Summary of Walden; or Life in the Woods

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Walden; or Life in the Woods book summary

Literary Classic

  • Diary
  • Transcendentalism

What It’s About

The Simple Life

Henry David Thoreau may have escaped to the wilderness to write Walden; or Life in the Woods nearly two centuries ago, but it wouldn’t be hard to imagine his book sitting on a bestseller list next to Eat, Pray, Love or Under the Tuscan Sun. Writing during the early Industrial Revolution, just when the railroad had reached his hometown, he struggles with the purpose of life, the ever-quickening pace of work, the futility of materialism and the neglect of appreciating the beauty in the natural world. As canny today as it was in antebellum America, Thoreau’s book shows how far people have come and how little the human condition has changed over the decades.

Take-Aways

  • Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or Life in the Woods is one of the great classics of 19th-century American literature.
  • On July 4, 1845, Thoreau moves into a self-built cabin at Walden Pond near his hometown to live the simple life, spurning the luxuries of civilized society. For two years, he grows crops on a small piece of land; observes plants and animals; and reflects on one’s purpose in life, divinity in nature and humans’ role on Earth.
  • Thoreau rebelled against the status quo at a time when his native New England was rapidly industrializing and the United States was embarking on a massive territorial expansion.
  • A follower of Transcendentalism, he thought that people enslaved themselves by seeking ever greater material gains.
  • In Walden, he embarks on a journey to find universal truth in nature instead.
  • Thoreau expresses his spiritual awakening through metaphors from the natural world: the pond, the bean field and the changing of seasons.
  • Contrary to popular belief, he didn’t live the life of a hermit. In fact, he went to town for good company and dining on a regular basis.
  • His account is full of contradictions, reflecting how a complex individual lives in complicated times.
  • Over the years, he’s been unjustly cast as either a noble saint or an egotistical fraud.
  • “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front 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.”
 

Summary

Trapped by a Fear of the Future

Most people live dull and desperate lives. Day in and day out, they toil away, just to eke out a miserable existence as a reward for their hard work. They claim that endless labor will liberate them, while in fact their fear of the future and relentless anxiety about impoverishment enslaves them. They’re under the illusion they have the freedom of choice, but they are, in fact, subject to their own needs and desires.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called ‘resignation’ is confirmed desperation.”

The experiences of other people don’t help: Their insights are far too limited, so reduced in scope to each individual’s life that they lack any relevance whatsoever to another person’s existence. Faced with this dismal reality, Henry David Thoreau decides to live in harmony with nature, in order to identify the real necessities in life.

Fulfilling Basic Needs

Before embarking on such an experiment, you have to prepare wisely and make sure you have the four necessities of life: food, shelter, clothing and fuel. Pragmatism is paramount, and you soon realize which garments are comfortable and suitable for the change of seasons; after all, nature doesn’t care about your looks or the social status you’re trying to maintain. For most people, it’s the other way around: They worry more about a broken seam than a broken leg. The same is true for the shelter they seek: More often than not, owning a house is for representational purposes – rather than keeping you out of wet and cold weather. Building or buying your own house has become a heavy burden for life: You take on debts and pay them off over several decades, only to make sure that you can keep a roof over your head. And while in most savage societies every man owns his house, however modest it may be, in the modern civilized world, about half the population is reduced to paying rent. A great many of the indigent languish in shanties less dignified than any wigwam could ever be. Either way, it remains unclear whether it’s you who has the house or the house that has you. What most people forget is that you only need a few simple things to construct a dwelling which meets basic human needs.

Functional Design

In the spring of 1845, Thoreau builds his 10-foot by 15-foot cottage near Walden Pond. He cuts some white pines as timber for ground beams and buys an old shanty for $4.25 from a poor Irish family, which he takes apart and rebuilds at the edge of the pond. All building materials, including a brick fireplace, two large windows and two trap doors, amount to $28 – equivalent to the annual rent of a single student room at Cambridge College. In fact, it would be well worth students’ idle time to build their own housing rather than paying such outrageous sums. Of course, Thoreau’s cottage doesn’t include any luxurious knickknacks, but those would be mere vanities.

“Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.”

True architectural beauty comes from within; it is born from the needs of the inhabitant, who builds the house to fit his purposes. Consider that the types of houses that painters seek the most for their picturesque beauty are the log huts and cottages of the poor. Getting the necessary furniture and household goods is easy. Many of Thoreau’s neighbors in the Concord area have some old furniture gathering dust in a garret. You can get most of it for free; all you have to do is carry it away.

