Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Importance of Self-Reliance
Four years before Thoreau embarked on his Walden project, his great teacher and role model Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote an enormously influential essay entitled “Self-Reliance.” It can be seen as a statement of the philosophical ideals that Thoreau’s experiment is meant to put into practice. Certainly self-reliance is economic and social in Walden Pond: it is the principle that in matters of financial and interpersonal relations, independence is more valuable than neediness. Thus Thoreau dwells on the contentment of his solitude, on his finding entertainment in the laugh of the loon and the march of the ants rather than in balls, marketplaces, or salons. He does not disdain human companionship; in fact he values it highly when it comes on his own terms, as when his philosopher or poet friends come to call. He simply refuses to need human society. Similarly, in economic affairs he is almost obsessed with the idea that he can support himself through his own labor, producing more than he consumes, and working to produce a profit. Thoreau does not simply report on the results of his accounting, but gives us a detailed list of expenditures and income. How much money he spent on salt from 1845 to 1847 may seem trivial, but for him it is not. Rather it is proof that, when everything is added up, he is a giver rather than a taker in the economic game of life.
As Emerson’s essay details, self-reliance can be spiritual as well as economic, and Thoreau follows Emerson in exploring the higher dimensions of individualism. In Transcendentalist thought the self is the absolute center of reality; everything external is an emanation of the self that takes its reality from our inner selves. Self-reliance thus refers not just to paying one’s own bills, but also more philosophically to the way the natural world and humankind rely on the self to exist. This duality explains the connection between Thoreau the accountant and Thoreau the poet, and shows why the man who is so interested in pinching pennies is the same man who exults lyrically over a partridge or a winter sky. They are both products of self-reliance, since the economizing that allows Thoreau to live on Walden Pond also allows him to feel one with nature, to feel as though it is part of his own soul.
The Value of Simplicity
Simplicity is more than a mode of life for Thoreau; it is a philosophical ideal as well. In his “Economy” chapter, Thoreau asserts that a feeling of dissatisfaction with one’s possessions can be resolved in two ways: one may acquire more, or reduce one’s desires. Thoreau looks around at his fellow Concord residents and finds them taking the first path, devoting their energies to making mortgage payments and buying the latest fashions. He prefers to take the second path of radically minimizing his consumer activity. Thoreau patches his clothes instead of buying new ones and dispenses with all accessories he finds unnecessary. For Thoreau, anything more than what is useful is not just an extravagance, but a real impediment and disadvantage. He builds his own shack instead of getting a bank loan to buy one, and enjoys the leisure time that he can afford by renouncing larger expenditures. Ironically, he points out, those who pursue more impressive possessions actually have fewer possessions than he does, since he owns his house outright, while theirs are technically held by mortgage companies. He argues that the simplification of one’s lifestyle does not hinder such pleasures as owning one’s residence, but on the contrary, facilitates them.
Another irony of Thoreau’s simplification campaign is that his literary style, while concise, is far from simple. It contains witticisms, double meanings, and puns that are not at all the kind of New England deadpan literalism that might pass for literary simplicity. Despite its minimalist message, Walden is an elevated text that would have been much more accessible to educated city-dwellers than to the predominantly uneducated country-dwellers.
The Illusion of Progress
Living in a culture fascinated by the idea of progress represented by technological, economic, and territorial advances, Thoreau is stubbornly skeptical of the idea that any outward improvement of life can bring the inner peace and contentment he craves. In an era of enormous capitalist expansion, Thoreau is doggedly anti-consumption, and in a time of pioneer migrations he lauds the pleasures of staying put. In a century notorious for its smugness toward all that preceded it, Thoreau points out the stifling conventionality and constraining labor conditions that made nineteenth-century progress possible.
One clear illustration of Thoreau’s resistance to progress is his criticism of the train, which throughout Europe and America was a symbol of the wonders and advantages of technological progress. Although he enjoys imagining the local Fitchburg train as a mythical roaring beast in the chapter entitled “Sounds,” he generally seems peeved by the encroachment of the railway upon the rustic calm of Walden Pond. Like Tolstoy in Russia, Thoreau in the United States dissents from his society’s enthusiasm for this innovation in transportation, seeing it rather as a false idol of social progress. It moves people from one point to another faster, but Thoreau has little use for travel anyway, asking the reason for going off “to count the cats in Zanzibar.” It is far better for him to go vegetate in a little corner of the woods for two years than to commute from place to place unreflectively.
