Henry David Thoreau

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Walden | Themes


Of his Harvard education Thoreau once said it was "all the branches and none of the roots"—trivial subjects with no basic fundamentals to sustain them. Thoreau's themes in Walden are roots, not branches; they are clearly and emphatically stated. In keeping with his "simplify" message, he revisits them regularly and does not feel the need to add new ones. He varies the imagery used to convey the themes, but he's not fanciful.


Thoreau is strongly influenced by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance," published a few years earlier. Clearly, Thoreau moves to Walden Pond in part to become as self-reliant as he can. He prides himself for growing his own food, for living apart from his fellow Concordians, and for guiding himself by his own moral compass, not the laws of the State. As Thoreau says,

I was more independent than any farmer in Concord, for I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius.

After following this precept, Thoreau works hard at improving his understanding of the world and what it means to experience an aware and full life. The following are central to his concept of independence:

  • Liberation from the traditional economic system: Thoreau emphasizes this liberation when he says, "The farmer is endeavoring to solve the problem of a livelihood by a formula more complicated than the problem itself. To get his shoestrings he speculates in herds of cattle." Thoreau is proud of forgoing luxuries such as beef and coffee in favor of crops he can grow himself.
  • Solitude: Thoreau constantly emphasizes the benefits of his solitary life at Walden. The chapter titled "Solitude" opens, "This is a delicious evening" and continues, "I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude." Thoreau is not a hermit—this chapter almost immediately mentions visitors to his cabin—but the sights and sounds of the woods and the pond are all he needs for entertainment.


As a Transcendentalist, Thoreau feels compelled to better himself—not in worldly status but in wisdom. When Thoreau builds his cabin on the edge of a pond surrounded by woods, it is a valuable, life-changing learning experience: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front [face] only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Thoreau argues that meditatively focusing inward allows him to elevate his life and understand his place in the universe.

Thoreau speaks proudly of other skills than just his intellect:

  • Practical talents and "handiness": Thoreau takes visible pride in building his cabin so well: "If I seem to boast more than is becoming, my excuse is that I brag for humanity rather than for myself," he says after finishing the work. He's also proud of his farming skills and says of his bean crop that he's done "better than any farmer in Concord did that year."
  • Practical and formal education: The fact that Thoreau is left unsatisfied by his Harvard education reveals how high his standards are. He devotes a whole chapter to reading, saying that the cabin "was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university." Thoreau goes beyond reading to develop his intellect even further through practical application. He improves his mind through close study of the animals and plants at Walden Pond. He develops a keen knowledge of botany. He also extends his sense of enterprise in building the cabin so cheaply and growing his own food, even gaining a surplus in his crop. His knowledge of surveying methods also comes into play as he plumbs the depth of the pond. Altogether, his education has become vaster than what he was taught at Harvard.


Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! ... Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five.

Thoreau casts aside materialism and simplifies his life with the bare necessities, thus showing that less is more. On Walden Pond, he has everything he needs and nothing that he does not need. As Thoreau rejects materialism, he can also reject following conforming social norms that go hand in hand with material needs. It could be argued that building a cabin in the woods is a roundabout way of living simply or minimally compared to, say, sitting in a rented room in a boarding house. Thoreau wants the kind of simplicity he can appreciate.

Nature as Eternal Guide and Teacher

Thoreau makes it clear that he locates the divine in nature rather than in a conventional Christian deity: "We are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us." Thoreau asserts that by living in this world, in the present, rather than looking to an afterlife, a person can realize the sublime: "Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself." Thoreau's close observation of his environment demonstrates the Transcendental axiom that Nature is the eternal guide and teacher for human beings if they only open their eyes and learn. Like other Transcendentalists, he sees Nature as the great spiritual benefactor.

Ways in which nature instructs in Walden:

  • Meditatively observing his natural surroundings seems to Thoreau like the most "improving" pastime there is. It's also just as interesting as going to parties or the theater: "My life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel."
  • Birds, animals, plants, and even Walden Pond itself can serve as role models: "The most sweet and tender, the most innocent and encouraging society may be found in any natural object."
  • Living in nature is healthier than living in society: "What is the pill which will keep us well, serene, contented? Not my or thy great-grandfather's, but our great-grandmother Nature's universal, vegetable, botanic medicines ... let me have a draught of undiluted morning air. Morning air!"

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