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Walden | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Walden, Chapter 18 ("Conclusion") what is the meaning of the story about the artist of Kouroo?

According to legend, Kuru was an Indian hero. The Mahabharata—the world's longest epic poem—is the story of Kuru's descendants. But the fable here is Thoreau's own creation. The artist from the city of Kouroo wants to make a perfect walking stick. He determines that to create this perfect walking stick, the amount of time necessary is irrelevant. He then embarks on an endless search for the perfect wood. Because he is making something perfect, time does not pass for him; his friends age and die but the artist enjoys perpetual youth. Although for the artist time stands still, events in the rest of the world move on. Cities and dynasties crumble; even stars in the sky change while he works. The artist finally finishes the walking stick and realizes that he has not only created the perfect object but has achieved a higher existence. Thoreau tells a parable in which a mortal human being actually achieves perfection and immortality because, as a Transcendentalist, Thoreau believes that the ceaseless struggle to achieve perfection is the highest goal.

What distinction does Thoreau make in Walden between living simply and living in poverty?

The point of Thoreau's stay at Walden Pond is stated in the first paragraph of Walden: to "[earn his] living by the labor of [his] hands only." He presents the idea of laboring only as much as one needs as an ideal and devotes the book to showing how he did just that. At the same time, he makes a distinction between those who support themselves and live simply and those who depend on the charity of others. "However mean your life is, meet it and live it," Thoreau instructs any readers who might be impoverished. "It is not so bad as you are. ... You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house." "It is not so bad as you are" seems like a gratuitous slap, and a few lines later, Thoreau drives it in harder. After assuring readers that even the underprivileged can find happiness in their meager existence, Thoreau has another reproof: "Most [poor people] think that they are above being supported by the town; but it oftener happens that they are not above supporting themselves by dishonest means." This passage is distressing to read; Thoreau takes a high-handed attitude toward others' misfortunes. However, the passage can also be read as Thoreau's attempt to inspire and comfort himself. At the time he completed Walden, Thoreau was short of money and uncertain about his future.

In Walden, Chapter 18 ("Conclusion") what is meant by the phrase "China pride," and what is its significance to the chapter?

"Consider the China pride and stagnant self-complacency of mankind," urges Thoreau. Nineteenth-century historians and politicians promoted the belief that the Chinese believed their empire to be so powerful that it had no need to reach out to other nations. Thoreau evidently agrees, for he goes on to say that his generation is overly proud about its own illustrious past. "Truly, we are deep thinkers, we are ambitious spirits!" he adds sarcastically. He believes that human pride in our previous accomplishments makes us relax, to sit back in smug self-satisfaction, when what we should be doing is continuing to develop our self-awareness and our ability to "delve beneath the surface" of our existence.

In Walden, Chapter 16 ("The Pond in Winter") what is the symbolic significance of Thoreau's attempt to "sound" (gauge the depth of) the pond?

Because Thoreau consistently treats Walden Pond as a reflection of himself, it's safe to assume that his investigation of the pond's depths will lead him to discover similarities between himself and the pond. Thoreau is fond of challenging conventional ideas. In Walden Pond's case, the conventional idea is that the pond is bottomless. As a man well versed in natural history, Thoreau knows that this can't be true; no pond is bottomless. But he takes to disproving the conventional idea with zeal. By demonstrating that he was right all along, he also sets himself above ordinary people. "It is remarkable how long men will believe in the bottomlessness of a pond without taking the trouble to sound it." He's certainly not that kind of man. Thoreau often uses superlatives to describe Walden Pond. When he sounds it, he discovers that the pond has "a remarkable depth for so small an area." This is fortunate for Thoreau, who often stresses his own intellectual and philosophical depths. "What if all ponds were shallow?" he asks. He doesn't need to answer that because, in that case, Walden Pond would be completely ordinary.

In Walden, Chapter 6 ("Visitors") what does Thoreau mean by the word hospitalality?

In Chapter 6 Thoreau says, "I had some guests ... who appeal, not to your hospitality, but to your hospitalality." He coined the word hospitalality in reference to certain guests who were "not reckoned commonly among the town's poor, but who should be." Though comfortable enough in the material sense, they are impoverished in their ability to help themselves. (Thoreau does not clearly specify what kind of self-help he thinks these people need.) These people want more than a welcome from Thoreau; they also want his help. Thus, they want "hospital-ality"; they ask to be treated as if they needed a hospital, not hospitality. Thoreau disapproves of such people. "I require of a visitor that he be not actually starving. ... Objects of charity are not guests," he says. Clearly, such visitors interfere with his day-to-day work without providing intellectual stimulation or true friendship.

Why might Thoreau have chosen not to discuss his mentor and benefactor, Ralph Waldo Emerson (the Old Immortal), at length in Walden?

