experienced poverty until his decision to radically simplify his life at Walden. The spartan living conditions he chooses there include the possession of one cup, one spoon, and two knives and forks. He even refuses the offer of a mat for his floor because it would cost him too much time to keep it clean. He figures the time spent on unnecessary labor could be better spent learning from nature. His voluntary poverty leads Thoreau to have some empathy for the involuntary poor, as he says in "Economy": The laboring man ... has no time to be anything but a machine. ... Some of you ... find it hard to live. ... It is very evident what mean [wretched] and sneaking lives many of you live ... lying, flattering, voting ... that you may lay up something [money] against a sick day, something to be tucked away in an old chest, ... no matter how much or how little. We should feed and clothe [the laboring man] gratuitously sometimes ... before we judge of him. The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly. Thoreau's attitude regarding the impoverished seems to shift at times. In most of Walden, he is aware of and sympathetic toward them. However, in Chapter 10 ("Baker Farm") he seems to adopt the 19th-century aspect of class consciousness that tended to blame the poor for their own misfortune, as well as bigotry toward recent immigrants—in this case, Irish Americans.

How might a "life of quiet desperation," which concerns Thoreau in Walden, Chapter 1 ("Economy"), apply to the author's own life?

A "life of quiet desperation" was something with which Thoreau was all too familiar. His own parents must have known a certain amount of desperation. His father was never quite able to provide for the family, and they were forced to move several times. One of Thoreau's main goals in moving to Walden Pond was to write a book about traveling with his brother. He did write the book—A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers—but his publisher required that he bear the costs involved in printing 1,000 copies. Then came the further humiliation; sales amounted to just over 200 copies, and Thoreau had to store the remainder in his parents' attic. It took Thoreau seven years to write Walden, which never found a readership while Thoreau was alive. "In his declining months Thoreau had constantly to face the crushing reality of his failure," writes historian Perry Miller. The desperation Thoreau projected onto "the mass of men" could have described his own life as well.

In Walden, Chapter 7 ("The Bean-Field") why does Thoreau suggest that it doesn't matter whether our crops succeed or fail?

"The ear of wheat ... should not be the only hope of the husbandman [farmer]," says Thoreau in "The Bean-Field." "Its kernel or grain ... is not all that it bears. How, then, can our harvest fail?" Thoreau is suggesting that the sun shines on all of earth's plants and that, therefore, the fate of any one crop is meaningless (in the sun's eyes, at least). If woodchucks eat some of the farmer's wheat—well, woodchucks have to eat, too. If weeds take over the crop, at least their seeds will be food for the birds. It's the act of farming itself that has value, says Thoreau. (He doesn't point out that this belief is incompatible with the statements in "Economy.") When we grow plants we are being nourished by something besides food. (He doesn't point out that a few paragraphs earlier, he's been giving very specific instructions on how to ensure success with a bean crop.)

What is the significance of the thawing sand and clay in Walden, Chapter ("Spring")?

Near Thoreau's cabin a railroad cut has made a steep hill down, which sand and clay flow every spring as the weather warms up. The streams of liquid clay and flowing sand are one of his favorite signs of spring: Thoreau enjoys describing the site. "As it flows it takes the forms of sappy leaves or vines, making heaps of pulpy sprays a foot or more in depth." In the branching streams of silt Thoreau discerns a resemblance to leaf veining and the circulating system. This makes him conscious of the earth itself as a living thing. "You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf." Even sand and clay can be beautiful. "The various shades of the sand are singularly rich and agreeable." Thoreau finds symbolic value in the sight. "What is man but a mass of thawing clay?" he asks later in the chapter. "The ball of the human finger is but a drop congealed. The fingers and toes flow to their extent from the thawing mass of the body." There is a sense that Thoreau is proud of his unconventional fondness for this particular sign of spring, but he provides such fascinating visual descriptions that it's clear he genuinely loves to watch that hillside.

Who are the Pilpay & Co. mentioned in Walden, Chapter 12 ("Brute Neighbors")?

"Pilpay" is Thoreau's spelling of "Pilpai," an author believed to have written a collection of Indian Sanskrit fables. The phrase "& Co." is his shorthand for "other writers of fables." In other words, he's saying fable writers are the ones who best explain what animals mean to us. Even wild creatures like field mice are "beasts of burden" for humans: they embody our ideas, and we treat them as symbols. Thoreau suggests that no matter which creatures live among us, we will make them "carry some portion of our thoughts." In this chapter, Thoreau attempts to reconcile the gulf between our human and our animal natures—a difficult task, and one that perhaps only a fable can really explain.

Who is Mirabeau mentioned in Walden, Chapter 18 ("Conclusion"), and what is his significance?

Mirabeau was a French revolutionary. He is said to have turned to highway robbery as a way of testing his courage in the face of authority: how hard would it be to stand "in formal opposition to the most sacred laws of society"? When his brother-in-law scolded him after the robbery, Mirabeau answered, "Do you imagine that it was for the sake of his money that I stopped the poor squire? I wished to put him to the proof [test him], and to put myself to the proof." Thoreau disapproves of this way of testing oneself. The point, he says, is not to test one's resolution in opposing society; the point is to obey the laws of one's being, "which will never be one of opposition to a just government." He will later develop this theme in his essay "Civil Disobedience."

In Walden, Chapter 18 ("Conclusion") why does Thoreau say it would be "nobler game to shoot one's self" than to shoot a giraffe in Africa?

Obviously Thoreau is not being literal here. He's telling the reader a variation on the concept "Wherever you go, there you are." Traveling to Africa to shoot big game is merely another way to learn about oneself—and a convoluted way at that. Human beings are foreign to themselves; why not stay at home and study your own nature, which is a higher goal anyway? Thoreau adds, "What does Africa—what does the West stand for?" In another essay, he explains that the West (and Africa) represent the wild, which is always worth seeking out; here, he makes it clear that one does not need to travel to find the wild. "If you would travel farther than all travelers ... obey the precept of the old philosopher, and Explore thyself."

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