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Walden | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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In Walden, Chapter 13 ("House Warming") how does Thoreau demonstrate that he identifies with frozen Walden Pond?

Throughout the book, Thoreau seems to see Walden Pond as an ideal space: pure, remote, wild. All three qualities are ones he seeks for himself. In Chapter 13, immediately after a passage in which he describes plastering the cabin walls, Thoreau says, "The pond had in the meanwhile skimmed over in the shadiest and shallowest coves." Just as Thoreau seals his cabin for winter, so Walden Pond seals itself. Thoreau strengthens the connection with his use of the phrase skimmed over. Smoothing a plaster wall is called "skim coating" it. Thoreau describes the pond's first coating of ice as "especially interesting and perfect." Not only does its clarity allows an excellent view of the bottom of the pond, but the ice itself fascinates him. At first glance, the ice seems to be filled with bubbles, but a closer look reveals that the bubbles are actually forming in the water under the ice. "These bubbles are ... very clear and beautiful, and you see your face reflected in them through the ice." In a very literal sense, Thoreau sees himself when he looks into the pond.

In Walden, Chapter 12 ("Brute Neighbors") who are the hermit and the poet, and what lesson does Thoreau present with the dialogue between these characters?

In "Brute Neighbors," the hermit symbolizes humans' spiritual side and also symbolizes Thoreau himself. The poet symbolizes humans' animal side and represents Thoreau's friend, transcendentalist poet William Ellery Channing II. Channing helped Thoreau build his cabin at Walden and often visited him there. In 1873, 11 years after Thoreau's death, Channing published the first biography of his friend: Thoreau, the Poet-Naturalist. Deep in spiritual thought, the hermit wonders if he has heard the noonday bell calling farm workers to lunch. He reflects that if the men did not need to eat, they would not need to work to earn their food. His need for food is simple: water from the pond and a loaf of bread. The poet arrives, remarking that he's hungry (an animal instinct) and suggesting that they go fishing (an animalistic pursuit). In the previous chapter ("Higher Laws"), Thoreau's spiritual side—the hermit—struggling with his animalistic side, would have rejected fishing in order to continue his spiritual meditation. Here, Thoreau reverses himself. When the poet invites the hermit to join him in fishing, the hermit asks only that the poet first dig bait, while he (the hermit) concludes "a serious meditation." The hermit's self-examination, however, reveals he is concerned with canceling this spiritual pursuit: "Shall I go to heaven or a-fishing? If I should soon bring this meditation to an end, would another so sweet occasion be likely to offer?" In this dialogue, Thoreau may also be debating the direction of his life: Should he remain at Walden and pursue the spiritual, or leave Walden and live in the world (go a-fishing)? Concord, mentioned at the end of this conversation, refers to the Concord River, and may also refer to the town of Concord—the world. Overall, the lesson emerging from the hermit/poet dialogue is that the conflict between our spiritual and animalistic sides is an ongoing one. Sometimes, as in "Higher Laws," our spiritual side wins out over the animalistic side. At other times, as in "Brute Neighbors," our animalistic instincts rule those of our spiritual side.

In Walden, Chapter 9 ("The Ponds") what is meant by the last line, "Talk of heaven! ye disgrace earth"?

In this chapter, Thoreau describes the beauty of the landscape, such as Walden Pond and White Pond ("the gem of the woods," says Thoreau). Walden Pond is sacred to Thoreau; White Pond is allowed into the pantheon because it is just as beautiful as Walden. Thoreau's love for both ponds is demonstrated by his hyperbolic descriptions of their beauty and purity. Unlike our disgusting selves, "they contain no muck." If they could be permanently congealed and shrunk to a manageable size, "they would, perchance, be carried off by slaves, like precious stones." They're not only cleaner than regular farmers' duck ponds, they're also "much more beautiful than our lives" and "much more transparent than our characters." Thoreau concludes the chapter by saying that nature is at her most beautiful when she is most remote from society. Yet people don't worship nature as they should: "Talk of heaven! ye disgrace earth," which is so lovely that even heaven can't compete.

In Walden, Chapter 17 ("Spring") why does Thoreau write of hearing a robin's song for the first time in "many a thousand years"?

Thoreau has been describing the glorious moment when winter suddenly turns to spring in the woods. Where there was ice on the pond, it's now transparent, and he hears a robin in the distance. It feels like thousands of years since he last heard a robin's song, "whose note I shall not forget for many a thousand more." It seemed like an endless time before spring arrived; with its arrival and the rebirth of everything in nature, spring makes Thoreau feel immortal. One thousand years is a millennium. In the Bible, the Millennium refers to the period of time Christ will reign on Earth after the Second Coming. Although Thoreau is most unlikely to have believed in the Millennium, he is undoubtedly familiar with this biblical concept. Perhaps he views the robin's return as a kind of Second Coming as Earth awakes from winter.

In Walden, Chapter 16 ("The Pond in Winter") what is Thoreau's opinion of the ice cutters and ice cutting?