Thoreau is skeptical, as well, of the change in popular mindset brought by train travel. “Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented?” he asks with scarcely concealed irony, as if punctuality were the greatest virtue progress can offer. People “talk and think faster in the depot” than they did earlier in stagecoach offices, but here again, speedy talk and quick thinking are hardly preferable to thoughtful speech and deep thinking. Trains, like all technological “improvements” give people an illusion of heightened freedom, but in fact represent a new servitude, since one must always be subservient to fixed train schedules and routes. For Thoreau, the train has given us a new illusion of a controlling destiny: “We have constructed a fate, a new Atropos, that never turns aside.” As the Greek goddess Atropos worked—she determined the length of human lives and could never be swayed (her name means “unswerving”)—so too does the train chug along on its fixed path and make us believe that our lives must too.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The Seasonal Cycle
The narrative of Walden, which at first seems haphazard and unplanned, is actually quite consciously put together to mirror the cycle of the seasons. The compression of Thoreau’s two actual years (1845 to 1847) into one narrative year shows how relatively unimportant the documentary or logbook aspect of his writing is. He cares less for the real calendar time taken up by his project than for the symbolic time he projects onto it. One full year, from springtime to springtime, echoes the Christian idea of rebirth, moving from one beginning to a new one. (We can imagine how very different Walden might be if it went from December to December, for example.) Thus each season inevitably carries with it not just its usual calendar attributes, but a spiritual resonance as well. The story begins in the spring of 1845, as Thoreau begins construction on his cabin. He moves in, fittingly and probably quite intentionally, on Independence Day, July 4—making his symbolic declaration of independence from society, and drawing closer to the true sources of his being. The summer is a time of physical activity, as he narrates in great detail his various construction projects and domestic management solutions. He also begins his cultivation of the bean-fields, following the natural cycle of the seasons like any farmer, but also echoing the biblical phrase from Ecclesiastes, “a time to reap, a time to sow.” It may be more than the actual beans he harvests, and his produce may be for the soul as well as for the marketplace. Winter is a time of reflection and inwardness, as he mostly communes with himself indoors and has only a few choice visitors. It is in winter that he undertakes the measuring of the pond, which becomes a symbol of plumbing his own spiritual depths in solitude. Then in spring come echoes of Judgment Day, with the crash of melting ice and the trumpeting of the geese; Thoreau feels all sins forgiven. The cycle of seasons is thus a cycle of moral and spiritual regeneration made possible by a communion with nature and with oneself.
The moral directness and hardheaded practical bookkeeping matters with which Thoreau inaugurates Walden do not prepare us for the lyrical outbursts that occur quite frequently and regularly in the work. Factual and detail-minded, Thoreau is capable of some extraordinary imaginary visions, which he intersperses within economic matters in a highly unexpected way. In his chapter “The Bean-Field,” for example, Thoreau tells us that he spent fifty-four cents on a hoe, and then soon after quotes a verse about wings spreading and closing in preparation for flight. The down-to-earth hoe and the winged flight of fancy are closely juxtaposed in a way typical of the whole work.
Occasionally the lyricism is a quotation of other people’s poems, as when Thoreau quotes a Homeric epic in introducing the noble figure of Alex Therien. At other times, as in the beautiful “Ponds” chapter, Thoreau allows his prose to become lyrical, as when he describes the mystical blue ice of Walden Pond. The intermittent lyricism of Walden is more than just a pleasant decorative addition or stylistic curiosity. It delivers the powerful philosophical message that there is higher meaning and transcendent value in even the most humble stay in a simple hut by a pond. Hoeing beans, which some might consider the antithesis of poetry, is actually a deeply lyrical and meaningful experience when seen in the right way.
Thoreau mentions several actual people in Walden, but curiously, he also devotes considerable attention to describing nonexistent or imaginary people. At the beginning of the chapter “Former Inhabitants,” Thoreau frankly acknowledges that in his winter isolation he was forced to invent imaginary company for himself. This conjuring is the work of his imagination, but it is also historically accurate, since the people he conjures are based on memories of old-timers who remember earlier neighbors now long gone. Thoreau’s imaginary companions are thus somewhere between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. When Thoreau describes these former inhabitants in vivid detail, we can easily forget that they are now dead: they seem too real.
