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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Walden!