Walden Summary

Henry David Thoreau


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Walden Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

Walden (1854), a classic philosophical book, is Henry David Thoreau’s account of living alone in the woods for a prolonged period. Also known as Life in the Woods, it is widely regarded as one of the most influential books in American literature. Some critics consider it a guidebook for self-reliance and self-sufficiency, and others view it as Thoreau’s attempt to understand society better through simple living and introspection. Thoreau was a leading transcendentalist and abolitionist, and Walden is the work he is best known for. His writing has made lasting contributions to natural history, environmentalism, and philosophy.

At Walden’s outset, we learn that Thoreau spent two years living beside Walden Pond in Massachusetts, between 1845 and 1847. Thoreau wanted to spend time alone, reflecting on society, and better understanding himself. During his isolation, he lives a simple life and scratches a living from the land. The result is this book, which he wrote over the two-year period.

Thoreau’s main goal is to show people that they can work less if they choose a simpler, less sophisticated life. He is concerned that humanity is moving in the wrong direction, because we shun our true desires in favor of what a capitalist society wants. The book is a comment on the nature of human existence. Thoreau deliberately eschews all comforts and luxuries, planning to survive on only the food he can grow or gather. He has only a few items of clothing and some fuel, and he plans to build his own shelter.

The point of building his own home and gathering his own food is to show people that expensive educations and fancy status symbols are hollow and pointless. By pursuing such luxuries, we are moving away from our natural state and what truly matters. We will never be happy while we pursue transient things, such as fashion and social influence, but society tricks us into thinking this will make us happy, eventually. This suits a capitalist structure. However, Thoreau muses, when we are unburdened by material considerations, we are at one with nature, and in turn, we are closer to our true selves.

On the other hand, Thoreau is careful to point out that poverty doesn’t automatically entitle us to spiritual growth or moral superiority. Choosing poverty to feel superior to others who chase material things is just as bad as being materialistic. We must consciously choose to live a natural, humble life to derive any spiritual benefit from it, and we must view all other humans as equal.

Although Thoreau plans to live alone, he receives help from friends and family. For example, the Emerson family lets him build a cabin on their land as long as he does chores for them. This lets him earn some money, which in turn means he can fuel the cabin. Thoreau muses on the importance of honest work and how fulfilling it is to do a job with purpose and meaning. He builds his cabin for only $28.

While staying at Walden Pond, Thoreau grows his own vegetables, and he sells them for money. He eats a very simple diet, comprised of only what he can cook and store. His diet consists mainly of vegetables and potatoes; he emphasizes that we don’t need rich food to sustain ourselves. Thoreau implores us to only take what we need and to stop being greedy.

His seclusion teaches him what is at the heart of human identity and our spiritual nature. Once we stop judging our value by our social status, profession, education, and wealth, we discover our true value, and we can know inner peace. In terms of the transcendentalist movement, Thoreau bases his experiment on the theory that everyone has a true self, and that we are more than the sum of our achievements.

Thoreau is ultimately an advocate for self-autonomy. He wants everyone to feel empowered to forge their own path in life, and not the one that, for example, families set out for them. Only then can we all be who we are intended to be. He wants readers to apply his findings to their own lives, as opposed to emulating him. Slavishly copying him is just as bad as pursuing hollow material gains.

Thoreau encounters many different characters during his stay in the cabin. Whenever he meets new people, he considers how they respond to his radical experiment. He is disappointed that they’re all too caught up in the American Dream to choose their own path in life. They don’t see that by following the American Dream, they’re moving further and further away from what will truly make them happy.

Over the course of the seasons, Thoreau observes different animals and how they interact with each other. He considers what we can learn from them, and how simple and meaningful their lives are. Thoreau is particularly enthralled by seasonal change and how many different sights and sounds there are to enjoy.

When Thoreau finally leaves Walden Pond, he considers what he has learned, and how he will feel once he returns to society. He has learned how important it is to forge our own path in life, and he considers that this is what the American Dream should rightly be concerned with. Once we embrace our true selves, we embrace nature and self-fulfillment.