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1. Thoreau occasionally forces
a long series of tedious details upon us, as for example when in
“House-Warming” he tells us a precise history of the freezing of
Walden Pond over the past several years. Similarly detailed passages
refer to his farming endeavors, his home construction, and other
topics. Why does Thoreau repeatedly display these irrelevant details?
How do they fit in to his overall plan for Walden?
2. Thoreau has inspired twentieth-century
leaders such as Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, but it is
not certain that he had any leadership potential himself, though he
often posed as a kind of prophet for his fellowman. Is Thoreau a
leader? Why or why not?3. At times Thoreau
seems like a diarist narrating the flow of everyday events, as humdrum
as they may be. At other times he is almost a mystic writer, as
when he compares the topography of ponds to the shape of the human
soul. And at still other times he is a social critic and moral prophet.
Does the hodgepodge of genres in Walden contribute
something positive to its overall meaning for us?
4. Thoreau is a practical man
and a close observer of nature, but he is also a fantasist who makes
a lot of references to mythology. In “Economy” he mentions the Greek
myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha who created men by throwing stones over
their shoulders; in “The Pond in Winter” he compares a pile of ice
to Valhalla, palace of the Scandinavian gods. In “Sounds” he describes
the Fitchburg Railway train as a great mythical beast invading the
calm of Walden. What is the effect of all these mythological references?
Do they change the overall message of the work in any important
5. Thoreau repeatedly praises
the simplicity and industriousness of the working poor, and comes
very close to joining their ranks when he lives at subsistence level
in the woods for two years. Yet in his chapter on reading he disdains
popular tastes in books, implying that everyone should be able to
read the Greek tragedian Aeschylus in the original, as he does.
His allusions to world literature are quite lofty, including Chinese philosophers
and Persian poets. Is Thoreau a snob? If so, is his democratic
populism undermined by his disdain for popular culture?
6. What would Thoreau make of
the fact that Walden is one of the most commonly
assigned texts in high school and college literature courses across
the country? Would he welcome the fact that he has become part of
the mainstream culture that he was criticizing?
Ace your assignments with our guide to Walden!