Thoreau points out in Chapter 1 ("Economy") that he is not the owner of the land but "merely a squatter." The plot at Walden belonged not to Thoreau but to Ralph Waldo Emerson (the Old Immortal), who had bought it in 1844. He offered to let Thoreau build a cabin on the site as a place to write; Thoreau was not really a "squatter." Emerson did expect Thoreau to clear some of the land and plant trees on it. Yet Thoreau does not mention Emerson by name or express gratitude toward him in Walden. He refers to "one other with whom [he] had 'solid seasons' ... at his house in the village, and who looked in upon me from time to time." A possible explanation is that, given his theme of self-reliance, he did not want to appear to be riding on the coattails of his far more well-known friend.

How was Thoreau inspired by Emerson's essay "Nature" as he worked on Walden?

Published in 1836, "Nature" sets forth the philosophies that became the basis of Transcendentalism. The essay was a keystone document for the Transcendental Club, whose first meeting was held a week after it was published. "Nature" deals with the way that society perceives its place in the natural world. For Emerson (the Old Immortal) and the Transcendentalists, the best way to understand God and nature is through direct experience—not sermons, books of theology, or any other traditional teachings. Society is detrimental to this process; to become one with nature, solitude is essential. Walden is influenced by "Nature" throughout the text from Thoreau's initial impulse to "go to the woods" to the many conclusions he draws from observing nature. Everything is an object lesson for him and a chance to clarify his philosophy. For instance, his waning interest in fishing sparks a meditation on vegetarianism and our higher nature. A storm that keeps him indoors provides "a long evening in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves."

In Walden, Chapter 15 ("Winter Animals") what is the symbolic significance of the hare that Thoreau sees near his front door?

As with many things Thoreau observes, there's more to this hare than at first meets the eye. It looks ragged and fearful, "a poor wee thing, lean and bony. ... Its large eyes appeared young and unhealthy, almost dropsical." (Dropsical means swollen with excess fluid.) Yet when Thoreau takes a step toward the hare, it transforms into a swift and powerful wild animal. Its thinness is an asset: it helps the hare's speediness. Though some might find it pitiable, the hare is perfectly suited to its environment. When it races away, the hare is "asserting its vigor and the dignity of Nature." The hare is an object lesson, perhaps even a stand-in for Thoreau himself.

In Walden, Chapter 6 ("Visitors") why does Thoreau compare his dinner host to Cerberus?

According to Greek legend, Cerberus is the three-headed dog who guards the entrance to Hades, the Underworld. Cerberus is meant to prevent souls of the dead from leaving Hades, not to prevent anyone's entering. But the impression he conveys is so frightening that, over the centuries, he has come to be seen as guarding the portal in both directions. Thoreau hates it when people fuss over things like food. "You need not rest your reputation on the dinners you give." He says that even Cerberus could not have made him feel less welcome than a dinner host who made a "parade" about entertaining him, "which I took to be a very polite and roundabout hint never to trouble him so again." This passage gives a good idea of what a difficult friend Thoreau can be. Isn't it more likely that his host fussed over him because he wanted Thoreau to have a good time? If he really never wanted to see Thoreau again, wouldn't it be easier not to invite him to dinner? Thoreau's underlying message is that he felt uncomfortable at the dinner, not that his host was being unwelcoming in any way.

What do the seasons Thoreau uses to structure Walden represent to him, and what can the reader learn from this organization of the text?

Although Thoreau spent a little over two years at Walden Pond, he organizes Walden into the chronological space of one year. To Thoreau, the seasons represent the possibility for spiritual development. Walden's chapters and relevant seasons present Thoreau's activities, such as cabin building and bean planting, along with his observations on nature and philosophical allusions. This organization of Thoreau's physical journey (building, planting, buying, selling) and his spiritual one (learning from nature and the study of philosophy) provides readers with the cyclical concept of birth, life, death, and rebirth on both a physical and spiritual level. Walden opens in early spring as Thoreau builds his cabin (Chapter 1, "Economy"). He recognizes spring as a time of physical renewal and growth, just as he intends his experiment in self-reliant living to be a time of spiritual awakening and growth. In summer, Thoreau declares his independence from society, moving into his cabin on the Fourth of July. He takes another step toward self-reliance by planting beans that he intends to eat and to sell (Chapter 7, "The Bean-Field"). He is growing in confidence by constructing his cabin and "making the yellow soil express its summer thought in bean leaves and blossoms [and] ... making the earth say beans instead of grass." Fall finds Thoreau building a chimney so that he can heat his cabin. Symbolizing the author's spiritual development, the chimney is "an independent structure, standing on the ground, and rising through the house to the heavens." In winter, Thoreau's spiritual quest seems to stall, although in Chapter 16 nature again calls to him and he cuts a window in Walden's ice, revealing that "Heaven is under our feet is well as over our heads." Chapter 17 ("Spring") chronicles Thoreau's second spring at Walden and the completion of his experiment. Thoreau notes the changes to the water and land, as well as to Walden's plant life. The thawing of the earth foreshadows new plant growth, as the flowing sand and clay show leaf-like patterns. Rebirth in his natural surroundings leads Thoreau to view life with "younger hope" and "better thoughts."

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