Expenses and Revenues

It surprises Thoreau how little labor and assets you need to feed yourself. In the first year, he grows beans on two and a half acres, and in the second, he spades up a third of an acre to raise other necessary crops. His total expenses amount to around $62, against $37 in revenues from selling fruits and vegetables. True, he is down $25, but on the upside, Thoreau is now a homeowner and free to live as he wishes. He bakes his own bread made of rye and Indian corn sweetened with pumpkin molasses, which tastes good and seems to be extremely wholesome despite the lack of yeast – which, as some elderly people assure him, will lead to the loss of all his vital forces in no time. Most of the people in the area aren’t amused, though. They blame Thoreau for being selfish, living a lonely life, and not caring about the welfare of his fellow men and women. But there’s already plenty of do-gooding to go around, and most philanthropists actually don’t give a hoot about what their neighbors really need. People become do-gooders – not by being truly compassionate – but because they’re unhappy themselves. Instead, everyone should only do what he or she believes in, even if society disapproves.

Classics Instead of News

There’s a certain charm in learning how little you really need in life. Yet the real purpose is to retire to the wilderness in order to experience spiritual awakening and regain true life. The inner peace that solitude gives you helps on that path. The goal is to simplify your habits and slow down the rhythm of your life, which only works by sharpening your awareness for every little gift that nature bestows on you. Chasing after news and fashion is a mere distraction. For example, some people fear they’ll miss out if they stop reading newspapers, but they’re wrong. For example, if you’ve read one report about a railway accident, you might as well spare yourself from reading any more reports about railway accidents in the future:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front 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.”

The law of misfortune tells you everything about the countless misfortunes to come. If people tried to make out what is truly important, their lives would take on an entirely different meaning. In any event, reading good books is far more important than reading the newspapers. Books are one of the greatest pleasures in the world and provide a great opportunity for enlightenment. Of course, not all books are worth your while; most modern literature is a mere trifle. It’s only by studying the classics that you’ll learn about life. It’s a shame that in Concord no one invests in good education and fine arts, while people will spend a small fortune on a new townhouse.

The Music of Nature and Civilization

Thoreau finds the variety of sounds and melodies in nature amazing. They’re like a miraculous concert to him. He treasures not only the hooting of owls, croaking of bullfrogs and cock-crowing of wild Indian pheasants, but also the sounds of human civilization that arrive at his cabin when the wind blows just right: church bells, the shouting of merchants and the screeching of freight trains as they pull into Concord station. Solitude in nature sharpens your awareness of what goes on all around you. Frequent visits, even from your best friends, can be distracting and dull your senses. Good company and rare visits, on the other hand, are potentially invigorating and inspiring.

“I had three chairs in my house: one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”

As a host, you should primarily focus on conversation. Being overly concerned with serving fine foods and drinks is detrimental to a warm, convivial atmosphere. Although Thoreau lives in simple, poor conditions, he receives plenty of visitors during his two-year experiment. Among all his guests, he despises one type the most: those expecting what he calls “hospitalality” – that is, people who expect to be waited on and don’t even realize when they’ve overstayed their welcome despite your responding to them with “greater and greater remoteness.”

Counting Beans

Among other things, Thoreau becomes an expert in bean crops. In the first summer, he plants a sizable patch, bravely fights all his foes – chiefly weeds, worms and woodchucks – and even manages to grow an excess of nine bushels and twelve quarts, which he sells and barters for rice. Most travelers passing by ridicule him for growing the crop with his bare hands, without much in the way of tools, carts, work animals or manure. Despite his qualified success, Thoreau decides to plant fewer beans and corn, but more seeds of sincerity, truth, simplicity, faith and innocence the next summer – which looking back a few years later, didn’t yield such a good crop, after all. While at Walden Pond, Thoreau normally spends the morning working – hoeing, reading and writing – and then strolling into town every other afternoon to catch up on local gossip. He enjoys taking it in homeopathic doses, as it is just as agreeable to him as the croaking of frogs. Returning to his cottage at night is an adventure in and of itself, since even the most familiar surroundings take on a different look and feel in pitch darkness.

“Is a democracy such as we know it the last improvement possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further toward recognizing and organizing the rights of man?”

One day toward the end of the first summer, Thoreau is suddenly arrested for refusing to pay taxes which he did to protest the institution of slavery. He decides not to resist, so that the state must fight him – rather than the other way around. Sure enough, the next day he is released.

Pondering Walden

Thoreau particularly enjoys the pond. On lush summer nights, he spends the midnight hours catching fish for dinner the next day, listening to the serenades of owls and foxes, and considering the cosmos until he feels a jerk on the fishing line. To an outside observer, Walden Pond would seem quite unremarkable. But to Thoreau, the water’s reflections and greenish-blue tint; its golden-, steel- and greenish-colored fish; and its frogs, tortoises, ducks, geese, gulls and even the occasional loon all fill him with delight and inner peace. The massive amount of logging that has destroyed the dark surrounding woods – as well as the idea of piping the pond water to the village for use in dishwashing – appalls him.

