There are no major characters in Walden other than
Thoreau, who is both the narrator and the main human subject of
his narrative. The following list identifies figures who appear
in the work, as well as historical figures to whom Thoreau refers.
Henry David Thoreau
- Amateur naturalist, essayist, lover of solitude,
and poet. Thoreau was a student and protégé of the great American
philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his construction
of a hut on Emerson’s land at Walden Pond is a fitting symbol of the
intellectual debt that Thoreau owed to Emerson. Strongly influenced
by Transcendentalism, Thoreau believed in the perfectibility of
mankind through education, self-exploration, and spiritual awareness. This
view dominates almost all of Thoreau’s writing, even the most mundane
and trivial, so that even woodchucks and ants take on allegorical
meaning. A former teacher, Thoreau’s didactic impulse transforms a
work that begins as economic reflection and nature writing to something
that ends far more like a sermon. Although he values poverty theoretically,
he seems a bit of a snob when talking with actual poor people. His style
underscores this point, since his writing is full of classical references
and snippets of poetry that the educated would grasp but the underprivileged
in-depth analysis of Henry David Thoreau.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Essayist, poet, and the leading figure of Transcendentalism.
Emerson became a mentor to Thoreau after they met in 1837.
Emerson played a significant role in the creation of Walden
allowing Thoreau to live and build on his property near Walden Pond.
There is an appropriate symbolism in this construction site, since
philosophically Thoreau was building on the Transcendentalist foundation
already prepared by Emerson. The influence of Emerson’s ideas, especially
the doctrine of self-reliance that sees the human soul and mind
as the origin of the reality it inhabits, pervades Thoreau’s work.
However, whereas Thoreau retreated to his own private world, Emerson assumed
a prominent role in public life, making extended overseas lecture
tours to promote the view expressed in his renowned Essays.
two often disagreed on the necessity of adhering to some public conventions,
and the heated tensions between the two may perhaps be felt in the
minimal attention Emerson receives in Walden
utterly fails to mention that Emerson owns the land, despite his
tedious detailing of less significant facts, and when Emerson visits,
in the guise of the unnamed “Old Immortal,” Thoreau treats him rather
laborer in his late twenties who often works in the vicinity of
Thoreau’s abode. Thoreau describes Therien as “a Canadian, a wood-chopper
and post-maker,” asserting that it would be difficult to find a more
simple or natural human being. Although he is not a reader, Therien
is nevertheless conversant and intelligent, and thus he holds great
appeal for Thoreau as a sort of untutored backwoods sage. Thoreau compares
the woodcutter to Walden Pond itself, saying both possess hidden
in-depth analysis of Alex Therien.
poor Irish-American laborer who lives with his wife and children
on the Baker Farm just outside of Concord. Thoreau uses Field as
an example of an “honest, hard-working, but shiftless man,” someone who
is forced to struggle at a great disadvantage in life because he
lacks unusual natural abilities or social position. The conversation
that Thoreau and Field have when Thoreau runs to the Field home
for shelter in a rainstorm is an uncomfortable reminder that Thoreau’s
ideas and convictions may set him apart from those same poor people
that he elsewhere idealizes. Rather than converse casually with
Field, Thoreau gives him a heated lecture on the merits of cutting
down on coffee and meat consumption. Overall, his treatment of Field
seems condescending. His parting regret that Field suffers from
an “inherited” Irish proclivity to laziness casts a strangely ungenerous,
even slightly racist light over all of Thoreau’s ideas.
Amos Bronson Alcott
- A friend whom Thoreau refers to as “the philosopher.”
Alcott was a noted educator and social reformer, as well as the
father of beloved children’s author Louisa May Alcott. In 1834
founded the Temple School in Boston, a noted progressive school that
spawned many imitators. Affiliated with the Transcendentalists,
he was known for a set of aphorisms titled “Orphic Sayings” that
appeared in The Dial.
Alcott also had a hand in
the utopian communities of Brook Farm and Fruitlands, and went on
to become the superintendent of the Concord public schools.
William Ellery Channing
- Thoreau’s closest friend, an amateur poet and an
affiliate of the Transcendentalists. Channing was named after his
uncle, a noted Unitarian clergyman. His son, Edward Channing, went
on to become a noted professor of history at Harvard University.
prominent Whig senator from Kentucky. Clay ran unsuccessfully for
president on three occasions. He was a supporter of internal improvements
as a part of his American System, and is well known as “the Great Compromiser”
for his role in the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850.
Thoreau was a staunch critic of Clay and of the expansionism that
second wife. Lidian Emerson was somewhat distressed by her husband’s
frequent absences from home. During her husband’s tours of Europe,
Thoreau stayed with her, and the two developed a close friendship.
Chinese sage of the sixth century B.C.,
for his sayings and parables collected under the title Analects.
teachings gave rise to a sort of secular religion known as Confucianism,
which served as a model for the Chinese government in subsequent centuries.
Confucius also had a significant effect on the Transcendentalist
movement, and was one of Thoreau’s favorite authors.
James Russell Lowell
- A Harvard-trained lawyer. Lowell eventually abandoned
his first vocation for a career in letters. His poetic satire The
was well received, and he went on to become
a professor of modern languages at Harvard and the first editor
of the Atlantic Monthly.
Chinese sage of the fourth century B.C.
a disciple of Confucius. Mencius was best known for his anthology
of sayings and stories collected under the title The Book
and did much to promote the reputation of Confucius,
although he himself was not widely venerated until more than a thousand
years later. Like his master’s work, Mencius’s combination of respect
for social harmony and the inward reconciliation with the universe
exerted a powerful influence on Thoreau.
brother to Henry David Thoreau. The two brothers oversaw and taught
at the Concord Academy, a progressive independent school, from 1838 to 1841. John
Thoreau’s failing health was a contributing factor in the demise
of the school, and he died in 1842 from complications
related to lockjaw.