Thoreau disapproves of everything about the men who harvest ice from frozen Walden Pond: Seeking to provide oneself with summertime ice is a trivial goal. Removing the "roof" the ice provides the fishes is an unnatural act, as is carrying the ice away "held fast by chains and stakes" as if it were a wild creature. The ice men are Irish, and—as the reader learns in "Baker's Farm"—Thoreau is deplorably prejudiced against the Irish. Their overseers are rich, and the rich are another group Thoreau despises. Most of this labor and fuss is wasted effort: three-quarters of the ice will melt before it reaches its destination. Ice harvesting, says Thoreau, is an unnatural pursuit. Ice is a marvelous substance, but only in its natural setting.

In Walden what are the similarities and differences between life at Walden Pond and life at a Utopian community like Brook Farm, and which experiment seems more successful?

Simplicity and self-reliance were important at Walden and Brook Farm. By simplifying his life, Thoreau depended solely on himself to supply his needs for food and shelter. Brook Farm, however, was an exercise in communal living. While self-reliance was revered in theory, it wasn't practical in the real life of the community where members depended on each other's labor and cooperation. The farm's survival depended on school tuition fees, sales of agricultural products, and goods made by its members. Walden was ideal for Thoreau's goal of observing nature and enhancing his spiritual side. He engaged in physical labor as little as possible, allowing more time to commune with nature. He required solitude to promote meditation; contact with others was a distraction. The Brook Farm farmers wanted to live, not in solitude, but in harmony with their community members. They expected to devote part of each day to physical labor and still have the opportunity for leisure time and intellectual pursuits. Brook Farm's lack of solitude would have dismayed Thoreau, as it did his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. Approached as a possible farm member, Emerson refused, saying, "I do not wish to remove from my present prison to a prison a little larger. ... solitude is more ... beneficent than the concert of crowds." Initially, Brook Farm drew the intellectuals of its day. Nathaniel Hawthorne lived there for a time, along with journalist Charles Dana. Author Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson visited the community. Many of its idealistic residents were unprepared for the physical labor needed to run the farm. As they departed, more craftsmen joined. Thoreau lived at Walden Pond for just over two years (1845–47), leaving when he felt he had learned all that Walden could teach him in terms of spiritual development. The Brook Farm experiment was less successful. Although some residents were happy with their life there, the farm was financially unstable during the six years of its existence (1841–47). In 1845, a smallpox epidemic dealt the community a severe blow, and a fire that destroyed its headquarters building the following year caused its final collapse.

In Walden, Chapter 11 ("Higher Laws") why is Thoreau tempted to eat a raw woodchuck?

Thoreau has already described eating a (cooked) woodchuck in Walden's Chapter 1 ("Economy"). In "Higher Laws," he's more interesting in consuming the woodchuck's "wildness" than its meat. The word wildness is important to Thoreau. To him it means not "wilderness" but uncontrolled freedom. Thoreau so yearns to experience wildness that he feels a "thrill of savage delight" at the thought of killing and devouring the woodchuck. However, Thoreau goes on to explain that he believes it's wrong to eat animals, although he still eats fish. It can be assumed that most of the woodchucks in the Walden woods are safe.

In Walden, Chapter 13 ("House Warming") why does Thoreau gather wild grapes but not cranberries?

Thoreau appears to think that the cranberries he finds are too beautiful to eat. He calls them "small waxen gems" and "pearly and red" pendants and scorns farmers who gather them "with an ugly rake" that snarls the meadow grass. He also scorns the farmers for selling the cranberries "for the dollar only"; cranberries are too much of a treasure to sell for mere money. And finally, he scorns city dwellers for turning the cranberries into jam and eating them. For Thoreau, harvesting cranberries is a waste similar to killing buffalo just for their tongues.

In Walden, Chapter 14 ("Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors") what is the "lethargy" with which Thoreau struggles?

Thoreau often seems like a tornado of energy. Even though he wants to work only one day a week and even when he sits and meditates for hours, he's accomplishing something. So it seems to come out of nowhere when he mentions he "labored with a lethargy" one winter. He jokes that he may be causing the sleepiness himself by reading boring books. But he also seems perplexed by the condition. He wonders if the lethargy is an inherited condition. In a letter written two years before he moves to the cabin, Thoreau describes "the demon which is said to haunt" his mother's side of the family, "hovering over their eyelids with wings steeped in [the] juice of poppies," a known narcotic. Thoreau adds that the demon "has commenced another campaign against me." It would be pointless to try diagnosing Thoreau at this remove, but one symptom of depression is lethargy. Another symptom is avoiding people. Possibly Thoreau is feeling lethargic or restless because he knows it is time to try a new way of life.

In Walden, Chapter 18 ("Conclusion") why does Thoreau leave Walden Pond, and what has he learned while living there?

He believes that he has advanced as far along the path of self-reliance and spiritual development as he can at Walden and does not wish to merely repeat the experiences Walden can offer. Therefore, it is time to move on. While at Walden Pond, Thoreau has learned that people need not "be in such desperate haste to succeed. ... If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away." Based on his decision to simplify his life, he also carries this idea into his post-Walden life: "Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities [nonessentials] only. Money is not required to buy one necessary of the soul."

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