1. Give an overview of this work.
This is written in the first person and consists of Thoreau giving a condensed version of the time he spent on Walden Pond. The narrative covers a year and in so doing it outlines the effect of the changing seasons on the natural world. He also describes how he set about building his home and in so doing he demonstrates how simple it was to live as he did.
He also uses this as a means to reflect on philosophical matters, such as the nature of our existence in the West when we are too dominated by work to enjoy our lives. The self-imposed self-sufficient lifestyle that he embraced for two years, and which is the basis of the narrative, is a record of how it is possible to put one’s philosophy into practice. The pleasure he took as a spectator of his surroundings colors the style and content and in so doing he establishes the possibility of living so simply.
2. Give examples of Thoreau’s tolerance and understanding of the natural world.
Thoreau is careful to show that he recognizes that he (and other men and women) share the earth with other species and refuses to accept that we as humans are at the top of the hierarchy.
When he describes his bean field, for example, he also explains that he realizes the sun does not just shine for him. He also recognizes that the area he grew the beans was formerly the feeding ground for the woodchuck and so it is understandable that they will come to his crop. In so doing, he demonstrates an understanding that humans share the planet with others and exhibits a form of tolerance. This tolerance is extended in his ability to share his home with wasps as autumn and the thought of winter encroaches. His actions demonstrate, then, that humans need not colonize everything in their wake.
3. Explain the relevance of Walden to readers of the 21st century.
Continuing on from the previous point, Thoreau’s demonstrable tolerance is arguably even more relevant to readers today than at the time of writing. His sense of understanding for nature and ecological systems may now appear rudimentary, but the sentiment and warning still hold true.
He asks that we keep the ‘tonic of the wilderness’ so that our lives do not stagnate, and to keep a sense of our own importance in proportion. This warning is perhaps being heeded by some now in relation to global warming, but it is possible that this is too little coming too late. He could see in the mid 19th century that humans were set on colonizing the earth, as is evident in his knowledge of the destruction that has come with the cultivation of the land (and, for example, the probable disappearance of the ground nut). Because of these points, his work looks set to be a poignant warning from the past that we failed to heed.
4. Analyse this work in relation to Puritanism.
The work ethic that runs through Puritanism is questioned by Thoreau as he refuses to accept the lifestyle where work becomes a form of slavery. He demonstrates that he is not lazy, and so avoids this condemnation, but instead emphasizes that it is possible to take time in enjoying the simple pleasure, such as fishing and walking, and ensures he works sufficiently to give himself the opportunity to do so.
In other areas, however, he shows a puritanical streak in his rejection of luxuries. His pared down life in the woods is described with pleasure, but he manages to survive like this by separating himself from the temptations that are now associated with the wealth that comes with capitalism. This is seen to be done for economical rather than spiritual reasons, but he also stresses that luxuries (such as tea, coffee, large houses, and excess amounts of furniture) do not in the end fulfil our desires.
5. Explain how Walden promotes ideas of self-reliance.
The concept of self-reliance is made most evident in the fact of Thoreau’s chosen two year existence. He demonstrates by example how possible it is to be independent of the State, and the workforce of others (including animals), as well as the capitalist society that is encroaching increasingly in the West at this time.
His references to the plight of John Field give a contrasting example of what happens when the belief in the self is non-existent. Thoreau sees that this man will always be poor as long as he lives in thrall to capitalism even though both men were born with potentially limitless horizons. The spirit of Walden, which is colored by Transcendentalism as well as Eastern philosophies, refuses to accept the hierarchical structure of society. He has demonstrated physically that it is possible to live differently to those who are in debt on the mortgage or in rent arrears.