“The luxury of one class is counterbalanced by the indigence of another.”

When Thoreau meets his neighbors – a poor Irishman with his wife and several children – he despairs of humanity. That miserable chap tills meadows for a rich farmer in the area, earning a pittance from backbreaking work that barely feeds his family. Thoreau tells the Irishman that Thoreau himself lives in a light and clean house that cost him next to nothing; drinks neither tea nor coffee; never consumes butter, milk or fresh meat; and that, living in this humble way, he partakes in what nature provides and doesn’t even have to work hard for it.

“We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”

The man and his wife don’t seem convinced. After all, getting their hands on some simple pleasures in life was what they came to America for. But deep down, Thoreau knows that there’s no use talking sense to them, since the poor man has inherited his boggy ways, limited mind-set and misfortune, which will stick with him and his kin like tar for generations to come.

Meat or Vegetables? That Is the Question

There are many arguments for living as a vegetarian, Thoreau muses. It’s not so much the aspect of taking another creature’s life that bothers him, but, having cooked and cleaned for himself while living at Walden Pond, it’s the filthiness of eating animal products. Any food item that appeals to your senses, be it coffee, tea, whiskey or wine, as well as unchaste activities such as sex, feed the animal in a person rather than appealing to his or her higher nature. If you seek purity, you have to be pure in every way, not just one. However, not everybody is cut out for purity and vegetarianism. In any event, hunting and fishing are a vital part of boys’ initiation into manhood. Once the youths have been introduced to the wonders of the forest, the better of them will leave their guns and fishing rods behind and pursue higher goals such as becoming a naturalist or philosopher.

A Battle for Life and Death

Thoreau gets his share of animal visitors as well as that of human company. In the summer, at the beginning of his stay in the woods, a wild native mouse comes out from underneath the house and joins him for meals, picking up the crumbs at his feet and nibbling pieces of cheese from his hand. A small bird builds a nest in his shed, and a robin builds one in the nearby pine. A partridge hen promenades her chicks in front of his doorstep. One day, he witnesses a fierce battle between two types of ants – red and black – fighting for life and death on his wood stumps. He places a few of them under a tumbler and watches the huge black “imperialists” severing the heads of the smaller red “republicans,” and he marvels at their similarity to humans. In the fall, he goes berry picking in the meadows near the river, watches the maples turn scarlet at the pond and finally resolves to winterproof his lodge. He studies masonry, builds a fireplace and chimney from secondhand bricks, and plasters the house just in time for the first snowstorms and heavy frosts to arrive. From then on, he spends most of his hours outdoors in the forest, collecting dead wood to keep warm and snug in the house.

Winter Visitors

The winter keeps most human visitors at bay, yet brings a slew of animals closer to Thoreau. Moles nest in his cellar and eat away at his potatoes. A hare keeps house under his flooring. The hoot owl sings her melancholic song: “Hoo hoo hoo, hoorer, hoo,” which sounds a bit like “how der do.” Foxes bark, and red squirrels wake him at dawn, scurrying over the roof of his lodge followed by jays and chickadees.

“It is remarkable how long men will believe in the bottomlessness of a pond without taking the trouble to sound it.”

First thing in the morning, he fetches water by cutting a hole through the ice that sits atop Walden Pond. Sometimes, fishers come to wait for pickerel and perch to bite at their water holes. One day, 100 Irish ice-cutters show up, breaking up and carrying off the frozen surface of the pond. They’ve been hired by a wealthy farmer who wants to double his money by selling the ice next summer to keep the townspeople’s drinks cool in July.

Spring Renewal

The sights, sounds and smells of the advancing spring give Thoreau great pleasure. The days grow longer, and as the sun gradually melts snow and ice, loud cracking noises whip through the night. Everywhere, signs of new, infant life peep up. Even the squirrels under his house won’t hear of being silenced by stamping with his foot – giddily “chuckling and chirruping.” Finally, the first sparrow, bluebird and redwing appear. He feels like nature is born again and all sins are forgiven. It’s like creating a new cosmos out of chaos – the coming of a Golden Age.

