Walden

by: Henry David Thoreau

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs
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.

Poetry

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.

Imaginary People

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.