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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.
One example of this is 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.
Thoreau’s 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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Walden!