“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”

Thoreau leaves Walden on September 6, 1847. He has no doubts whatsoever: You could dwell in a palace but live just as happily in a cabin. You could set out to explore the world and discover the source of the Nile or the Niger, but you wouldn’t be any wiser about the rivers and oceans within yourself. For him, the point of leaving Walden Pond is the same as it was when he made it his home in the first place: He wants to live as many new ways as possible, avoiding well-trodden paths. Thoreau’s final sentiment is that people waste too much energy on hasty enterprises and material gains. Instead, you should live and love your life as it is. Even in apparent poverty, there are infinite riches to discover inside yourself.

About the Text

Structure and Style

Walden; or Life in the Woods is part memoir, part transcendental meditation, part satire, part adventure story and part lecture to the author’s contemporaries. After laying out in the first chapter “Economy” his theory on what you do and don’t need for survival, Thoreau goes on to muse on other topics, including “Reading,” “The Bean Field” and “Brute Neighbors.” He weaves the book around four seasons – condensing his two years at Walden Pond into one year to draw a neat narrative arc. Thoreau seamlessly moves from accounts of his farming and building activities to moral and philosophical reflections; from nature observation to social criticism; and from mythological references in English as well as Latin to giving itemized accounts of all his revenues and expenditures. His tone can be that of a self-righteous preacher in one paragraph and lyrical, witty and playful in the next – for example, when he invents new words such as “hospitalality,” imitates the sounds of wild animals or talks about the intimate relationship he develops with his beans. When Thoreau is at his best, reading his prose makes you feel like you’re dipping into life in the woods yourself.

Interpretation

  • Walden is more than just an exercise in back-to-nature bravery. It’s a spiritual quest to find universal truth in the particular, to regain personal integrity and freedom through simple living, and to search for nothing less than the meaning of life.
  • Thoreau’s stance is fiercely antiestablishment. He objects to the grueling hamster wheel that his contemporaries put themselves through in the name of conformity, progress and economic gains. At the time, Thoreau’s native New England was a hotbed of industrialization, giving rise to a new underclass of wage laborers and methods of exploiting them.
  • Along with his fellow Transcendentalists, Thoreau believed that the growing materialism and mind-numbing work to achieve it were restricting individual freedoms. Instead, the Transcendalists maintained, you should transcend the mere struggle for survival through living simply and self-reliantly, perfect yourself, seek the eternal and become one with God. Eden is all around us, they argued, here and now. You don’t need to go to church to get a glimpse of utopia – just step into nature.
  • To describe his journey, Thoreau employs a broad range of symbols and metaphors. Walden Pond represents the vast terrain of the universe, while the bean field represents his inner garden that needs tending and cultivation. Images of morning dawn and light hint at growing understanding and insight, and the rebirth of nature in spring symbolizes personal change and spiritual reawakening.
  • The book is an honest reflection of the complexities and contradictions that make a person human, as well as the limitations and prejudices of Thoreau’s time. The “devilish iron horse,” what he called trains, both fascinated and disgusted him. He was looking for the bigger picture in nature, yet became obsessed with the scientific and empirical observation of details. He romanticized poverty in the abstract yet couldn’t hide his disdain for the flesh-and-blood poor, particularly if they happened to be Irish.
  • Thoreau has been called a proto-environmentalist for good reason. While most of his contemporaries still thought that the Earth’s resources were endless and ripe for picking, he warned against the long-term effects of deforestation, pollution and increased water demand. And he was among the first to realize that the natural world was a delicately balanced, interdependent ecosystem that could easily come undone.

Historical Background

The Loss of American Innocence

The mid-19th century was a time of great upheaval. Between 1830 and 1860, the US population more than doubled to roughly 32 million. Political upheaval in Europe and the Irish potato famine fueled the rapid growth. In 1830, US president Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which forced Native Americans in Southern states to relocate west of the Mississippi River. The removal was carried out under such horrific conditions that it’s now considered an early example of state-sponsored genocide. In 1845, the term “manifest destiny” was coined, expressing the belief that it was the mission of the United States to spread democracy across the North American continent, expanding and conquering new territories along the way. After the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), Texas and the new territories that would become the Southwestern states joined the Union, and westward expansion moved beyond Mississippi.

While the American South remained in a plantation economy that relied entirely on slave labor, the North – and in particular New England – rapidly industrialized. In 1813, the first textile mill in America opened in Massachusetts, also known as the cradle of the American industrial revolution. The state was among the first in the nation to establish a commercial railroad system, and by the 1850s, the Boston Manufacturing Company alone produced one-fifth of the country’s cotton cloth. Economic inequality was on the rise. Shortly before the Panic of 1837, which set off a seven-year recession, about 50 men in Concord, Massachusetts, owned approximately half the wealth, while 63% of its citizens were landless. Some saw this as a betrayal of the values and freedom that the American Revolution had promised. In response, American Transcendentalists like Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller advocated a return to nature, individualistic values and spiritual purity, rejecting what they felt was widespread moral corruption brought on by merciless capitalist expansion and a degenerated society.