Thoreau also manages to make actual people seem imaginary. He never uses proper names when referring to friends and associates in Walden, rendering them mythical. After Thoreau describes Alex Therien as a Homeric hero, we cannot help seeing him in a somewhat poetic and unreal way, despite all the realism of Thoreau’s introduction. He doesn’t name even his great spiritual teacher, Emerson, but obliquely calls him the “Old Immortal.” The culmination of this continual transformation of people into myths or ideas is Thoreau’s expectation of “the Visitor who never comes,” which he borrows from the Vedas, a Hindu sacred text. This remark lets us see how spiritual all of Thoreau’s imaginary people are. The real person, for him, is not the villager with a name, but rather the transcendent soul behind that external social persona.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The meanings of Walden Pond are various, and by the end of the work this small body of water comes to symbolize almost everything Thoreau holds dear spiritually, philosophically, and personally. Certainly it symbolizes the alternative to, and withdrawal from, social conventions and obligations. But it also symbolizes the vitality and tranquility of nature. A clue to the symbolic meaning of the pond lies in two of its aspects that fascinate Thoreau: its depth, rumored to be infinite, and its pure and reflective quality. Thoreau is so intrigued by the question of how deep Walden Pond is that he devises a new method of plumbing depths to measure it himself, finding it no more than a hundred feet deep. Wondering why people rumor that the pond is bottomless, Thoreau offers a spiritual explanation: humans need to believe in infinity. He suggests that the pond is not just a natural phenomenon, but also a metaphor for spiritual belief. When he later describes the pond reflecting heaven and making the swimmer’s body pure white, we feel that Thoreau too is turning the water (as in the Christian sacrament of baptism by holy water) into a symbol of heavenly purity available to humankind on earth. When Thoreau concludes his chapter on “The Ponds” with the memorable line, “Talk of heaven! ye disgrace earth,” we see him unwilling to subordinate earth to heaven. Thoreau finds heaven within himself, and it is symbolized by the pond, “looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.” By the end of the “Ponds” chapter, the water hardly seems like a physical part of the external landscape at all anymore; it has become one with the heavenly soul of humankind.
As Thoreau’s chief companions after he moves to Walden Pond, animals inevitably symbolize his retreat from human society and closer intimacy with the natural world. Thoreau devotes much attention in his narrative to the behavior patterns of woodchucks, partridges, loons, and mice, among others. Yet his animal writing does not sound like the notes of a naturalist; there is nothing truly scientific or zoological in Walden, for Thoreau personalizes nature too much. He does not record animals neutrally, but instead emphasizes their human characteristics, turning them into short vignettes of human behavior somewhat in the fashion of Aesop’s fables. For example, Thoreau’s observation of the partridge and its young walking along his windowsill elicits a meditation on motherhood and the maternal urge to protect one’s offspring. Similarly, when Thoreau watches two armies of ants wage war with all the “ferocity and carnage of a human battle,” Thoreau’s attention is not that of an entomologist describing their behavior objectively, but rather that of a philosopher thinking about the universal urge to destroy.
The resemblance between animals and humans also works in the other direction, as when Thoreau describes the townsmen he sees on a trip to Concord as resembling prairie dogs. Ironically, the humans Thoreau describes often seem more “brutish” (like the authorities who imprison him in Concord) than the actual brutes in the woods do. Furthermore, Thoreau’s intimacy with animals in Walden shows that solitude for him is not really, and not meant to be, total isolation. His very personal relationship with animals demonstrates that in his solitary stay at the pond, he is making more connections, not fewer, with other beings around him.
Since ice is the only product of Walden Pond that is useful, it becomes a symbol of the social use and social importance of nature, and of the exploitation of natural resources. Thoreau’s fascination with the ice industry is acute. He describes in great detail the Irish icemen who arrive from Cambridge in the winter of 1846 to cut, block, and haul away 10,000 tons of ice for use in city homes and fancy hotels. The ice-cutters are the only group of people ever said to arrive at Walden Pond en masse, and so they inevitably represent society in miniature, with all the calculating exploitations and injustices that Thoreau sees in the world at large. Consequently, the labor of the icemen on Walden becomes a symbolic microcosm of the confrontation of society and nature. At first glance it would appear that society gets the upper hand, as the frozen pond is chopped up, disfigured, and robbed of ten thousand tons of its contents. But nature triumphs in the end, since less than twenty-five percent of the ice ever reaches its destination, the rest melting and evaporating en route—and making its way back to Walden Pond. With this analysis, Thoreau suggests that humankind’s efforts to exploit nature are in vain, since nature regenerates itself on a far grander scale than humans could ever hope to affect, much less threaten. The icemen’s exploitation of Walden contrasts sharply with Thoreau’s less economic, more poetical use of it. In describing the rare mystical blue of Walden’s water when frozen, he makes ice into a lyrical subject rather than a commodity, and makes us reflect on the question of the value, both market and spiritual, of nature in general.