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Walden | Motifs

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The Four Seasons

"At a certain season of our life we are accustomed to consider every spot as the possible site of a house" is the first sentence of "Where I Lived, and What I Lived For." Here, Thoreau sees himself as occupying a particular season; he has also structured his book around the seasons. He calls morning "the most memorable season of the day," and he remarks, "While I enjoy the friendship of the seasons I trust that nothing can make life a burden to me." Seasons are a crucial organizing system for Thoreau.

Each season provides a new challenge, requiring mastery. In his first spring at Walden Pond, Thoreau must build his house before cold weather. In summer, caring for his bean field means that he has no time to read and must draw his lessons from the beans themselves. Autumn is a race to prepare for winter. Winter is not only a battle against loneliness and isolation, it is a useful time used learning new lessons about the ice and surveying the pond—and in writing.

The book begins and ends with chapters about spring. Because Thoreau is busy building his cabin the first spring he's at Walden, he dedicates the second spring chapter to a thorough examination of the ways spring brings rebirth. It's therefore striking when he abruptly ends the chapter with the September date that he left Walden. Perhaps he has moved on to a new life himself. Where did spring go? With Thoreau's departure from Walden, the book's entire organizing principle has been cast adrift. Yet the book has come full circle and Thoreau has achieved what he set out to do: understand nature and himself better.

Woodland Creatures

The animals in Walden provide a source of joy for readers and company as well as teachers for the author. From the mole that shares Thoreau's potatoes to the drunk-sounding bullfrogs that ring Walden Pond, each creature Thoreau mentions receives the full beam of his attention. Thoreau incorporates animal life and lessons gleaned from animals in each chapter, demonstrative of his affection for wildlife.

Walden would be impoverished without its animal characters, but they're not included solely to please readers. As with all natural phenomena, Thoreau views animals as his teachers: "I like sometimes to take rank hold on life and spend my day more as the animals do," he says in "Higher Laws."

Thoreau may love animals for themselves, but he emphatically dislikes the "animal side" of human nature. Of his acquaintance Alex Therien (the Woodchopper), he complains: "I never, by any manoeuvering, could get him to take the spiritual view of things; the highest that he appeared to conceive of was a simple expediency, such as you might expect an animal to appreciate." In "Higher Laws," he tells readers, "He is blessed who is assured that the animal is dying out in him day by day, and the divine being established." Human beings are "the divine allied to beasts, the creatures of appetite ... to some extent, our very life is our disgrace."

The Great Thinkers

Thoreau's many quotations from poetry and philosophy underscore his message that studying literature is crucial to self-understanding. Over and over he quotes from classic books of antiquity. He also makes allusions to characters and people from sources including Greek mythology and world history.

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