Development

One of the bustling new transport links with its iron horse – the Fitchburg Railroad to Boston – passed through Thoreau’s hometown of Concord and started operating shortly before he moved into his cabin at Walden Pond in 1845. About 1,000 Irish workers built the railway, each man earning just 50 cents to 60 cents for 16 hours of labor a day – a pittance, even then. Thoreau questioned why and started his experiment in living a self-reliant and frugal existence. He intended to free his mind and reconcile with nature, provide for himself with his own hands, and work on his writing at the same time. The cabin was located in the woods at the edge of town, just one and a half miles from his family home.

Thoreau never pretended that he lived like a hermit, though he might have understated the extent to which his experiment depended on outside logistical and intellectual support. For example, he brought his dirty laundry to his mother; frequently went into town for dinner with family and friends to supplement his meager Walden diet of wild berries, rice and gruel; met with fellow poets; and checked out books from Emerson University’s ample library. He was also much more involved in and informed about current affairs than the reading of Walden; or Life in the Woods would suggest. For instance, in July 1845, having just moved into his cabin, he was arrested for not paying the poll tax in protest against the practice of slavery – an incident that inspired him to write his famous essay, “Civil Disobedience,” published four years later.

Thoreau left Walden Pond in September 1847, exactly two years, two months and two days after moving in. He spent the following years revising his journal entries into essays, producing a total of eight drafts of Walden; or Life in the Woods. Ticknor and Fields published the final edition in August 1854.

Reviews and Legacy

Walden was more successful with the public than Thoreau’s previous publications, though it failed to gain a wide readership in his lifetime. While many reviewers praised Thoreau for his independent thinking and hands-on approach to simple living, others criticized him for being selfish and misanthropic. Despite this mixed reception, today he’s one of America’s most celebrated writers. “A century and a half after its publication,” wrote John Updike, “Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, antibusiness, civil disobedience mind-set, and Thoreau so vivid a protester, so perfect a crank and hermit saint, that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible.” The list of Thoreau’s admirers is long and includes Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Marcel Proust and Ernest Hemingway – as well as the revolutionary Emma Goldman, who referred to Thoreau as “the greatest American anarchist.”

In 2015 in a New Yorker article, Kathryn Schulz begged to differ: “The real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed – narcissistic, fanatical about self-control and adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” But on closer inspection, her single-minded takedown of an American literary hero, just like countless others before her, is as cartoonish as the equally numerous hagiographies dedicated to his praise. Both are intentional distortions of an enigmatic and subtle writer. Thoreau himself would have been the first to observe that complexity is inherent in nature.

About the Author

Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Concord, Massachusetts. His father was a failed grocer with a struggling pencil-making business, so when Thoreau entered Harvard College in 1833, his entire family chipped in to raise the price of the tuition. In 1835, in order to earn money, he took temporary leave to teach school. An avid reader, Thoreau studied philosophy, math, history, astronomy, theology, English, Greek, Latin, Italian, French, German and Spanish. After graduating in 1837, he began teaching public school in Concord, but after just two weeks, he resigned because he refused to use corporal punishment on his students. A year later, still unemployed, he founded a private school with his brother John, which featured unorthodox subjects such as field trips into nature and visits to local businesses. During this time, the brothers fell in love with the same girl, Ellen Sewell, and proposed marriage. She refused both proposals. The school closed when John contracted tuberculosis and died in early 1842. Thoreau befriended the writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, 14 years his senior, who introduced Thoreau to the Transcendentalist circle of poets and philosophers, which included, among others, Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Thoreau lived in Emerson’s household for three years, tutoring his mentor’s children. From 1845 to 1847, he occupied a cabin near Walden Pond to live simply and in harmony with nature. An active abolitionist, he was arrested for his refusal to pay the poll tax as an act of political protest and spent one night in prison. The incident resulted in his essay “Civil Disobedience,” written while at Walden, which would later become a major inspiration to dissidents and activists for many causes. After leaving the woods – the final draft of Walden; or Life in the Woods wasn’t published until 1854 – he became involved in his family’s pencil-making business again and worked as a land and property surveyor, which provided him ample time outdoors. When the US Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850, he actively supported the Underground Railroad together with his mother and sister, helping runaway African-Americans from the South escape into free US states and Canada. He traveled beyond Concord, making trips to Maine, where he depended on Indian guides to learn and document as much as he could about their rapidly disappearing culture. Thoreau, who had been suffering from tuberculosis since 1835, died from the effects of bronchitis on May 6, 1862 at age 44.


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